"Turns out the movie version was exactly like an episode of the TV show, only longer." -- Millions of unimpressed moviegoers after wasting thirty bucks on yet another failed TV-to-movie experiment.

And those moviegoers are usually unimpressed because projects like these exist as little more than franchise exploitation. Seriously, was the universe actually demanding a movie version of Inspector Gadget or The Beverly Hillbillies? Most definitely not. But in certain (generally rare) cases, a successful TV show makes the leap to the silver screen in exceedingly fine form. Star Trek certainly did it. So did South Park, The Addams Family, The Fugitive and Firefly. But lately all the worlds' media attention has been focused on one specific series, a comedic juggernaut that's been chugging merrily along for the last 18 years. It's more than a classic, more than an institution. Heck, I hate to think of television without it. Yep, Springfield fans, it's (finally) time for The Simpsons Movie.

What an amusing novelty it is to see America's favorite yellow family up on the big screen -- doubly so because the magic of the series has translated quite excellently into cinematic form. Aside from a few editing gaffes (the DVD version will probably run 110 minutes!), The Simpsons Movie is quite a GOOD movie: a colorful little treat that's sly enough for the grown-ups, silly enough for the kids and funnier that just about anything found in the multiplexes these days. It's as if someone pulled a forgotten episode out of a vault marked "Simpsons Seasons 4 - 9," stretched the thing out into a tight 85-minute package, and gussied up some of the animation and special effects. So yes, The Simpsons Movie is exactly like a feature-length episode of the Sunday night staple. And in this case, that's a really big compliment.

Even the most casual Simpsons fan will appreciate the flick's bizarre opening: We jump from Lisa meeting a new beau to Grandpa having a seizure in church to Homer getting chummy with a dumb little pig ... and then the actual "plot" takes form: Seems that the mega-slobby Springfieldians have polluted their environment so badly that a maniacal E.P.A. agent hatches a plan to cover the whole town with a giant glass dome. (And if you think this is a wacky idea for a plot, then you need to watch more Simpsons episodes before seeing their movie.) Several of the movie's themes are plucked directly from the series: Marge's growing disillusionment with her clod of a husband, Bart's search for a life less bizarre, Homer's repeated foul-ups and eventual redemption, Lisa's unflagging idealism... It's all so comfortably familiar ... only blown into big movie size!

And funny. I've always said that even a weak Simpsons episode is funnier than just about anything on TV, but if you chopped The Simpsons Movie up into three separate episodes, you'd have two classics and one half-decent chuckler. (A subplot involving the Simpsons' brief relocation to Alaska doesn't yield many yuks, but the flick moves so quick there's no time to worry.) And when this movie starts going at full steam, I can't imagine the Simpsons freak who won't be laughing like a loon. (Homer delivers an aggravated non sequitur about "Access Hollywood" that had me giggling for about four minutes.) As always, the priceless Dan Castellaneta creates a character so stupidly lovable, you'd follow him anywhere. (No lie: 90 minutes of Homer and his pet pig would have been enough to make me happy.) Of course the entire Simpsons voice cast has been included in the debut movie and needless to say there's not a false note in the bunch. (Special mention to the hilarious Albert Brooks as insane E.P.A. agent Russ Cargill.)

Early in the movie Homer mocks the entire process by wondering why a person would pay for something they normally get for free. It's a funny gag, but he's asking an easy question. The answer is (obviously) that The Simpsons are worth the price of admission -- and they have been for almost two decades. The creators could have easily chomped off more than they could chew for this movie, but instead of trying to make the "be-all end-all ultimate mega-Simpsons episode," they went with their proven formula and delivered one of the year's funniest movies. Like millions of you, I would have liked a little more from Apu, Skinner, Wiggum, Milhouse, Barney, Otto, Moe, Willy, Ralph, Nelson, Burns, Lovejoy, etc. -- but it's called "The Simpsons Movie," after all. And there will be plenty of time for the rest of the Springfield citizenry once sequel time rolls around.