World's favourite family to have cinema outing

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The Independent Culture

For years, fans of Bart, Homer, Marge and the other dysfunctional stars of the long-running cartoon saga The Simpsons, have fired up the microwavable popcorn of a Sunday night, ready to enjoy the next episode. Soon, however, they will be able to eat the good stuff.

Now we know for sure; the rumours are true. On 27 July 2007, the beehive hair-do of Marge will have a new, size-appropriate, home: the full expanse of a cinema screen near you. It will be better viewed from the rear of the auditorium.

The thrilling news - at least for that sizable portion of the world's population which loyally tunes in to the relentlessly lower-register humour of the television show - was not announced in the normal way via media release or press conference. Instead, Twentieth Century Fox, the movie studio behind the project, made it official by way of a 20-second promotional trailer at screenings across the United States this weekend of its latest computer animation film, Ice Age: The Meltdown.

Striving to emulate the Simpson-brand of irony, the studio would have us know that the coming of Bart to the big screen will be a cultural event to beat all others. Why else, after all, would they begin advertising a full 15 months in advance? It must be big. Thus, audiences saw a giant super-hero sized 'S' fill screens with a voice intoning: "Leaping his way on to the silver screen ... the greatest hero in American history!" Anyone with his or her finger on the popular pulse of the United States knew at once what was coming next.

And, yes indeed, there in the next frame was Homer Simpson sitting on a sofa in his Sunday best - his underwear - confirming what most of us already knew about him. That his sense of sartorial elegance is woefully absent, and that he is not the brightest member of his clan. "I forgot what I was supposed to say," he mumbled, recalling his toe-curling silence when delivering a lecture as a family counsellor.

If there is any surprise in Homer's promotion to Hollywood stardom it is that Fox didn't do it much earlier. The television series is now in its 17th season and although its audience numbers are not quite as strong as they once were, a new episode still draws an easy nine million viewers in America. The show is exported meanwhile to dozens of countries around the world. It started life as a short, cartoon diversion on the Tracey Ullman Show way back in 1987. Two years after that, the fledgling Fox channel, owned by Rupert Murdoch, launched 30-minute episodes in its prime-time schedules.

The programme delighted a whole generation of television watchers with its zany, often profane and utterly irreverent comedy. It also did more than any other to propel Fox to a position from where it could seriously challenge the three big US networks, ABC, NBC and CBS.

While the show first focused on the antics of school-age Bart, it is the father, Homer, who has taken centre-stage in recent years. A worker in a nuclear power plant near the fictional Middle America town of Springfield, his life is a series of mistakes and accidents. He greets his mishaps with the now familiar lament of "Doh".

Just as fans have been aching to hear confirmation of all the talk of a Simpsons movie, others have been starting to wonder just how long it can even keep going on television screens.

Last year, it main creator, Matt Groening, said that as long as he and his colleagues could keep coming up with fresh ideas for Homer, Bart and all the others, then the programme would stay alive. "That's what you're looking for in television - surprise," he said.

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