Just in case you somehow managed to avoid the longest-running TV sitcom in American history, do not worry: The Simpsons Movie is careful to include everybody in the fun. In the opening minutes, after Itchy and Scratchy have landed on the moon and everybody in the audience has been declared “a sucker” for paying good money to see what you can get for free on TV, the script introduces every character fresh.

Here’s Homer, the oaf, and Marge with the blue beehive. Earnest adolescent Lisa has a new cause and a new crush, baby Maggie knows how to fend for herself, and Bart–well, Bart should need as little introduction as the “evil corporate mascot” he impersonates with a black bra on his head. In the process, some of the essence that has gotten away from the characters over the years is restored: Lisa playing her saxophone, Bart riding his skateboard through town naked, Homer equal parts stupid, selfish and compassionate with a pet pig that rates its own theme song. Call it “Homer Begins,” call it “Casino Springfield”–you’re not required to know anything about the extended cosmology of the Simpsons to enjoy their movie.

But it helps. As far as I could tell, The Simpsons Movie is stuffed with enough in-jokes and references to past episodes to keep a dozen Internet forums humming for months.The supporting cast seems to include every character who’s ever appeared on the show, and many of them have lines. The animation–the familiar vast fields of flat, juicy color bounded by satisfyingly thick black lines–looks great on a movie screen. For this fair-weather fan, the laughter started during the studio logo (!) and didn’t end until far into the credits. (Make sure to stay for Maggie’s first word.)

The plot? Like most things Simpsons, it loses in the telling, so let’s just say that it’s appropriately large-scale for the movies, and each of the principal characters is tested to the breaking point — as it should be. Beyond that, it’s worth noting that the movie’s villain is the American government. Ruled by a president who’d rather “lead than read,” Springfield finds itself at the mercy of a corrupt official (voice of Albert Brooks) whose response to a natural disaster is even worse than FEMA’s. Clearly, somebody in the Simpson White House doesn’t care about yellow people.

Does The Simpsons Movie achieve the lofty heights of brilliance the show regularly scaled during its mid-nineties heyday? More than just the longest episode, is it also the Best. Episode. Ever? I’m pretty sure it’s not, and I don’t think it could have been. Try as they might, The Simpsons simply aren’t as vital now as they were during the Clinton years, when their whiplash wit, easygoing snarkiness, and compulsive pop referencing influenced an entire generation’s sense of humor. If anything, The Simpsons succeeded so completely that they faded into the fabric of our culture, and going to Springfield for an hour and a half feels a little bit like going home. No matter where you’ve been for the last 18 years, these are some very familiar characters with very familiar voices. Seeing them up on the big screen, it’s like we knew all along they had it in them to become movie stars.

The Simpsons Movie. David Silverman, 2007. ****