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'Simpsons' big draw globally

The movie is an international hit as audiences relate to the family, even with some jokes lost in translation.

July 31, 2007|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Homer knows no borders. No, not the Homer who wrote "The Odyssey."

At the entrance to the town of Springfield, New Zealand, there's a 12-foot-tall sculpture of a pink glazed doughnut. Voters in a congressional election in Argentina cast ballots for a candidate named Homer Simpson from the Donuts and Beer Party. When Brits were asked in an online survey to name their most admired Americans, Homer outranked Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. In Belgrade, Serbia, a popular cellphone tone is "Spider Pig," a tune Homer sings to his pet swine.

"He is an Everyman," said Al Jean, the executive producer of "The Simpsons" TV show and a writer and producer of the big-screen version, "and he gives in to the worst instincts that most people have."

The international love for him and his family and friends -- the TV show airs in more than 200 countries -- all but assured a good run for "The Simpsons Movie," which 20th Century Fox released Friday. The film has grossed nearly $100 million in 71 markets and in Argentina, Chile and Colombia enjoyed the biggest opening weekend of any movie to date, beating "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End." It opens in Mexico and more than half a dozen other countries later this year.

What's the appeal? Homer is, after all, basically stupid and indolent. This is how the daily newspaper Clarín in Buenos Aires put it when it sponsored a nationwide "Argentine Homer" contest: "Are you lazy, do you hate your job, are you jealous of your neighbor's success, are you clumsy, are you funny in spite of yourself, are you forgetful, but most of all, a guy with a big heart? Write us!"

That seems to be it: When push comes to shove, Homer proves himself to be a devoted husband and father.

"Homer resembles so many men," Mexican columnist Guadalupe Loaeza said. "I see my husband, who, by the way does not miss an episode, and how he resembles Homer Simpson in his insecurities, self criticism, his clumsiness -- but all in a loving way."

Over the last 18 years, generations of TV viewers around the globe have soaked in the Simpson way of life. The show is dubbed into 15 languages and subtitled into 27; the movie was dubbed in 31 languages. In movie theaters, Marge, Homer and the clan can be heard speaking Dutch, Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai and Greek for the first time.

Handling such a well-known property poses some problems.

"The big challenge for us was in trying to convert people who see the show for free on television to pay money to see it on the movie screen," said Paul Hanneman, co-president of 20th Century Fox International. "Humor doesn't always translate across cultures. But I do think that the relationship between father and son is universal."

Actors who did the voice-overs had to be careful to stay loyal to the Simpsons' cadences and tone -- difficult when translating into, say, Thai. The Fox team, including Jean and producer-writer James L. Brooks, listened to actors in German, Turkish and Latvian and if they understood, they knew they were on to something. They had to find talent to dub in Castilian Spanish as well as a more Latin American Spanish and in Parisian French as well as Quebecois. In cities where the show is popular the studio had to make both subtitled and dubbed prints so "Simpsons" TV fans could watch it in English or in their native language.

Years ago, there was an attempt to dub the television series into Swedish instead of showing it with subtitles.

"It caused an uproar," recalled Fox International Co-President Tomas Jegeus, who is Swedish. "They tried to get actors to do auditioning for the film but most actors turned it down. They said they couldn't better or even equal the performance of the [English language] 'Simpsons.' "

There are, of course, countries where "The Simpsons" hasn't caught on.

"In Japan, for instance, the animated characters have to be cute and cuddly," Jegeus said. "And the Simpsons are not, in the Japanese's eyes. It is difficult to get past that hurdle."

Fox's worldwide marketing and publicity blitz didn't win fans everywhere. The studio's team in England drew a giant white outline of an underwear-clad Homer flinging a doughnut, right next to a 17th century chalk outline of a pagan fertility symbol, the Cerne Abbas, in the hills of Dorset. The pagans weren't happy and pledged to perform "rain magic" to get rid of the offending Homer painting.

But in Springfield, New Zealanders were thrilled when Fox erected the doughnut statue. It put the village of 300 on the map, Mayor William Townshend said.

Springfield couldn't host a screening because it doesn't have a movie theater, but last week there was a party. More than 3,000 people turned out to eat hot dogs, doughnuts and French fries and to greet Homer and Bart, who took the train from Christchurch 65 kilometers away for the event.

"If you blink, you miss us," Townshend said. The statue has caused "a lot of curiosity. People stop and photograph it. Kids climb on it. I can't imagine any country in the world where they couldn't recognize the characters."

Jegeus got a taste of that firsthand. On his honeymoon in the tiny Southeast Asian island of Lombok, the cab driver knew only three words of English: "Homer, funny man."

lorenza.munoz@latimes.com

Times researchers Maria Uribe in Mexico City and Andres D'Alessandro in Argentina contributed to this report.

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