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The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman), 2007

One of the first gags in The Simpsons Movie is a joke about the foolishness of going to see a film of a TV show that we get weekly for free, and it’s true that there is something borderline illegitimate about a film of a TV show that’s currently in production. It isn’t just that it risks being seen as a rip-off: it’s also that it is impossible to separate the film from the series to fairly assess it as a stand-alone work. How can you judge character arcs and narrative of a film like this without placing them in the context of our familiarity with the characters and the grand serial narrative that has been The Simpsons since 1989? It’s probably foolish to even ask what sense this film would make to someone who hasn’t seen the show, since the situation will hardly arise. But that ubiquity means that in some ways The Simpsons Movie can never be anything other than a particularly long episode of the TV show, since we can never come to the experience “clean.”

The difficulty of making a satisfying film is particularly severe this far into The Simpsons’ run. The obvious precedent for this film, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park movie, was made far earlier in the history of the show. That film was therefore able to catch the show at its peak, and also to utilise a plot that seemed suited to the expanded scope of a feature. The Simpsons’ writers, by contrast, waited so long that they burned up many of their most feature-worthy plots, and saw the show change in ways that make it less suitable as the basis for a feature. I put the best years of The Simpsons a few years ahead of most, preferring the show in about seasons 2 to 4, when it was most concerned with the eponymous family. It wasn’t as non-stop in its humour, but there was an integrity and heart to the characters that the show lost in its anything-for-a-joke later years. Homer Simpson wasn’t just a buffoon: he was a not-very-bright man who loved his wife and family and frequently strived to be a better father. Marge wasn’t a nag, as she later became, but a sympathetic character obviously held in high esteem by the writers. And Bart and Lisa were not a simple brat / genius pairing: Bart was obviously bright but not suited to schoolwork, and was frequently bullied; Lisa, while academically gifted, was also genuinely childlike rather than the dislikeable mini-adult she would turn into. The stories in those years focussed a lot more attention on proper storytelling: plots that were well-constructed, with heart and thematic point, without being preachy or sentimental.

That show, the one focussed on a realistic family in realistic situations, could have made a really wonderful movie. But that show has been gone more than a decade: by season 5, when the show started to exhaust the story possibilities of the self-imposed realism of the early years, the stories got increasingly over-the-top and more inclined to sacrifice character integrity and continuity for a gag. It is that tendency that was most fatal to The Simpsons’ merit as the basis for a film. The increasingly one-note characters of post-season 4 Simpsons might be reasonable company for the duration of a 22 minute television episode, but are less promising as the heroes of an eighty or ninety minute film. So I didn’t go into the film with high expectations, and against that slightly jaded background I found The Simpsons Movie to be surprisingly enjoyable. It isn’t vintage Simpsons, and it isn’t a proper movie, really, but once you accept those two major caveats it’s enjoyable enough.

What I think I was most surprised by was the extent to which the film did try to reach back to what had made the show so great in the early years. The eleven credited screenwriters include a number of the writers who defined the shows in its earliest days, including Matt Groening and James L. Brooks; it would be many years since Brooks, in particular, has had much to do with day-to-day work on the TV show. Director David Silverman is also a veteran of the show’s heyday, having directed many of the earliest episodes before leaving to work on features (most notably co-directing Monsters Inc at Pixar). The shift in emphasis can be seen most clearly in the early scenes in which Bart turns to Ned Flanders as an alternative father figure after becoming disillusioned with Homer; while there are some big comic flourishes along the way, the basics of the story are handled in a manner that recalls the show at its best. (Flanders is much more human here, for example, than the one-dimensional version the television show gives us). Homer’s efforts to win back the respect of his family are also treated with a seriousness that would be largely alien to the show in recent years. One of the main symptoms of the show’s decline has been the devolution of Homer, to the point where he has become a completely self-involved moron. His journey of redemption in the movie is therefore effectively a quest by late-season Homer to rediscover the better qualities of early-season Homer.

This is not a full return to the style of the early series, instead being something of a hybrid of early and late Simpsons sensibilities. The main plot sees a rogue EPA agent (voiced by veteran Simpsons guest star Albert Brooks) engineer a scheme to encase Springfield and all its citizens in a giant glass dome, and this is classic late-period silliness. The main plot therefore recalls the more expansionist emphasis of later series, in which the show’s satire tended to be expressed by the characters actively engaging with the world at large, rather than through observation of typical suburban situations. It’s easy to understand why the writers would have been drawn to such a plot when making the transition to the big screen, and the look of the film similarly grafts some embellishments onto the familiar look of the show. The basic visual look of the series is kept, but there’s a lots of eye-candy added, both subtle and obvious: modelling (shadowing) on characters; a lot of 3D computer generated props and vehicles; more elaborate and dimensional backgrounds; and one notable sequence that uses a pastiche of Disney animation to makes a joke at the expense of Snow White. And the product is further differentiated from the television version by a couple of references and sight gags that wouldn’t be allowed on television.
The main questions from fans will be “is it funny?” And yes, it is; but then the show is too, on a weekly basis, and the film isn’t really any funnier. The question is whether it rises to be any more worthwhile than the broadcast version, and there the answer is more mixed. The Simpsons Movie has more going for it than the show in its later years, but is still a long way short of what made it so invigorating right back in the early nineties.

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 Text © 2007 by Stephen Rowley.