The Simpsons Movie
Dir. David Silverman
Premiered July 21. 2007
When Minnie and I had just started dating, it became clear that while 5 1/2 years was not that big a difference emotionally, it was pop-culturally. I don’t remember how we got to the subject, but she was shocked when I told her of a time when The Simpsons was not only funny, but controversial: a cartoon that’s not just for kids? That has a biting sense of humor? That shows children not being complete angels? Yes, there was a time when this national institution was denounced by a sitting President. I was there. The Simpsons briefly scandalized a nation of pearl-clutchers, put the nascent Fox Network in the black, brought animation out of the Saturday morning ghetto, helped define a decade, and influenced the humor of a generation.
The idea of a Simpsons movie was almost as old as the show itself. As soon as it became a runaway success, Matt Groening wanted to make a movie, but planned to wait until the show was canceled. Once it became clear however that that wasn’t going to happen, lots of film ideas were proposed and subsequently scrapped. Finally, we got this.
Lake Springfield has become extremely polluted. Luckily, the good people of the town have agreed to clean it up. Meanwhile, Homer Simpson (Dan Castellaneta), during a rash of even greater selfishness as usual, has adopted a pet pig, dumping the animal’s waste in the lake and causing an ecological disaster so severe that EPA chief Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks) has all of Springfield placed under a giant dome. Although the Simpsons themselves manage to escape, Homer has to confront his demons and deal with the damage he’s caused.
The Simpsons Movie had a lot of buzz. Some called it a return to form harkening back to the show’s nineties heyday. Seeing it in the theater, on opening day even, I thought it had its moments, but something, something wasn’t quite right. And it wasn’t Marge (Julie Kavner) swearing, Otto (Harry Shearer) actually smoking pot, or Bart’s (Nancy Cartwright) penis.
First off, the animation. Not only was The Simpsons a great show because of its content, but the animation was a massive upgrade in the age of Nelvana, made by people who loved classic cartoons. The Simpsons Movie has great animation too, most of the time, but it’s not the same: in the tradition of every animated movie since Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the look of the film is gratuitously shadowy. There’s also way too much CGI in line-drawing drag. For some reason, the animators decided that “cinematic” means lots of sweeping tracking shots, which only accentuates this lazy trick.
Second, the story. The Simpsons Movie tries to have heart, but comes off as hollow. And while it’s much shorter than I remembered, it still has a ton of padding. What enabled The Simpsons to keep towering over its imitators was that the its sense of humor, be it snarky, silly, or sweet, came directly from the situations and characters; the movie, meanwhile, is a buffet of non-sequitur asides, cameos, and dated cultural references. Yeah, the filmmakers tried to get as many of the old writers back for this as they could, but the lingering absences of Sam Simon, Brad Bird, and Conan O’Brien are very much felt in the final product.
Like I said, it definitely has its moments, especially in the third act, but with all the problems weighing it down, The Simpsons Movie ends up just on the mediocre side of good.
Maybe the problem is that we no longer needed a Simpsons movie. Not only was the show still on the air in 2007, having long squandered the goodwill generated by its first eight seasons and thus eliminating any thrill to be had from getting new Simpsons content, but the world at large had changed. 2007 wasn’t just a great year for film, it was also the year television came of age; that DVD and high definition enabled the medium to become a much more unique and powerful experience; and in which the longstanding elitist stigma against TV could be undone, replaced by a world in which even old classics could get their due. Maybe The Simpsons Movie didn’t need to be good because we already live in a world that The Simpsons helped create.
Signs This Was Made in 2007
Aside from the aforementioned dated references, President Arnold Schwarzenegger. He wasn’t Governor of California at the time, which was funny in 2003 when he took office, but immediately became boring old news. It’s especially weird here, as The Simpsons already has a Schwarzenegger analogue in Rainier Wolfcastle. Regardless, this movie is convinced that Arnold Schwarzenegger being in politics is inherently funny. He’s voiced by Harry Shearer, and judging by the humor on Shearer’s old radio show, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole conceit was his idea.
One thing this movie does have going for it is that Ned Flanders comes off as a decent human being. On the show, Flanders began as a freakishly perfect foil for Homer before devolving into a caricature of right-wing American Christian fundamentalism as the show’s quality rapidly declined. Here, Homer’s self-absorption and callousness drives Bart to embrace Ned as an alternative father figure, and you know what? It’s genuinely touching, even if he ends up as the butt of a joke. I’m glad to see that Ned back again.
If you’re still looking for some of that classic Simpsons flavor, I have a couple of recommendations:
- The Simpsons: Hit and Run, a video game based off Grand Theft Auto that makes great use of the giant world that the show built, and really captures the original’s smart sense of humor. It was released on PS2, Xbox, GameCube, and PC, and can be found pretty easily and cheaply online.
- The Simpsons Ride at Universal Studios (Hollywood and Florida). Brought in to replace Back to the Future: The Ride, this was also written by creators of the show, gave Star Tours a run for its money with the intensity of its simulation, and delights in skewing and celebrating the theme park experience just as the classic show both skewed and celebrated television.
- Most Simpsons comics are actually pretty lame, but keep an eye out for the annual Halloween comics, Bart Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror. Of course, The Simpsons does Halloween like no one else, but these were written and illustrated by guest comic artists who clearly love the show. There are paperback collections of these available from Bongo Comics.
How Did It Do?
It is with great shock that I report that The Simpsons Movie, a decade removed from the peak popularity and cultural relevance of both its source material and the medium of hand-drawn animation as a whole, grossed $527.1 million against a $75 million budget, making it the sixth highest-grossing animated film up to that point, the second highest-grossing traditionally animated film ever, and the eighth highest grosser of the year.
What’s more, the film earned a stellar 88% fresh Rating on RottenTomatoes. Roger Ebert interestingly expressed surprise that more critics didn’t find the film “good but not great,” despite his own enjoyment. This is interesting because one hesitates to suggest that The Simpsons Movie is a staple of the Simpsons oeuvre, and those critical voices who did find it “good but not great” came almost exclusively from the burgeoning field of online professional critics– i.e. people who grew up with The Simpsons.
Doug Walker once said that a great filmmaker should give people something they didn’t know they wanted; by contrast, The Simpsons Movie, like the considerably worse but nonetheless comparable Star Wars prequels, was content to fulfill the expectations of the moment purely by existing.
Next Time: The Bourne Ultimatum