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Film Review: The Simpsons Movie

The Simpsons Movie (2007; Directed by David Silverman)

A personal position-taking preamble would seem necessary before discussing the mixed blessing that was The Simpson Movie. I admit to being a card-carrying member of The Simpsons Generation (it’s in my wallet with my Elk, Communist, and Stonecutter cards). I grew up with repeated syndicated viewings of the show, catching an episode multiple times and being struck by new elements and different jokes and references each time as I aged, matured, and internalized more of the popular culture, politics, and history that was the fodder for the great television satire of the 1990s. As I gained a more rounded picture of the show as a whole (Chris Turner’s book Planet Simpson aided the erection of this larger perspective immesurably, though I read it in university, well after the peak of my fandom), I hardened into a firm devotee of Seasons 3 through 8(ish) of The Simpsons, that inarguably brilliant period when the show was achieving greatness on a consistent basis without either the crude technical hiccups of the early episodes or the long period of decline which it is (incredibly) still in.

The Simpsons at its height was, of course, always good for a laugh or ten; great episodes like “Deep Space Homer”, “Marge vs. the Monorail” or “Last Exit to Springfield” unleashed patented riffs of irresistible, deep-core bellylaughs, and inspired moments like Sideshow Bob’s drawn-out (but not this drawn-out) encounter with a series of rakes took on a legendary comedic glory that transcended mere laughter (which, it should be noted, is never only “mere”). But for better or worse, The Simpsons‘ particular satirical perspective, its skewed, anti-authoritarian, essentially skeptical but never entirely cynical view of society, culture, and human nature, has shaped the way I understand the world around me more than any other single force.

Despite this depth of influence and investment, I haven’t purposely sought out a new episode of the show since 2001 or so, and the rare snatches of late-period product I’ve caught have been painfully disappointing and even legacy-disfiguring. Even though new, post-pinnacle material continues to be produced (and indeed now far outnumbers the pinnacle material reified by Classic Era purists), The Simpsons has long felt like a completed cultural artifact of the past rather than a continuing multimedia text. I have long felt deeply that, its past greatness aside, The Simpsons has long overstayed its welcome.

So imagine my tempered delight at The Simpsons Movie, which though far from flawless and still far from the rarified level of the Classic Era Simpsons that I love and worship, is uniformly funny, occasionally hilarious, entirely narratively absorbing, and even intermittently moving. It feels like the film’s creative braintrust (the screenplay credits are shared by a who’s who of writers from the best years of the show) made a concerted and deliberate effort to put their best foot forward and make the franchise’s big-ticket cinematic foray into something worthy of the revered The Simpsons name, and not a mere extension of that tired product that they’ve been flogging weekly on Fox to line Rupert Murdoch’s pockets (not to mention their own) just a little more. The long development process and endless rewrites (over a hundred, apparently, some while animation was under way) would tend to support this obvious exertion to get it as close to right as possible.

Not every joke soars, of course (though when they do, they do; Spiderpig, anyone?). The main plot concerns acts of massively irresponsible environmental pollution and destruction on the part of Homer that leads to the government-mandated endoming of Springfield (Stephen King would like some royalties on that concept, please and thank you), the community ostracizing of the family and their relocation to Alaska, and the near break-up of Homer and Marge’s marriage. This latter arc is often lovely and even poetic (there’s an image of Homer drifting on a heart-shaped ice floe that cracks in half that is affecting even if it’s a tad obvious), but there’s never really any serious doubt as to how it will turn out.

Indeed, the movie’s narrative is mostly redolent of subplots that are a little predictable and repeats tropes previously utilized on the show: Bart has already had several dalliances with Flanders (and other figures besides) as a paternal proxy for his actual boorish and selfish father, Homer’s encounter with an Inuit shaman echoes his much more memorable insanity-pepper hallucination/spirit-journey with a Johnny Cash-voiced coyote as a guide, and Lisa has had potential boyfriends before (though this one was a cute but seriously proscribed thread). Quite ironically, The Simpsons Movie suffers most from the animated comedy syndrome that was famously lampooned on South Park: whatever the movie tries to do, it seems as though The Simpsons has already done it.

Additionally, the utilizing of Arnold Schwarzenegger (then Governor of California) as the President of the United States might be the most ill-fitting choice of the whole film where the show’s (admittedly flexible) canon is concerned. Introducing a version of the real Arnold to an animated universe which already includes a regular and much-appreciated parody of him is a very odd choice indeed. Surely Rainier Wolfcastle’s mighty heart is breaking at being so excluded (he’ll be in the Humvee), but it’s hard to fathom a convincing reason not to simply use their established parody character in the same role, especially when the Simpsonized Schwarzenegger both looks and sounds extremely like Wolfcastle (Harry Shearer voices both).

But all of these quibbles do not derail the most entertaining product released under The Simpsons name for a decade or more. At the time of its release, its relative quality compared to the foot-dragging of the show served to confirm my feeling that the long-running television arm of the franchise should be deep-sixed and the family’s adventures moved to the big screen, which they proved able to fill admirably and would perpetuate the property without running it too much deeper into the dirt. This has not happened, and a sure-to-be-painful crossover with Family Guy is happening instead. The Simpsons Movie did not quite recapture the faded glory of The Simpsons, but it could have presented a fresh start, a new path forward in a different and distinct medium. Instead, it feels for all the world like a last hoorah for the core creative braintrust of its most fruitful time. And for all of its comedic invention, that makes this movie feel more than a little sad, in retrospect.

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