It’s tricky to define why something might deserve a retrospective. It can sometimes be fairly simple – this cultural touchstone is celebrating an anniversary, so let’s have a think about the ways it has influenced society in the years since its release. Sometimes it’s about re-evaluation; a retrospective could be an opportunity to get people to reconsider something they might have initially dismissed.
And sometimes, there’s a perfect storm of reasons.
Just over three months ago, April 19, was the thirtieth anniversary of the first appearance of the Simpsons (with a small ‘t’) on television. This was in the form of a one-minute short broadcast as part of The Tracey Ullman Show, a show which is now almost solely remembered as the place where the Simpson family was born. Back then, the characters looked like crude attempts at themselves, and sounded like amateur impressions.
Today, July 27 2017, marks ten years since the worldwide release of The Simpsons Movie. That’s a pretty extraordinary leap to make, from a one-minute sketch to an 87-minute epic, but the whole arc seems quite inevitable from today’s perspective. If anything, the most extraordinary part is that the film wasn’t made earlier than it was.
In the twenty years between the family’s first appearance and their first feature film, a few amazing things happened. The show won 23 Primetime Emmy Awards. The eponymous family got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Bart Simpson was named by Time magazine as one of the 20th century’s 100 most influential people – the only fictional character on the list.
By the time the film came out, characters from the show had already been elevated to the iconic status enjoyed by figures like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny – universally recognisable, drawn by primary schoolers in the margins of their jotters.
But despite that status, The Simpsons Movie arrived at a pivotal time for the show. Fans had been complaining about declining quality in the show for a while, and they were trying to diagnose exactly what had gone wrong and when. This is why I find The Simpsons Movie interesting. It encapsulates all the things that people love about the show, as well as many of the things that have led fans to despair over its perceived deterioration.
For reasons I will try and explain, The Simpsons Movie is the whole show in an hour-and-a-half microcosm, with all its complexities and weaknesses and absurdities. And that makes it an important movie, because if The Simpsons is the one show that defines my generation of late 20th century babies – and I believe it is – then the film is that essence distilled to an even purer form.
Brace yourselves, I’m about to make some bold statements.
Here’s the first one: The Simpsons is the best TV show ever made. It’s better than The Sopranos, better than Breaking Bad, better even than Twin Peaks. It’s better for three main reasons: it’s animated, its plot lines rarely last longer than one episode, and it was blessed with writers who knew how to take full advantage of both of those facts.
As long as the writers could keep track of basic foundations like essential character traits and where someone was canonically still alive, there were no boundaries. Homer could go to space. Mr Burns could capture the Loch Ness Monster. Lisa could become the US president (famously taking over from President Trump).
Another bold statement: like the plays of Shakespeare, episodes of The Simpsons cover the full range of human emotions, depicted with a sincerity that sets it apart from shows like Family Guy. There’s the genuinely touching melancholy of Lisa’s Substitute; the brutal black humour of Homer’s Enemy; the tight-knot frustration of My Sister, My Sitter; and Cape Feare, which may well be the greatest half-hour of comedy ever put on screen.
It was the lack of boundaries that allowed this. Any character could be put in any situation, for a major plot point or a throwaway gag, to see how they’d react. As long as that didn’t involve the blatant death of the character, or as long as Paul McCartney didn’t make the producers promise never to change back, there would be no major repercussions and the show would carry on as normal the next week.
It was near impossible to accuse the show of jumping the shark, since it essentially began without any limits in place. There’s an episode in the first season – the first season – where Bart is forced into slavery in France and an Albanian spy infiltrates the Simpson household.
So, when a film was announced, this very advantage brought up a few questions. How can The Simpsons possibly go bigger, when it goes all-out every other episode? How can it make the transition from televisual to cinematic without disappearing up its own arse?
When the premise was revealed, it didn’t answer any of these questions. Springfield is ruined by an environmental catastrophe of Homer’s making? That’s basically season 9’s Trash of the Titans. He feels the wrath of Springfield’s population and his own family as a result of his actions? I’ve lost count of how many times that has happened on the show.
Even the celebrity cameos felt a bit… typical. After the show had featured people like Michael Jackson, Tony Blair, Buzz Aldrin, Stephen Hawking and three of the Beatles, Green Day and Tom Hanks were hardly explosive. They could have tried to get the Pope or something.
Well, all this was missing the point. The film, I think, was written to seem more like an extended episode than a bigger-and-louder cinema experience. There were no extra gimmicks – the writers could have, for example, introduced the Simpsons to the real world, à la Spongebob, or had them cause the USA to go to war, like in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.
Instead, the movie sticks to the general formula of the TV show, albeit stretched out to three times the usual length. There’s the tangential plot, where one minor event (ie. Homer’s decision to adopt a pig) starts off a Rube Goldberg machine which becomes the main plot (Springfield is quarantined; the Simpson family escapes). There are secondary plots largely independent of, but ultimately affected by, the main one (Lisa finds love with an Irish environ- and instrumentalist; Bart begins to consider Ned Flanders a father). It even has an opening sequence, complete with a chalkboard gag.
Excepting the few moments that probably wouldn’t make it past the TV censors (Bart’s “doodle” sticks out, if you’ll excuse the pun), most of the sequences wouldn’t look out of place in a regular episode. They just have slightly higher quality animation and better music (the score being composed by Hans “Inception” Zimmer).
There is some of the unmistakable comic charm of a good Simpsons episode in there, too. For the script-writing process, the Simpsons producers drafted back in some of the writing talent from the show’s golden era in the mid-90s, and negotiated a contract with Fox that would allow them to abandon the entire project if the script wasn’t satisfactory.
They assembled a hell of a crew. Legendary writers like John Swartzwelder and David Mirkin returned as part of the eleven-strong screenplay team. David Silverman was brought in to direct; back in December 1989 he had directed the first full-length Simpsons episode, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, and he had been a co-director on Monsters, Inc.
You can tell where they made their mark. The film has several genuinely funny moments, many of them in the form of simple throwaways. It’s at its best when it is most absurd; as the citizens of Springfield attempt to break through the glass dome that contains them, or as the government attempts to track the fugitive family.
This is where the movie best reflects on its TV origins. It was this slightly surreal streak that made it a great animated show – the sense that the writers weren’t trying to write jokes that would make kids laugh, they were writing to make themselves laugh. That authenticity filtered through to the audience, and it does in the movie too.
But despite the superb writing, there still seems to be a barrier separating The Simpsons Movie from the classic episodes of that golden era. Rewatching it, it’s quite difficult to diagnose. I think I can isolate one aspect of it, though. It’s an odd thing, but I think I can explain it – it’s the way it’s animated.
David Silverman, in an interview with the New York Times back in 2007, described how great it was to be able to “lavish your attention” on every single scene in the movie, thanks to the production budget. The characters were given shadows, something that happens rarely in the show, and a wider colour palette was used. The result is a film that feels a little too polished, a little too clean. It’s silly, particularly when you compare it to the Pixar films that were being released around the same time, but it does put me off a little. It’s the same with the show – a certain amount of scruffy charm was lost in 2009, when the 20-year-old title sequence was replaced with an HD version.
Of course, the film would look like cack if they manually animated it 90s-style, but that’s the movie-going public for you, never pleased.
There also seems to be a lack of the show’s trademark sincerity. While Homer and Marge’s relationship is of pivotal importance to the plot, you get the feeling that Bart’s interactions with Ned, and Lisa’s romance with Colin, don’t get the attention they maybe should.
Many have linked The Simpsons‘ decline in quality to its growing tendency towards cartoony wackiness and oversimplification over tenderness. Where Homer in the earlier seasons was a doofus with a kind heart, Later Homer is often more nastily ignorant. You can see Later Homer creeping in during scenes like the one in the Alaskan chalet, when Marge is trying to convince him to return to Springfield to help their friends, and he staunchly refuses.
But such criticisms apply less to the film than they do to the later seasons of the show, and it does feel quite cruel to nitpick to such an extent. The Simpsons Movie was, and remains, a worthy complement to the best TV show ever made, and an excellent standalone film. There is one thing about it that still puzzles me, though: how ten years could possibly have passed since I went to see it in the cinema…
By the way, there’s another reason I decided to write a retrospective on The Simpsons Movie, and it’s quite an important one. I’ll keep this bit short.
Earlier this week, Simpsons creator and massively underappreciated cultural treasure Matt Groening announced a new project – his third television show, and his first since he started Futurama in 1999. It’s called Disenchantment, and it’s going to be released on Netflix next year.
I recommend that you Google it to find out more, because it sounds completely mental and utterly fantastic. If, like me, you are a Simpsons obsessive, but you find it tough to pay attention to the most recent episodes, do not fear. Matt Groening, the genius, is rolling out something fresh, and it’ll be here before we know it.