So, I took my son and his best friend to see The Simpsons Movie last night. What I had read about it was that it was entertaining, but nothing more than an extended episode. And so, with somewhat lowered expectations, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised to find that the film was definitely more than just another episode. It was thoroughly enjoyable, with a number of laugh-out-loud moments.
I particularly liked the self-reflexive material they used. For example, the movie begins with an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, the inane, violent cartoon that Bart and Lisa watch on TV in their TV show, which serves as a comment on children's cartoons in general, but also a meta-comment on the the fact that we are watching a cartoon on television ourselves. So, it makes perfect sense that the Itchy and Scratchy cartoon turns out to be a motion picture being shown in a movie theater, complete with Homer complaining about paying money to see something he could see for free on TV. Even better was a scene a little later on when they sent a crawl promoting an upcoming Fox network program across the bottom on the screen, and then made a comment about how they even do this in movies, continuing the tradition of The Simpsons criticizing its own network (part of media mogul Rupert Murdoch's conservative empire). Another nice touch came in the middle of the movie when the screen turned to black, and then the words "To Be Continued" came up, followed a few moments later by "Immediately" and then a resumption of the action.
So, just as The Simpsons is a parody of the television sitcom genre, The Simpsons movie becomes a parody of the cinema's adaptation of television sitcom's, at least momentarily. It actually would have been much better if they had gone all out on that theme, and maybe even adapted memorable moments from their 18 season run, making fun of the lame film adaptations of series such as The Brady Bunch, The Adams Family, etc. Just a thought.
Oh, and there were a few good parodies of Disney cartoons. Not the pointed sarcasm of Shrek, mind you, more like a humorous homage.
You see, the problem is that, after 18 seasons, 400 episodes, and that following 3 seasons of animated shorts appearing on the brilliant Tracey Ullman Show, what more is there to say about Bart, Lisa, Maggie, Marge, and Homer? Sure, they've been able to continue to produce quality material and probably could do so indefinitely. Matt Groening is a gifted humorist, and being that this was the series that made Fox a successful fourth network (at a time when few believed that a fourth network could make it in broadcasting), they have the resources to go on and on as the Energizer Bunny of television programs. No problem there.
And it does not seem to have been a great problem for The Simpsons to make their original move from animated shorts to a regular half hour (aka 22 minute) series. But the leap to a full length motion picture? Well, that's more of a stretch, and while there was no question that The Simpsons could pull it off, the potential for disappointment would be enormous.
It's a shame they didn't or couldn't make a movie after the first few seasons, the way that South Park did it (and I'm sorry, but The Simpsons movie is good, but no where near as funny as the South Park movie was). Back then, say the early to mid 90s, they were on the cutting edge of satire, right before original programming on cable really took off. They were incredibly popular, that was when the iron was hot, that was the time to bowl a strike. But they chose the safer, more conservative path, waiting, and much like those of us who don't marry when we are young, they got pickier and pickier as time went on, making it harder and harder to commit to a concept and script.
The problem also is that there are not many surprises left after all this time. My first and biggest surprise came in the early days of the series when I realized that Homer was supposed to be around the same age as me! Silly me, I had somehow been identifying with Bart, but this really drove home the point, and that was about two decades ago, that I was an adult, not a kid (it's hard to tell in American culture, since we have no clearcut rites of passage). But the funny thing is, while the series started out seeming to focus on Bart, it was Homer who soon wound up stealing the show. And it's been all about Homer ever since.
But, after 18 seasons and 400 episodes, most everything has been done as far as the major characters are concerned, there have been deaths involving minor characters, and there really doesn't seem to be any major revelations left. And the movie offers none.
So, by the time they got around to doing the movie, they ended up with something safe. As I indicated in the title of this post, it was a solid base hit, but not a home run. They didn't swing away, they didn't swing for the fences, they didn't take any risks. They opted for the safe route, a story that relies on basic formulas about Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie as a dysfunctional family (which seemed so realistic incredibly enough when it was first introduced), but in the end reaffirming the myth of the nuclear family. That, I believe, is why some reviewers categorized the film as an extended episode, but I will maintain that they went above and beyond that nevertheless.
But just as, in the film, the town of Springfield becomes trapped inside of a dome, The Simpsons has become trapped by its own success, unable to break too far beyond its established boundaries. They're still satire, but they've become mainstream. Again, that's not a bad thing, it's the sort of thing you can take your kids too (not too young, though). Yes, we see Bart's cute little boy genitals briefly in a scene, while he's skateboarding naked through Springfield on a dare from his dad, but that's as risqué as it gets. The Simpsons property has become an institution, and in all reality, too much tampering would result in an audience uprising.
So the result was a good movie that stays within itself, delivers on its promise to show us a good time, will probably enjoy much success on DVD, cable, and television, but does not stand out as a memorable experience (and that's why I haven't said very much about the specific details of the film).
Put another way, The Simpsons series has ceased being content, and has become environmental. We all live in Springfield, USA, bordering on Ohio, Nevada, Maine, and Kentucky according to the film. No wonder the official movie website offers us the opportunity to create an avatar and go wander around the town (and buy merchandise, of course). I haven't done that myself, but I have taken them up on the opportunity to Simpsonize Me, offering up a photo, which yielded this:
Hey, how ya doing? Good, good, well, what do you say I take you on a little tour of my town?
Sounds good to you? Okay, let's go. First, as far as I know, there's no university or college in Springfield--I suppose they go to nearby Capital City for their higher education, so I would probably end up working here:
Unless I chucked education altogether and made media my career, in which case I might wind up in Springfield's version of Hollywood--reminds me of how a number of towns all claim to be the original movie capital prior to the industry's move out west to California, including Ithaca, NY (where I went to college at Cornell University), and Fort Lee, NJ (not far from where I live).
Of course, television is always an option too, although I don't know if I could take working on children's programming:
Well, anything would beat working for Mr. Burns at the nuclear power plant, with Homer as a colleague. Radiation just doesn't agree with me.
Well, whatever. However things worked out, here's where I'd be shopping all the time:
And then it's home to my beautiful kitchen: