This piece was originally published on the 15th of August 2014 by The 405. The version I’m publishing here has been brushed up slightly, particularly the messy first paragraph. Honestly, though, given the chance (and the money – ha!), I’d probably rewrite the whole thing. It’s not that I don’t stand by the crux of my argument, because I broadly do (albeit with some caveats), it’s just that the writing is a bit naff. I mentioned this in a previous annotation, but when I wrote this piece I was of the opinion that Film Crit Hulk was just about the best writer around, and his style informed my writing in all the wrong ways. It’s flowery and overly earnest when it shouldn’t be, broad and superfluous when it needed to be incisive, and structurally unsound (I mean, that ending, fucking hell – at least I got a Simpsons reference out of my inability to finish a piece properly). In my defence, though, I was an impressionable idiot nineteen year-old at the time. Because of this pervasive naffness, I was considering not republishing this piece (as I have with a few other pieces). But I’m probably being a wee bit hard on myself, as there’s still some good stuff buried in there, somewhere. And, if anything it serves as an example of how my writing has changed over the years.
Once in a great while, we are privileged to experience a movie event so extraordinary that it becomes a part of our shared heritage. The Simpsons Movie was supposed to be one of them. Though it can sometimes seem as if the film exists only as a dumb pig joke these days, its release in July 2007 felt like cultural supernova to a certain generation (some ghastly amalgam of Gen X and Millennials), engulfing the world in an incomparable fervour. It was our Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie: not just an event, but the event, the defining moment of a generation, like the moon landing or something. It was, well, it was everything I suppose.
Okay, that may sound hyperbolic to some, but The Simpsons was the world for millions of people. If you grew up as a fan of this wonderful, audacious television show during the 1990s and early 2000s, it unquestionably informed your sense of humour, how you think, and the ways in which you interpret the world around you. It was Trojan Horse television that, using the guise of broadly appealing entertainment, re-wired the brain: it taught you important life lessons you didn’t know you needed, exposed you to new ideas and cultural touchstones, and boasted an anarchic, absurd comedic sensibility so vital that it didn’t seem possible at 6pm on BBC2. Its formative effect on a generation goes well beyond the established vocabulary of references — a “boo-urns!” here, an “everything’s coming up Milhouse!” there — but to the construction of our collective sense of humour, and the ways in which the show can be used as a guide for going about our lives. The turn of the twenty-first century has seen the show become increasingly creatively bankrupt with each passing season, but that has by no means tarnished what the show was at its best. You can revisit any episode from the golden age (let’s say seasons one through eight) and find twenty-two minutes of television that easily transcend nostalgic reverence, that remain thoughtful and brazen and deeply funny to this day. Because, back then, The Simpsons had the power strip away of the bullshit of everyday life and expose its absurdity and its humanity. It was the cynical yet utterly inspirational distillation of our generation that we needed, and it still pervades our day-to-day lives. It educated us, made us laugh and, I like to think, taught us how to be better people.
Understandably, then, a cinematic adaptation of The Simpsons had been desired by fans, and seriously discussed by the show’s staff, since its fourth season in 1992, when it was a well-established phenomenon could still attract twenty-million viewers a week in the United States alone. These discussions went nowhere, however, as nobody could agree on the best way of translating twenty-two minutes of organised chaos into a coherent ninety minute film, or what kind of story could be so worthwhile as to justify a film’s existence in the first place. The idea was therefore put on the back-burner, and lived a miserable existence there for over a decade as a rumour, as something that everybody wanted but nobody knew how to get right. So, when The Simpsons Movie was officially announced as a major blockbuster release in 2006, very little could have been done to embiggen the excitement; they surely must have cracked it, we thought, surely they must have something really special in the works. The atmosphere surrounding the film was so ecstatic, so Gabbo-like in its enormity, that the consensus about the show’s decline in quality could not dispel it. While Twentieth-Century Fox did a magnificent job marketing the film, I think, above anything else, the audience’s goodwill for the show’s former glories simply shuddered through any cynicism or apathy towards its current form. It certainly did for me, because, as a Simpsons-crazed twelve year-old at the time, the notion of a Simpsons film was naturally the apotheosis of awesome, regardless of any extraneous doubts, and I was certainly not alone in that feeling. It was as if our purpose in life was to witness this moment. It was The Simpsons. As a film. The big, celebratory moment for a show we all loved. We had wanted this forever and nothing could possibly be better.
I mean, I don’t know exactly what it is about cinema, but it feels like the apex of popular culture; especially when you’re younger and don’t get to the movie theatre so often. It’s just so overwhelming and special, and when something you get something you already have a strong affinity for on that vast screen, with the booming surround sound and all the people sharing in the experience, it can feel like bliss. When you feed The Simpsons of all things into that idealised space, well, you’d think that cinema would surely peak, right? It didn’t, of course, but the initial response to the film suggested to my idiot twelve year-old brain that it was close. Critics wrote about it as an extraordinary return to form for the beleaguered family, that it was hilarious, poignant, and well worth its lengthy gestation. Then I saw it for myself during its first weekend of release and left the cinema with the biggest shit-eating grin on my face because The Simpsons Movie had actually happened and it was actually good. Everybody else I knew loved it too, and we didn’t shut up about it for months. The film eventually made over $500m at the box-office, making it the seventh highest grossing film of the year – a critical and commercial smash. The stakes couldn’t have been higher, The Simpsons Movie had seventeen years of heavy emotional investment riding on it, but it had seemingly delivered on all expectations. Everything was surely right in the world.
But here’s the thing: if The Simpsons Movie could outshine the show’s increasing mediocrity before its release, and garner such a positive reaction after, how come nobody talks about it now? I rarely see it come up, even in discussions expressly about The Simpsons (the only exception being articles about the CBS show Under the Dome, which shares in dome-oriented shenanigans). For example, you’d expect that a film based on one of the most beloved shows in television history, one with a 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes no less (I appreciate that RT is hardly a hard-and-fast sign of quality, but it at least indicates that it was well-liked), would make Time Out’s recent list of the 100 best animated movies. But no, The Simpsons Movie is nowhere to be found among the distinguished likes of, uh, Kung-Fu Panda and Wreck-It Ralph. And, from what I can tell, it’s not that people hate the film either, because infamy at least invites some form of discussion. No, The Simpsons Movie now endures a far worse fate: the ignominy of being nothing at all. So what I want to determine here is why something as ostensibly significant as The Simspons Movie has been allowed to fade so spectacularly from the cultural conversation. Not because of wounded nostalgia or anything like that, but because, honestly, I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like this in my lifetime; not since Bart Simpson became the ‘I Didn’t do It’ boy in 1994 has something so apparently monumental shrunk so rapidly in the minds of many.
What immediately comes to mind is that The Simpsons Movie has been forgotten because, once the hysteria had settled down, it became apparent that it was neither good enough nor bad enough to be worthy of note. Not loathed to the extent that it’s used as a touchstone of thwarted expectations like, say, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and not so impressive that people still rhapsodise about it, it seems that The Simpsons Movie was of a sufficient quality to appease general audiences and little more. That notion was supported by asking people’s thoughts on Twitter, as the general response can be summed up as “Yeah, it’s alright.” And, having recently re-watched the film for the first time in years, I mostly agree with that assessment. It’s absolutely littered with problems (which I’ll get to), but goddamn I laughed despite them all. There was at least some functional alchemy at work; the writers, voice actors, and animators harmonised to deliver some genuinely funny jokes. “Have you tried going mad without power? It’s boring, nobody listens to you!” Golden. “Why does everything I whip leave me!?” Wonderful. “Hello, I’m Tom Hanks. The US Government has lost its credibility, so it’s borrowing some of mine.” Outstanding. It may be nowhere near as brazen or heartfelt the show was back in the golden age, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I laughed throughout. It held up as an entertaining blockbuster comedy, and that’s got to count for something even if it can’t excuse everything. Granted, that’s hardly the most effusive praise, but it seems to reflect the current consensus: it’s fine; it’ll do. And indeed, this could be the root of its negligible impact: we don’t talk about it because there’s actually not that much to talk about.
However, as reasonable as that explanation initially seems, I’m not sure I can entirely buy into an argument predicated on quality alone. Event films on the colossal scale of The Simpsons Movie are rare and often established upon powerful existing relationships between the product and the consumer. Think The Avengers, think the Star Wars prequels, think the Harry Potter series. These relationships tend to preserve films in the cultural discourse regardless of their quality, or whether people actually like them. (Lord knows that half those Harry Potter films are trash). So what went against The Simpsons Movie that didn’t for those other examples, what disrupted that relationship?
I think the medium has a part to play in this. We are, of course, talking about an adaptation of a television show here; not a sequel to an original film, or an adaptation of a print creation, but a film based on something with cinematographic and narrative elements that were well established to the audience. But the thing with television shows is that they’re often conceived as such, their characteristics built specifically around the medium. When The Simpsons was at its best, in the 1990s, television screens were smaller, network budgets were less substantial and, ultimately, television was seen as cinema’s idiot sibling. Thus, television’s narrative and visual characteristics were, until this supposed new golden age of television anyway, inherently smaller when compared to Hollywood cinema (I’m generalising of course, there were exceptions). So, in the process of adapting a show into a blockbuster film, these characteristics had to be translated into a narrative and cinematographic language that audiences naturally expected to be more grandiose and dramatic. But when you start with a show that doesn’t really suit grandiose and dramatic, you get films like The Simpsons Movie, which feel slightly uncomfortable and contrived. While the show’s surface elements seemed to be intact (the humour, the character models, the voice acting, the setting, etc.), it still to this days feels slightly weird seeing the Simpson family confront mass destruction in a narrative that’s sustained for three times the length of a regular episode. It doesn’t quite fit. Form and narrative need to work in tandem, yet here they created a cognitive dissonance if you were at all familiar with the show.
But, again, I don’t think we can base our entire understanding of why The Simpsons Movie has dissolved from our collective consciousness on that reasoning alone. It’s a factor, sure, but other seemingly uncinematic comedy shows have successfully made that transition: The Muppets, South Park, and The Thick of It all did, as did Wayne’s World and The Blues Brothers and they’re fucking Saturday Night Live sketches. Those films are still a part of the cultural conversation to various extents, so what made The Simpsons Movie different? Well, in my mind, it’s not that the film feels weird, it goes a step further than that: The Simpsons Movie doesn’t feel like The Simpsons. Again, the surface details of the show are present, but there’s a void where its heart should have been. It made me laugh, sure, but its humour was derived from easy pratfalls and silly non-sequiturs rather than the actual human emotions that served as the show’s foundation. While it would be easy to attribute that to the show’s creative rut, it’s a different kind of emptiness. To be sure, the show’s confluence of emotional fidelity and absurdity is what made it so transcendent; at its best, it projected recognisable experiences through a lens that amplified them, moulded them in a slightly more outlandish or anarchic context so that the emotions were foregrounded and audiences could better understand, and give meaning to, their own experience. While the show lost its deft touch with time — instead looking towards pop-culture references and Homer’s zaniness as the main sources of humour — The Simpsons Movie sees the writers, all ten of whom shaped the show’s golden age, trying to recapture that magic, trying to portray an ostensibly emotionally engaging scenario (a family crisis) in an absurd way (the dome). They tried. They really tried. But the result never rings true.
Why? Well, the show was incredible when it came to writing yellow cartoons that felt like actual human beings with their own understandable wants, needs, and quirks. These characters still exist in our mind as people, yet in The Simpsons Movie they functioned as mere caricatures, approximations of humanity that never felt congruous to our reality or the reality of the show. Take Homer, for example: he’s ostensibly the protagonist of the film, but he’s such an unassailable asshat, so egocentric and oblivious, that his dramatic arc never felt emotionally real. Admittedly, the writers attempted to grapple with his psychopathic behaviour, and that’s something I like in theory, but in reality his bullshit was justified by a heroic triumph and the reclamation of his female trophy because… that’s what people expected to happen? Because of that lame epiphany used in lieu of actual character development? I’m not really sure, and that’s a fundamental problem if I’m supposed to empathise with his journey. And, unfortunately, this problematic characterisation wasn’t exclusive to Homer: I liked that Marge left Homer midway through the film, but that the writers had her going back to the loathsome prick so easily was nauseating; Lisa, one of popular culture’s great feminist icons, was reduced to a little girl pining over a boy after her campaign for environmental protection was abandoned early on; and Bart’s desire for a father figure in Flanders got uncomfortably bleak (“I was just wondering if, before I die, I could pretend I had a father who cared for me…”) before a flippant resolution involving Homer letting him hold a bomb, underlining how out of character that subplot was. There’s no real human element to the film, no discernable consistent emotion for the audience to latch onto. Those were the foundations of The Simpsons, it used to care, but they’re utterly absent in the film.
Thinking about how that could have been allowed to happen, it may be that expectation weighed too heavily on the creative team, that The Simpsons Movie was not the film they wanted to make, but one they thought general audiences wanted to see. Thus, regardless of whether it made any emotional sense or not, the family we all know and love were rewarded with a happy ending, its members given crowd-pleasing character arcs reinforcing the power both of marriage and the nuclear family and blah-blah-blah-go-back-to-Tumblr. The DVD commentary is most revealing in this respect, because Al Jean, one of the film’s co-writers and the show’s longtime showrunner, sincerely declares that the writing team “really wanted to write this movie for people who weren’t that familiar with The Simpsons,” which, given the cultural cachet of the show, is just a weird thing to say. But, amazingly, it’s not out of place in a commentary that’s comprises the film’s producers discussing the arduous focus testing process, the writers’ struggle with getting the tone right, and the jokes they loved that were removed because test audiences didn’t respond to them. More time is actually spent talking about what wasn’t in the film than that was, and it soon becomes clear that the creative team tacitly rearranged their original vision around the reactions of test audiences whose cinematic tastes appear to have boiled down to “Barney’s movie had heart, but Football in the Groin had a football in the groin.”
Fine, you say, blockbusters are focus tested all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to appeal to a wide audience. Those are fair points, but I can’t help but feel that the DVD commentary, which was recorded before the film was released, illuminates some fatal insecurity. Rather than taking a proactive approach to scriptwriting, the writers took reactive one in which focus testing was used as a crux rather than a guide. The writing process began in earnest in 2003, and the script saw over one-hundred rewrites in that time, most of which were instigated by the sort of rigorous focus testing the show actively made fun of ten years prior in the episode The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show. While this isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary for blockbuster cinema, it is for The Simpsons. The show’s unique voice was cultivated by the writer’s room trying to make each other laugh, sincerely believing that something worked, and running with it regardless of what the reaction would be. With little network intrusion from Fox, The Simpsons prided itself on its creative freedom. That’s what made it the uninhibited, absurd joy that it was at its peak, and that in turn contributed to the show’s incredible popularity, because that sort of confidence is infectious, an audience can sense it. The Simpsons Movie is nothing short of an ideological prolapse in comparison, and audiences can sense that too. Films have their own beating hearts and souls, and much in the same way that you can initially take a liking to someone and slowly grow apart once you become more aware of their bullshit, The Simpsons Movie’s lack of confidence may have caused it to dwindle in the minds of many. Because it’s not The Simpsons in either heart or spirit, it’s the soulless by-product of committee thinking.
Granted, that all sounds incredibly unfair on those responsible for my childhood religion. Despite everything I’ve written, The Simpsons Movie is still up there with the best latter-day Simpsons content, even though that’s hardly saying much. It’s somewhat entertaining, but without surreal, adversarial humour, without successfully getting to the humanity of its narrative, The Simpsons Movie couldn’t possibly live up to its name. So it seems that the current apathy for the film is instinctual and intangible, less likely to render itself as the sort of vehement hatred levelled at, for example, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, because the satisfying surface details masked the missing harmony. But there was still a feeling that something wasn’t quite right, something that we couldn’t quite put our finger on. So we just let it drift off in recreational area known as the human mind (fuck, that’s Futurama), let it become another ephemeral, ordinary summer blockbuster in a sequence of many because the alternative, confronting the fact that The Simpsons basically sold itself out when it mattered most, was too heartbreaking. Of course, it’s all our own fault for getting too invested during the film’s release, for expecting too much, but I’m not sure how much it’ll matter in the long run. The Simpsons Movie may not have been the defining moment that we needed it to be, but The Simpsons at its prime will endure regardless. It is our cultural artefact that will withstand just about anything, even an average film. And it’s more than enough.
So, wait, we were all disappointed, and that’s okay because the old episodes are still great? Is that a happy ending or a sad ending? Uh, it’s an ending, that’s enough.