Movie-Hype #707 – THE SIMPSONS MOVIE
Rejected Introduction Written before I saw the Movie #1
Movie adaptations from TV shows are a tough sell. It's not that hard to figure out why: people rarely like paying for something they are used to getting for free. There have been a few successes (like THE FUGITIVE, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, several of THE MUPPET MOVIES or MISSION IMPOSSIBLE), but the landscape is littered with failures, such as THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, MIAMI VICE, BEWITCHED, MCHALE'S NAVY, THE AVENGERS, LOST IN SPACE, CHARLIE'S ANGELS, STARSKY AND HUTCH, DRAGNET, THE MOD SQUAD, TWIN PEAKS, THE FLINTSTONES, I SPY, and WILD WILD WEST) just to name a few. When it comes to shows still on the air few will even try. ( X-FILES anyone?) Sponge Bob and the Power Rangers lost much of their allure after hitting the big screen (whether coincidence or not), and you can really only name one success: South Park. However, because South Park was such a smashing success (almost universally praised as superior to the show, even by non-fans, and applauded for its daring and nerve), the pressure was on for The Simpsons. Could they deliver? In a word…..
Rejected Introduction Written before I saw the Movie #2
In terms of the "cultural zeitgeist," The Simpsons "arrived" around the turn of the century. Time Magazine named The Simpsons the best show of the 20th Century. Books on philosophy and Religion popped up, and The Simpsons had arrived from the counter-culture wonder of the early '90s (that initially had then First Lady Barbary Bush calling Bart Simpson a bad kid) to mainstream bastion of cultural values. (In a "who woulda thunkit?" turnaround, Christianity Today named Ned Flanders the #1 Evangelical on Television.) They waited so long, though, that many fear The Simpsons missed their moment. No longer is The Simpsons the water-cooler cartoon, replaced by other families willing to go farther for the laugh, stab harder to make the point. Been there, done that is the feel. Would people respond? In a word….
Rejected Introduction Written before I saw the Movie #3
So many of the reviews I've read seem predetermined. If the person doesn't like The Simpsons show, or thinks it has gone downhill, the odds are they are going to feel that way about the movie. The true fans seem to love it, as do non-fans, because perhaps they didn't know what to expect. For myself, I was worried. I so wanted to like it; The Simpsons have been a part of me since 1989, my favorite show for a dozen years and the one I have watched and loved more than all others. I literally would not have asked out my girlfriend if she answered The Simpsons question wrong. On the other hand, maybe that builds too much pressure. I finally got my answer when I….
I could do this all day. Maybe I'll just get to it.
I liked THE SIMPSONS MOVIE. I liked it a lot. The more I think about it, the more I realize I like it. If I saw it again, I am positive I'd like it even more, with the pressure of whether it'd be good settled, and the central conflict no longer at issue (more on that in a minute), I think I would relax and enjoy the jokes even more than I did the first time, which was considerable. I laughed out loud something like 59 times.
At the same time, it took awhile to get used to, watching my favorite family up on screen. They looked different. The tone was different. The animation was different. The dialogue a bit different. There were other issues as well, issues that I'm probably one of only three people in America to care about, but I did. So, while I ultimately am coming down on the side of "huge fan," I'm not going to tear into people who were troubled. Well, I'm not going to bash people who have legitimate reasons for their anxiety. There were clearly some reviews that were written out ahead of time, and the blanks just filled in. (Bob Longino, I'm looking in your direction.)
The most interesting thing about the reviews is that few—if any—of the writers seem to actually grasp the complexities they were seeing. Or maybe that's just me again taking a cartoon way too seriously.
So here's the deal: THE SIMPSONS MOVIE is much like the TV show, in as far as the characters are there, the voices are the same (except for one exception, and more on that in a moment too), and the adventure is suitably wacky. A casual fan or a non-watcher might declare it "four episodes put together." On the other hand, I found THE SIMPSONS MOVIE to be completely different from the show in all sorts of ways. Ultimately, that difference makes or breaks your feeling of the experience.
To start with, the show is usually 22 minutes, the first fourth (or third) of which almost never has ANYTHING to do with the main story. Fans know this. They joke about it. Some criticize it. Few appreciate that this was perhaps the origins of what I am calling Comedy of the Random, something The Simpsons almost wholly created in the Television form. Random for random's sake takes bravery, to step over the line but not outside the frame; like the inspired episode where famous stories were told, and at the end Homer telling Bart that Hamlet was made into the movie Ghostbusters, and the entire family starts dancing to the Ghostbusters theme for 20 seconds. That's committing to the bit. That's the Comedy of the Random.
But I'm getting far afield.
THE SIMPSONS MOVIE does not have a wasted opening (unless you count the Itchy and Scratchy movie, and that's only a minute, and leads to a stunning self-parody in a movie theatre). The film has a remarkably cohesive narrative. While still tossing off throw-away jokes, in-jokes, topical jokes, slapstick and every other stab at humor possible, the movie stays "on message" all the way through. That's a remarkable achievement, but almost jarring to how I am used to watching The Simpsons.
Secondly, the movie is completely about the family. As it should be. You only get one shot to do it right, and that means focus. However, because of this, other Springfield characters are virtually ignored. Don't get me wrong; the writers go out of their way to get almost every single character in the movie, but most get a line or two, if that. A Simpsons episode will usually feature several of these quirky characters in extended scenes, but with 22 episodes a season, you can spread it out. Here the others get pushed to the side. I appreciated them trying to get everyone in they could, but it was a little weird to see favorite characters in drive-by fashion, as if there was a checklist or something. (The one exception was Ned Flanders, who gets plenty of face-time, and but for a throwaway line at the end that really didn't fit plays the best human being you will ever see on screen. It's really incredible how warm and decent he was, which indirectly led to my anxiety, which I swear I'll get to soon.)
The basic plot involves the environment, loyalty and parenting, and might have been a little pushy, but not in a bad way. The story had many "echoes" of great plots from the show, like relocation, spiritual epiphanies, government agencies run amok, gorge jumping and of course the lesson everyone ought to know by now: you don't mess with Maggie.
There were at least five levels of humor in the dialogue. There was that post-modern "self-aware" irony that The Simpsons virtually invented. There were puns, in-jokes, obscure reference and sophistication. There was not a lot of language, except for one wildly inappropriate epithet from Marge, again at the end and giving the feeling of "there just so we don't waste the opportunity." (Which makes one wonder: did the writers consider using the "F" word? My understanding is that you get one F word—and only one—per PG-13 rating. I'm actually glad they didn't go that way, because for the most part this is a major family film.)
Well, except for the full-frontal underage nudity. That's right. You read me correctly.
And then there was Spider-Pig.
To me, Spider-Pig represents everything about Homer that I love so much. It's wacky. Out of nowhere. Borderline obnoxious and you'd think it would get old, BUT IT DOESN'T! I'm not kidding. There is an operatic version of "Spider-Pig" in the movie's epiphany scene that is so good they put it again in the credits. I have it over on Monkey Barn. You must go listen. It's only a minute long. Please?????) Spider-Pig is…what can I say? You will either love him, love the song, love everything about it, or you're dead inside.
All right: this stuff is good, but let's get to the heart of what I really want to say:
What I think most people miss about The Simpsons is how complex the characterization really is. Because they start each week Tabula Rasa, the writers are free to explore every facet of their characters. It's almost as if each character is really five characters. Or more. You couldn't do this on a regular sitcom. You could show Chandler's sensitive side, but you couldn't show him banging hookers. Even sitcoms have memory. But on The Simpsons, they can. Well, maybe not banging hookers, but we do get to see the characters in many different lights.
Especially Homer. When it comes right down to it, my love of The Simpsons grew to the passion it is now when the show (and I) changed focus from Bart to Homer. Here was an Everyman capable of incredible surprises along with the hilarity. My personal Top 10 list of episodes would probably surprise many, for it features quite a few that aren't considered the funniest. To me, The Simpsons goes from being a top sitcom to transcendent art when they go away from the humor into more serious territory. It's not something anyone but a devotee would really agree with, but there you go.
I bring this up because one of the things about Homer is that from time to time he is a criminally bad father and husband. There are plenty of times when he's just awesome to be around, but there's no denying that more than once Homer should have been locked up. (It's because of that "blank canvas" that I can let it go and not quit watching the show because Homer is a psycho-path, or only appreciate him as an anti-hero, a la Cartman.) It is this aspect of Homer's character that THE SIMPSONS MOVIE explores. Part of me wanted to groan, because on a personal level I wanted to see him shine. However, I admit that's the part that gets the most drama. In fact, there's a scene where Marge leaves a video message for Homer, where it really sinks in just how horrible his behavior can be, and how much it affects others. Marge's voice notably changes, as if her real life counterpart Julie Kavner wanted to signal in some small way, "Hey, this is real." I'm not sure how to describe it, but the emotion involved was more impacting than any manipulation I've seen from a Rom-Com in many a year.
Watching Homer struggle was tough for me. Watching Bart realize how bad his dad was, especially compared to Ned Flanders was difficult. Watching Lisa advocate leaving him forever was…well, Lisa can go to Hell, so that part didn't get to me that much, but watching Marge say those fateful words…that's drama, people. And while I was in agony that my Everyman hero looked so bad, I admit it makes for great theatre. (Luckily, no one else will care, so there's that.)
In the end, I'd like to ask anyone who didn't like THE SIMPSONS movie to give it another shot. Watch with new eyes and see what they are up to. And people who have never watched the show or have given up? Give it a try. The film may not have been as go-for-broke audacious as the South Park Movie. And even I admit that there are many Sunday nights when Family Guy gives me more laughs. But what you must understand is that A) anything South Park and Family Guy (especially Family Guy: literally) does is taken from what The Simpsons did first. And if The Simpsons isn't going balls to the wall every second, they are also operating at a different level than any other American cartoon has ever even dreamed of. Somehow, these cartoon characters have become real. Split-personality real, maybe, but real nonetheless. Most will never see that. They will never see Homer beyond "D'oh!" They will never see any of them beyond the easy description we first landed upon when The Simpsons fell into our world. But friends, there is more than that to see, and THE SIMPSONS MOVIE shows us just how much more. That is why the film will hold up for a long time, and why I hope there are many more to come.