There is a long history of rumors being kicked around about a Simpsons movie ever since the early days of the Simpsons when the TV cartoon series achieved a level of pop culture popularity that no other TV cartoon series has equaled since. But it took eighteen years for a Simpsons movie to actually get made. Eight years after the South Park movie debuted to heavy hype and a poor box office and a year after Family Guy released a movie of sorts, the Simpsons rolled out its own motion picture.
Eighteen years later though the popularity of the Simpsons and the quality of the product isn’t at all what it used to be. In its eighteenth season it is debatable whether the Simpsons continues to be watched by audiences because they genuinely think it’s funny or because it’s a force of habit. To fans most television series sooner or later jump the shark. To those Simpsons viewers who loved the classic Simpsons and think the show as it is is well past its premise and were hopeful that the involvement of Matt Groening and James L. Brooks would restore some of the old glory of the series, the movie will be a disappointment. To those who love the Simpsons the way it is now will be thrilled with the movie because it’s pretty much more of the same.
If you had to characterize the Simpsons movie in one word, it wouldn’t be ‘funny’, it would however be ‘uneven.’ Like the Simpsons of the present day, the Simpsons movie is uneven in quality with hilarious moments giving way to tedious filler and the whole thing coming off like a product that was hastily thrown together and then edited by committee. And that is pretty much what the Simpsons movie was. With over 100 script attempts and a production history going back almost a decade and a final movie that credits almost a dozen writers and had two thirds of the movie cut before being released into theaters, what’s surprising isn’t that the Simpsons movie is uneven but that it actually plays pretty well.
The Simpsons started out with four memorable characters, Homer, Marge, Lisa and Bart. As the show went on it added more and more characters to the stable. And as the show went on Lisa and Marge became increasingly unfunny and shrill. A lot of the unevenness of the Simpsons, both on TV and in the theater, comes from that split between the funny slapstick Homer and Bart material and the shrill and whiny Lisa and Marge material. Where once upon a time the Simpsons balanced out the whole family making for a series that deftly balanced in your face comedy and oddball family bonding, the Simpsons became an experience in sifting through the Marge and Lisa material to get to the Bart and Homer material. Gone were the days when the stories actually meant something. The only thing that still makes watching the show worthwhile is the occasional line and watching Homer fall down.
Luckily in the Simpsons movie Homer falls down a lot. The writers and producers know where their bread is buttered. Homer falls through a roof. He falls through a dome. He falls in a cage and a motorcycle hits him on the head. He gets smashed around by a wrecking ball between a literal rock and a hard place. He gets strangled by mystical trees. He gets attacked by his dog pack (see illustration below).
Unluckily the writers and producers have decided to give equal weight to all the characters and so once we get past a great Itchy and Scratchy opening cartoon, we go through the Simpsons opening title and get hit in the head with a guest appearance by Green Day and a lecture on the environment, both staples of the worst of the modern Simpsons. In the last decade the Simpsons has had so many celebrity appearances you would think it was Saturday Night Live or Hollywood Squares. No celebrity has been too minor to show up on the Simpsons and the complete lack of restraint has only emphasized how far afield the Simpsons has gone from being authentic and how Hollywood it has become.
Yet almost miraculously for the Simpsons movie, somewhere along the line the producers made the decision to cut virtually every single celebrity appearance, except for Tom Hanks and Green Day. That’s an almost brilliant move that has done a lot to redeem the movie.
What follows next is the environmental storyline which pretty much defines the movie’s “epic” plot. Suffice it to say Springfield Lake is overpolluted and only Lisa cares. It’s a scary moment not because you’re afraid for the environment but because you’re afraid that you paid $8.50 to be lectured by a whiny cartoon character about the environment for 90 minutes. But luckily a few minutes in agenda gives away to comedy once Homer and Bart begin their round of bets and Homer adopts Plopper, who’s probably the best character the Simpsons have created in a decade and he isn’t even human.
The best moments of the movie are still Homer’s scenes with Plopper and Homer and Bart’s bets. Once Homer dumps his own and Plopper’s waste in Springfield Lake resulting in a dome being put up over the town, you would think that the movie would begin to take off but in practice it slows down. The dome is the kind of large scale plot that’s meant to transform a Simpsons episode into a Simpsons movie but what makes a movie is its entertainment value and that doesn’t come from the Dome. What the Dome does is give Marge a chance to be angry and fulfill her quota of nagging. That drags the movie’s second half down as the objective then becomes for Homer to appease Marge and having not a single original idea in their heads, the writers trot out the same old spiritual quest involving hallucinations and Native Americans bit. There’s still some funny moments, especially Homer and the sled dogs and Homer dressing as a general by using a Hotel doorman’s uniform but it isn’t nearly enough.
Like the TV series today the Simpsons movie is entertaining enough in an uneven sort of way. If you’re prepared to sit around for 90 minutes to get about 15 seconds worth of laughs, it works out fine. Is it worth spending actual money on? Probably not. Because at the end what you are left with is basically the longest episode ever.