No current TV show’s decline has been more disheartening than that of The Simpsons. After the giddy heights of a solid eight years of nigh-flawless comedy, Matt Groening’s seminal creation gradually disappeared into itself, constantly feeding off its own freshness until it became a doddering, erratic, tuneless mess. Every episode became a race to the finish line, with actors phoning in rapidly paced lines with no enthusiasm, which was hardly surprising given that the jokes had been largely reduced to grunting noises and pointless asides. The show would continue to take potshots at culture and politics, but never made any points that the audience hadn’t observed long ago. Although the show’s writers happily proclaimed that the show was as good as it ever was, the lights had clearly gone down on the great comedy of the 1990s.
A Simpsons movie should logically have come during that critical and cultural peak, but to their credit, the writers waited until they could give it the attention it required. Despite this commitment and the return of many of the original writers, such as the great George Meyer and John Swartzwelder, I had no excitement for the Simpsons’ big-screen debut. The plot was kept secret until opening, and there were no early reviews to whet or kill the appetite. Given their very public delusions about the show’s evergreen nature, I suspected that the writers had merely churned out a bigger-scale version of their weekly disappointments.
Then I was sitting in the cinema starting to laugh. A lot. Perhaps the amusement was amplified by shock at its existence, but there was still little doubt: The Simpsons Movie is absolutely a return to the show’s glory years, a miraculous recapturing of what once made the show a masterpiece. It’s not perfect, with some lazy writing still sneaking in, but this movie, ironically enough, is largely the TV show that so many of us used to love.
In case the plot hasn’t been revealed to you since the release, I won’t unfurl it here. However, the stock rationale that the plot isn’t important is refreshingly unnecessary. One of the many surprising things about The Simpsons Movie is that it is actually an honest-to-God movie, with a script committed to delivering an emotional arc across a three-act structure. Even the most random setpieces play a role in later developments. The writers have also wisely exploited the broader canvass, telling a story with a large visual and geographic scale. Being animated, The Simpsons never had any problem taking regular jaunts around the world or staging massive explosions, but the transitions between locales spurred by emotional developments make the scope much more epic.
Thankfully though, the script doesn’t merely create that scope and consider its job as a movie complete. Its most impressive aspect is that it resurrects the heartfelt characterisation that was the unsung hero of the early seasons, which is now virtually gone. Character developments didn’t used to be superfluous plot devices in this show; you really felt them, even while laughing at them. The episode where Bart desperately tries to redeem himself in Marge’s eyes after he is caught shoplifting is still one of the most touching sitcom episodes of the last decade (and it’s a cartoon to boot). Executive producer and occasional film director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good as it Gets) is credited with insisting that emotion be part of the show’s makeup, and he was right to even if it seemed passé. A major factor in the popularity of The Simpsons is arguably our attachment to the characters, not just our love of the jokes.
The movie script – to which Brooks contributes – plunges headfirst into the relationships that the show has created over the years, doing what the best TV-show movies do and reflecting on what has come before and suggesting that change is necessary. Homer is the film’s protagonist, and his arc hinges on an epiphany about his two-decade streak of oblivious selfishness, both to solve the movie’s plot dilemma and to save his relationships. A speech by Marge (you’ll know the one) probably ranks as the single most poignant moment in the show’s entire history, partly because it counts on our investment in these very basically rendered but well drawn people. Incidentally Brooks – directing the voice cast for the first time since the early seasons – demanded over one hundred takes of this scene from Julie Kavner, confirming the devoted, perhaps fanatical attention to performance (I should mention that the film’s overall director is David Silverman, a veteran of the series and co-director of Pixar’s Monsters Inc. He transforms a sitcom into a movie with aplomb in yet another instance of old blood bringing back the old juice).
Pretty heady stuff for The Simpsons Movie, right? But worry not, this isn’t Homer via Merchant/Ivory. The characterisation is merged seamlessly with the true determinant of a successful Simpsons outing: it’s incredibly funny. Not as many jokes are crammed in per minute as the current episodes, but that’s all the better. The pacing of script, animation, and performance has been dialled back to the show’s early years, giving the gags room to breathe and the setpieces more time to wind up for massive payoff. There are still flat non-sequiturs and moments of hackneyed buffoonery to be found – such as the fishing and eye-hammering bits seen in the trailers – but they are few and far between. Some motifs that appear clichéd or overbearing (such as Homer bonding with a pig) are actually mined beautifully, and depart at just the right moment before they become laboured.
Spider-Pig, as he’s become known, is a perfect example of how throwaway ingredients suddenly become pivotal. Homer’s blasé care of the pig actually precipitates the entire plot, although that particular incident is wilfully ridiculous. Given the script’s dedication to being a cohesive movie, these lazy plot turns are less forgivable than in disposable weekly installments. More extreme and thus logical measures for Homer to screw up could easily have been found, and his solution at the climax too is nonsense on an operatic scale. But even on the big screen, The Simpsons shouldn’t demand rigourous scrutiny, so even the nitpickers shouldn’t object to these plot holes. And that climax looks amazing.
But cohesiveness is just one of the pillars of The Simpsons Movie; enthusiasm is another. The producers have mustered a passion and a commitment for the film version that has been missing from the show. Even if next season continues on the same ambivalent trajectory, this film stands as one last reminder of how rewarding and entertaining The Simpsons has been, and its perhaps brief return is most welcome.