Shiny Shelf

The Simpsons Movie

By Lance Parkin on 03 August 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

The Monty Python and South Park movies demonstrated that a cult television comedy could not only distill and enhance what made the series so great, but go on to transcend that. Those movies are better than the television series. The Simpsons Movie – while funny and well made – is more like an extended episode. Python and South Park took the opportunity to stretch the boundaries … The Simpsons Movie plays it safe.

Credit where it’s due: the makers use the big screen and longer production time well, with some lovely moments – one scene pans through a mob made up of every single Springfieldian who has ever been in the series. All the charm and character of the animation is there, with added CG flourishes and using the full width of the bigger screen. It feels like a movie, not a TV show. It’s clearly an exercise driven by corporate demands and merchandising, but it’s no Shrek the Third.

As ever, the sheer breadth of the comedy – from slapstick and scatology through to literary allusion and complex puns, from witty wordplay to beautiful visual gags – puts every other comedy writer to shame. Quite how it took eleven people to write the Spider-Pig lyrics (there’s not much more to the song than you’ll have heard in the trailers) is a mystery, but between them they raised a laugh, and that’s what means they win.

Most Simpsons episodes start with a mad dash of surrealism before making a swift, tangential turn into the actual plot, and the movie is no exception. The first half hour or so, before the story kicks in, starts with a very, very obvious joke (Homer bewailing the fact he’s paid to see an Itchy and Scratchy movie at the cinema when it’s on TV for free every night of the week) and has a series of really fun moments, one liners and set pieces.

The second half of the movie is noticeably weaker than the first, and is cobbled together from old episodes: Springfield has a pollution scare, there’s a town meeting that ends with a mob besieging the Simpsons’ house, the Simpsons relocate but only Homer thrives in their new surroundings, Springfield is sealed off from the outside world, Homer saves the day with a carefully foreshadowed stunt. There’s even a vision quest thing that’s not only almost word for word from an eighth season episode, but Family Guy did it too. It doesn’t feel like a greatest hits album so much as a band releasing their fifteenth album where they’ve played all these chords before.

The finale sums the movie up – it involves Homer jumping over Springfield Gorge, just like he did in Bart the General. It’s beautifully animated, and there’s a terrific sight gag (the crashed ambulance from the earlier episode is still wedged in that tree), but we’ve not only seen it before, we saw it pretty much a generation ago.

The Simpsons had a rough patch a couple of years ago, almost vanishing in a mass of secondary characters, guest stars and easy references to its own fictionality. The writers pulled it back from the brink, centred things around the Simpsons family again and concentrated on telling stories. The show’s clocked in over four hundred episodes now, but its heyday was a ridiculously long time ago (for my money, it was running out of steam by the sixth season). It would be crazy to expect a show to be simultaneously the longest running primetime series in the US ever, a record that’s not far off now, and to be a hotbed of subversion.

Looking back, classic episodes like Homer the Heretic are still funny, but there’s no sense of danger anymore. The character design is so utterly familiar, everywhere in the world, that there’s none of that sense of the grotesque and the caricature we all felt when we first saw the show. The previous President Bush famously wanted America to be less like The Simpsons, but the sense of community and natural justice of life in Springfield seems almost nostalgically appealing, now.

Even the animation, hand drawn (with a helping hand from computers these days) and 2D, reeks of almost lost tradition. Homer’s been in his job and marriage longer than virtually anyone watching has been in theirs. Most teachers would love to have pupils as attentive and imaginative as Bart, let alone Lisa. The writers know what works, they can craft a gag better than anyone else in the world, but what they’ll never, ever do again is surprise us.

The movie could have injected a new impetus, been used as a springboard to subvert and progress the show. Instead, it’s a perfectly entertaining family movie that reminds us that The Simpsons still has an almost unrivalled broad appeal. Go to see this movie, it’s got more heart and laughs than the dozen other corporate-driven summer event franchise movies put together … but be prepared for a sense of déjà vu and a sense that a Simpsons movie should have been *more* than this. I doubt anyone in the world expected this to be the greatest movie comedy of all time … but that’s exactly what it should and could have been.

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By Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin writes lots of things, including a biography of Alan Moore that's due out late next year. Find out more at his website.

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