Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Simpsons Movie

Dir. David Silvermam

Padraic speaks:

There is no town in television or cinematic history like Springfield. Sure, the Simpson family themselves are great, but it is really the town that has always been the star of the show. The characters, which somehow manage to be completely original despite being based in the oldest of stereotypes, impart a depth of life and presence into the everyday struggles of Homer and company. One reason why blatantly derivative shows like Family Guy don’t stack up is their failure to develop likable (or even distinguishable) secondary characters. I’ve seen probably 50 episodes of TFG, and I remember Patrick Wardburton’s character and Quagmire and…well, maybe the creepy old lady, but nothing like the depth and diversity of Springfield.

I mention this because 20 minutes into The Simpsons Movie, I was ready for an hour and a half of pure comedy gold, with various bosses, shopkeepers, bartenders, drunks, and assorted ethnic-types orbiting the family Simpson. And the movie delivered…for a half hour. As most people know, the plot device for the movie is the contamination of Springfield Lake and the resulting quarantine by the EPA. The first half hour shows us the typical range of actions for the denizens of Springfield: panic, false hope, fatalism, and finally, inevitably, mob violence. It’s great stuff, and I was beginning to think that all of the lean years of the show (which disturbingly now make up over half of the oeuvre) were worth it, if only to capture a perfect 90 minutes of satire.

But The Simpsons have always been about more than satire. Ever since Groening first started drawing the spiky-haired kid, there has been a fairly conventional, and conservative, subtext of family values lurking behind the parody of dysfunction and self-delusion that is American suburban life. One conservative commentator I heard while listening to the radio (don’t ask) was shocked that 33% of the movies’ viewers were expected to be conservatives; after all, the show was greeted by scorn and boycotts from the right when it came out. But what viewers actually realized was that despite the constant tensions—Marge and Homer, Bart and Homer, or really Homer and everyone else—at bottom The Simpsons got right the only family value which really matters: love. And while I like the warmth (eventually) displayed by the family at the end of each episode, I go to cartoon sitcoms for scathing social commentary, not life lessons on loyalty, devotion, etc., so I was a bit disappointed to see the long second act of the film taken up by Marge and Homer questioning their commitment to one another for the umpteenth time. Don’t get me wrong, I think this element of the show has always been a strength; it's just overplayed in the movie.

The long focus on the Simpsons trip to (and back) from Alaska unfortunately comes at the expense of some of the shows mainstay secondary characters: my friend Ian pointed out that there wasn’t a single Principle Skinner line, and I personally missed having more from Apu. Instead, we get far too much Comic Book Guy (who is way overwritten thanks to younger fellow nerds now write for the show) and, inexplicably, President Schwarzenegger over President Wolfcastle. Maybe 90 minutes of rampaging violence over a toppled Jebediah Springfield statue would have been too much, but really, Sean, do you ever get tired of hearing Kent Brockman report from in front of a burning dumpster?


Sean replies:

I agree that the first 15 minutes or so of the The Simpson’s Movie is a tough act to follow. But I have to appreciate the fact that in movie format they stick to their brilliant formula of starting off the movie in one direction (usually the first 5 or so minutes of an episode) before settling into the real story at hand. In the past 7 or 8 years (once Futurama happened is where I see the real drop in Simpson’s quality), these first five minutes are usually the best thing about an episode.

While the episode has it troubles keeping pace, it does stand up as one of the better Simpsons stories in recent memory (that past 7 or 8 years I was speaking of). I can admit that I might have appreciated this movie more because I was quite concerned once it became apparent that this movie would in fact see the light of a projector. The steady decline in quality of the Sunday night episode has been apparent to even the most apologetic Simpsons fan. Again, this goes to the point of the Simpsons debate that ended up facing the movie itself: how can you honestly live up to, in this case, seasons 4-8, which are arguably some of the best prime time comedy in the history of television. It’s a losing game but I suppose you can give the show kudos for staying in it. So going into it, my expectations were low, but hopeful – and therefore the movie exceeded, surpassed, and surprised me by being a hell of a good time.

I don’t think there’s any way, in 90 minutes, to tell a cohesive story and please everyone. Yes, it would have been nice to have Patty, Selma, Principle Skinner, Apu, Krusty, Burns, Smithers, whoever your partial to, to be a bigger part of the story; but apart from having a movie like the episode “22 Short Films About Springfield”, there’s no way everyone’s going to come away 100% satisfied. While it’s true that Springfield’s b-listers may be what sets The Simpsons apart from other shows and gives it great depth – we all knew that their first feature film had to primarily focus on the show’s namesake. And if we take that as a given, than putting the family through some internal dire straits is most likely in store. I felt the Springfield vs. the Simpsons part of the story was a good one – and I enjoyed most of the on the road and Alaska bits. In fact, I think taking the Simpsons out of Springfield has always been refreshing and ripe grounds for good bits (Simpsons in New York, in the witness protection program, at Duff Gardens, etc.). I would say Alaska was worth it for Homer’s trip home from Eskimoe’s Tavern alone, and by the way, the storyline with Bart turning to Flanders and then booze due to his daddy issues ranks among the best in the show’s history. I will back you up on the head scratching choice to make Schwarzenegger (I love how his name is in my spell check) the president and not Wolfcastle. I suppose the writers wanted the jabs they take at their governor to go directly to the source and have a little more sting to them… oh well.

So color me impressed and even hopeful that we can see another one of these in the not too distant future. The big screen is friendly to this family and I got a definite sense that the new rules the format gives them breathes some much needed life, inventiveness, playfulness and overall sense of purpose into the franchise. I mean, I don’t remember the last time I actually looked forward to a new season of this show, and now I’m honestly eager to see season 19 or whatever it is. I’m probably setting myself up for disappointment by doing this but what the hell, I’m a Red Sox fan, I’m used to setting myself up for disappointment.


Paddy closes:

The way Gagne is pitching, I would be worried! Don’t worry though, I’ll introduce you to the Phightin’ Phillies, your future NL East Champions.

Nothing much to disagree with really on your review; I don’t think we are too far apart. But while I admit my perfect movie may have been overkill, I still would have liked to see the creators do something more experimental with the plot, rather than just expand a typical episode arc into 90 minutes. In this way, something like “22 Short Films about Springfield” would have been preferable, if only because it would have pushed the known boundaries of the show. If a different medium is really going to “breathe…much needed life…into the franchise,” they need to do something different other than bolstering the animation.

For example, while the alcoholic Bart was an interesting side story, does it really move that far beyond what we saw when Maggie was tempted to join the Flanderseses flock? And do we need a giant screen and surround sound to watch Lisa fall helplessly in love (again) with some charming and activist boy? I don’t really look forward to the upcoming season, because I think the (limited) success of the movie will allow them to be even more complacent.

While it would have involved a serious commercial risk, I think there is still enough creative talent around The Simpsons to make a far more ambitious film. I’m thinking of something along the lines of the Halloween episode, where Homer enters into the ‘real’ 3-D world after falling through the vortex in the living room. What makes the Halloween episodes so great is that they basically throw out the standard plots and characters, and build them up from scratch. It would be impossible within the confines of a ‘normal’ episode to have Willie haunting dreams or Mrs. Crababble feasting on boiled Uter, but the Halloween format gives them cover to experiment. I think something similarly deconstructive could have been done in the movie, with results that would have been far more memorable and lasting than The Simpsons. For all the work and effort that went into making (and promoting!) this movie, I doubt you will hear anyone talking about it (or quoting lines) in a year; people will be dishing out Ralph one liners from season 5 long after anyone even remembers the movie.

Again, I should say that I actually did enjoy the movie, and that it was better as entertainment than I expected, but that really isn’t saying much. Thinking back on the past decade of Simpsons mediocrity, the most disturbing part may be that it has so lowered our expectations, we are willing to define a thoroughly average film like The Simpsons Movie as a success.

[Please enjoy someones badly edited hodgepodge from Sean's favorite episode (which by the way hasn't been shown on my Fox affiliates repeats in many many years) The Monorail Episode (or whatever it's called).]

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