“Spider-Pig, Spider-Pig, does whatever a Spider-Pig does…”
How long, exactly, has this movie been in development? The official “announcement trailer” was released in 2006, but we all know they’ve been working on it longer than that. The domain “simpsonsmovie.com” has allegedly been owned by Fox since 1997. On a Season Four DVD commentary, the show’s creators reveal that the 1993 episode “Kamp Krusty” was going to be “the movie” at one point. Yet another trailer claims that this almost-mythic production has been “18 years in the making.” See, now that sounds about right.
However long it took, 2007 was the year that The Simpsons Movie finally hit the big screen. And now it’s on DVD. And the very, very best part is that it’s not imaginary!
Good God, how do I summarize the plot of this one? I’ll keep it simple: Homer Simpson makes a crucial decision that not only dooms his hometown of Springfield, but takes his family farther than they’ve ever been, both geographically and emotionally. Also: the Environmental Protection Agency is evil, Grandpa has a spiritual experience, Bart finds a new father figure, Lisa meets a boy who is not related to a famous musician, Moe becomes royalty, two popular characters walk on the moon, Cletus does something interesting with his thumb, and much, much, more.
The big question regarding The Simpsons Movie is simply, “Is it funny?” I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, yes. Yes, it is.
I laughed a lot during this movie. Not only are the jokes good ones, but they come flying at viewers fast and furious. The movie zips from set piece to set piece at a relentless pace, cramming in as much humor as possible. And it’s not just the laughs. The writers have loaded a ton of plot into this movie. There’s really no “down time.” A lot of filmmakers like to pretentiously throw around the cliché of making every scene in the movie the best scene in the movie, but I feel the creators of The Simpsons Movie really have attempted this. This isn’t just a case of “let’s quickly slap together a movie version of the TV show and rake in the cash.” Instead, the writers and animators have clearly pushed themselves to make this movie everything it could be.
That leads us to the next big question regarding The Simpsons Movie: Is this just an extended episode of the TV show? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, no. No, it’s more than that.
Even if the characters and their world are immediately familiar to everyone who’s seen the show, this is nonetheless one good-looking movie, with visuals that are a cut above what’s seen on TV. Although the ads proudly proclaimed “In 2-D!” the truth is that CGI is employed throughout the film. But it’s done to enhance the visuals, not to recreate the world of the Simpsons from scratch. Computers in this movie were used to create detailed backgrounds, subtle but effective lighting effects, and more. The CGI here is never overly show-offy, but instead it serves the story and the humor when it has to.
But the look of the film isn’t the only way in which it is more than just another episode of the show. The creators take the characters to an emotional place they’ve never fully gone. We’ve seen Homer and Marge’s marriage put to the test on the show, but never to this extent. We’ve seen Bart disappointed by his father, but never so much that he turns to Flanders as an alternative. We’ve seen Homer be selfish and piggish before, but never to the point where he leaves Springfield in a near-apocalyptic state. The writers have upped the stakes, both plot-wise and emotionally, for these characters. Sure, the action and the slapstick have been bigger and broader for the big screen, as expected, but amid all the zaniness, the emotional core of the story goes deeper than it’s ever been.
WARNING: The next three paragraphs will go into spoiler territory, including the movie’s ending.
When The Simpsons Movie debuted in theaters, there was a lot of talk about how the writers allegedly put their political leanings on their sleeves, so to speak. One review I read went so far as to call the movie, “nothing but political propaganda.” (It’s worth noting that this same review contained numerous angry rants about politics that seemed to have nothing to do with Homer and company.) Yes, the movie’s writers do make numerous satirical jabs at the government. But these are the usual “government bureaucracies are run by idiots” jokes that get made in all sorts of comedies. There are also several scenes that take a strict “pollution is bad” stance, and yet the movie also portrays people who do something to help the environment as either annoying or megalomaniacally evil. So just what is the “message” of the movie? Well, I’ve watched this DVD six times in the last four days, and I’ll tell you this: I don’t believe the “message” is a political one. Instead, it’s a personal one. How did I reach this conclusion? By pondering the ending.
There are a lot of shocking things in this movie. There’s an obscene gesture or two, some brief substance abuse is seen on screen, and there’s the much-talked-about well-timed full-frontal nudity. But the most shocking thing here is that the movie concludes in a distinctly non-Simpsons-like way—with a happy ending. Sure, we all know in our hearts that Homer will save the day and the family will be back together (there wouldn’t be a Season 19 otherwise). But there’s more to this ending. Lisa gets the boy. Homer earns Bart’s respect, not to mention the adoration of his fellow Springfielders. And most shocking of all? Homer successfully jumps Springfield Gorge. That’s huge, people. I mean, that’s like Charlie Brown kicking the football, or Sisyphus reaching the top of the mountain. On the TV series, we’ve gotten used to bittersweet endings, in which life is hard and cruel, but our favorite family somehow makes do. In the movie, however, we get almost the opposite. When Homer reaches the other side of the gorge, he gets to experience a moment of true joy, a rarity in these characters’ lives. It’s an ending that gives us the feeling of “everything’s going to be better from now on.” What’s the difference? This time around, the happy ending was earned.
The movie’s most bizarre moment, arguably, is Homer’s “epiphany scene,” in which a character known only as “Boob Lady” helps Homer look inside himself and discover a great truth. It’s a simple truth, which can be boiled down to a basic “don’t be selfish.” And yet, this is the “message” I mentioned above. What is The Simpsons Movie about, really? It’s not about pollution, or politics, or a giant dome, or cashing in on a successful TV franchise. Instead, it’s about a selfish man who learns to put the needs of others above his own petty desires. We all love watching Homer’s antics on screen, but as the late Frank Grimes once so eloquently demonstrated, Homer’s not someone you’d ever want to meet in real life. He would drive you up the wall if you actually knew him. That’s why the message about selfishness is such a powerful one in this case. In order for Homer to truly learn this lesson, he must first hit absolute rock bottom, which he does. Then, later, after he has his big epiphany, that’s when Homer can jump across the gorge. Because that’s a Homer we rarely see. One who’s had his change of heart, and who’s finally earned his moment of happiness.
For as much praise as I’ve heaped on the writers and animators, the voice actors deserve their share of adoration as well. Julie Kavner (Deconstructing Harry) has always been the voice of reason as Marge, but during a crucial scene in this film, she gives the character a depth of humanity not seen before this point. The show’s other regulars—Dan Castellaneta (Earthworm Jim), Nancy Cartwright (Kim Possible), Yeardley Smith (City Slickers), Harry Shearer (This is Spinal Tap), Hank Azaria (The Birdcage), Tress MacNeille (Animaniacs), and Pamela Hayden (Turbo Teen)—not only know their characters through and through, but they’ve got their comedic timing down to a science. Albert Brooks (Defending Your Life), credited here as “A. Books,” steps in to play the movie’s mad-with-power antagonist, and he too gets plenty of big laughs along the way.
As mentioned above, this is a good-looking movie with animation a cut above the TV show, and the DVD shows it off nicely, with bright, vivid colors and deep, rich black levels. The animators created the visuals specifically for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, so do the right thing and skip the separately-sold full-screen version. The sound, in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 is rich and immersive, especially when the robust score by Hans Zimmer (The Lion King) kicks in.
The highlight of the bonus features are the two commentary tracks. The first features creator Matt Groening, director David Silverman, writer/producers Al Jean, James L. Brooks and Mike Scully, and voice actors Dan Castellaneta and Yeardley Smith. It’s a hearty track with everyone poking fun at the movie and each other. The second track is a “director’s commentary,” where Silverman is joined by sequence directors Mike B. Anderson, Steven Dean Moore and Rich Moore. Not surprisingly, the animators are just as jokey as the writers, and this is another fun track. Both commentaries spend a good amount of time discussing ideas that never made it into the movie, or elements that were originally different from the final product.
Other extras include a handful of deleted scenes, including an alternate version of Russ Cargill, the character played by Albert Brooks. This is followed by the Simpson clan’s cameos on The Tonight Show and American Idol, which I believe aired around the time of the movie’s theatrical release. All the original trailers follow, as well as the goofy “Let’s all go to the Lobby” short cartoon. Plus, play around with the arrow buttons on your remote and who knows what else you might find.
In a raucous, joke-a-minute comedy like this, it’s inevitable that not every joke is a winner. I have to admit, a scene with Bart getting drunk off of motel mini-bar whiskey didn’t quite work for me. It just seemed a little too out-of-character. Was this really the best (and funniest) way for the writers to illustrate Bart’s sense of alienation from his father?
The commentaries are filled with stories about cut scenes, alternate takes, earlier script drafts, etc., but not a lot of that makes it into the bonus features here. One of the trailers offers a glimpse of a fully-animated scene featuring Reverend Lovejoy, but scene itself isn’t not on the disc. Rumor has it that Kelsey Grammer recorded some dialogue as fan-favorite character Sideshow Bob, only to have his scene cut. If true, why on Earth didn’t this make it onto the DVD? Also, the storyboard sequences and animation showcases that have been so much fun on the TV season box sets are also not a part of the movie’s DVD. For all the cool extras on this disc, what’s not on here speaks volumes. Like that old man in church, I’m going to make a prediction: this movie will be double-dipped at some point in the distant future.
Finally, I know it’s not possible for everyone’s favorite supporting characters to appear over the course of one movie—although plenty of fun “one-off” characters from the show can be seen in crowd shots—but I find it unfortunate that Mr. Burns is hardly in the movie. He’s such a regular fixture on the show that he’s practically a member of the family. Heck, he even had his own song on The Simpsons Sing the Blues. I’m not sure what more he could have added to this already dense plot, but it nonetheless feels odd that such a thing as The Simpsons Movie exists, and good ol’ Mr. Burns gets little more than a cameo.
On Sept. 23, 2007, when the first Simpsons episode of Season 19 aired, Bart wrote on the chalkboard, “I will not take 20 years to make another movie.” Here’s hoping so, especially if future Simpsons movies are as much fun as this one.