This is most likely the last time I will ever watch The Simpsons Movie. I saw it twice in the theaters, twice on DVD, once for the blog nine years ago, and now once more for a total of six viewings. There aren’t a whole lot of movies I can say I’ve seen over six times, and I feel somewhat embarrassed that this is one of them. Four of those initial viewings were within a year of the film’s release, when I was in my final stages of devotion to the series. The movie felt like a shot in the arm to a lot of fans, thrusting the show into the cultural spotlight for a brief moment, but when I finally came back to Earth and returned to the series as it was, I barely made it two more seasons before calling it quits. But I really enjoyed the movie when it came out. A lot of people did. A Simpsons movie was something everybody was waiting for. It was special. There was a greater air of importance to the idea of a feature film back then, so surely The Simpsons Movie would bring us something completely new, maybe even recapture the magic of the classic era. But here’s the issue: movies aren’t TV. And TV isn’t a movie.
Movies based on television shows are a tricky thing. You can think of a movie as just an extra-long episode, but it really is a completely different animal. What’s great about a certain show isn’t necessarily going to translate to a longer format, so one might reconsider the kind of story they want to tell, but if you change things too much, then you start to lose what makes the show so special. It’s a very difficult balancing act, and I can think of very few success stories. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is probably the best example I can point to: while still feeling mostly like an extra-long episode, it weaved in an actual emotional journey for the title character and added a whole live action section (and infamous celebrity cameo) in the third act, giving the movie something truly unique for the big screen (the two ensuing sequels range from mediocre to pretty damn terrible). Beavis and Butt-head Do America thrusts our two imbecilic protagonists into a big movie story as best as it possibly could, with the joke throughout that they’re just kind of drifting through a larger plot that they have no awareness or interest in. I do really enjoy the movie, but the simplistic magic of the series’ small-minded stories was inevitably lost in the feature film adaptation. As for The Simpsons, it has in its favor a stable of episodes that practically feel like mini-feature films (“Marge vs. the Monorail,” “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”), as the show was no stranger to telling larger stories and utilizing a more cinematic eye. Every fan of the show speculated what a Simpsons movie might be like. One could try and imagine what a movie made during the series’ apex of quality might have been like, but honestly, I don’t even know if a movie would have even worked even back then. But all that pontificating aside, 2007’s The Simpsons Movie is what we got. This is it. It exists. And watching it one more time, I gotta say, I can’t think of another movie that I am this indifferent about.
Last time around, I gave the movie “the most apathetic recommendation ever,” and I feel like I still share those sentiments. Except for the recommendation part. Now, there’s no need to even give a recommendation at all, considering I don’t see any possibility that anybody reading this hasn’t already seen the movie. But if by some bizarre happenstance, someone stumbled onto this blog and is wondering whether or not they should watch The Simpsons Movie, I would say no. That’s not to say the movie is bad, not at all. There are a handful of jokes that I can’t say I laughed at this time around, but I definitely acknowledged were funny. The whole cast is definitely giving it their all, with some pretty solid individual performances throughout. And while I don’t care for the overly polished HD look of the film, there are scenes throughout featuring some pretty great character animation, and director David Silverman takes full advantage of the cinematic format throughout with unique shots and visual flairs that you wouldn’t normally see on the show. But for all that positivity, there’s an overwhelming disappointment hanging over the entire film that I just can’t shake. For as much undeniable hard work went into this movie, there’s so much of it that feels rushed and ill-conceived. And for a Simpsons movie that at times tries to cater to lifelong fans, there’s an unusual amount of it that feels like it’s being made for people that have never even heard of The Simpsons, which seems incredibly bizarre to me. There’s just so much about the movie that feel incredibly off, it makes it that much more difficult to enjoy what actually does work.
I truly don’t understand why a Simpsons movie barely features the many beloved denizens of Springfield, opting to separate the Simpson family from the rest of the town at the end of act one. The film is ostensibly about the town of Springfield and its rescue, but it doesn’t play much of a role at all outside of the first thirty minutes or so. The colorful characters of Springfield are such a core element of the series, and here they’re treated as cute little add-on jokes. Why in the hell isn’t Mr. Burns the villain? We don’t step foot inside the power plant, the school, or the Kwik-E-Mart. Major characters on the show since the beginning like Apu, Skinner and Willie barely get one line. I understand trying to work in moments and roles for so many characters is difficult, but that makes it all the more bizarre why they would feature so much of the movie outside of the town. It feels like they thought they needed to make the movie bigger than Springfield, featuring a big trip to Alaska and a massive government conspiracy leading all the way up to the President. I guess the thought was that’s what makes this worthy of a movie, that we got beyond the scope of the show. But if doing so robs your movie of such a rich vein of connection to what makes the show great, maybe you’re going down the wrong path. There really isn’t any reason Mr. Burns couldn’t have been the one to drop the dome over the town, excising himself from the rest of the riff-raff, and the other characters rallying to stop him. As great as Albert Brooks is in the role (as he always is), I don’t give two tits about Russ Cargill, and neither does anyone else. Hell, the writers only remembered last minute that they should actually write a scene where he confronts Homer to get our “hero and villain face off” moment, but it means nothing because they have no connection to each other whatsoever.
Homer is a huge dick in the movie. The writers talked about how they didn’t want to make him too unlikable, rewriting the script endlessly to soften him more. So, this is the softer version? From minute one, Homer is an unpleasant jerkass, calling everyone at church morons and praying for Ned Flanders to admit he’s gay (glad to see that the latent homophobia present in the series in the 2000s seeped its way into the movie as well!) If you really knew nothing about The Simpsons and went into this movie blind, if such a person could even exist (the writers seem to believe so), what is there to like about our protagonist from the start? He puts a hornet’s nest in his neighbor’s mailbox, allows his son to be charged for public nudity and forces him to walk around pants-less, repeatedly ignores and dismisses his wife… he’s a fucking asshole. My best friend doesn’t like The Simpsons, and when I first asked why, she told me she thought Homer was a huge jerk, and y’know what, considering she’s seen the movie, and I assume a handful of post-2000 episodes, I can’t really discredit her claim. I understand the movie is about Homer’s emotional journey and redemption, but he can’t be a jackass for the first 60 minutes and learn his lesson for the last 15. Homer is a likable character because he’s a lovable loser. He’s driven by his impulses, can be selfish and closed-minded at times, but his negative attributes are usually always passive. Homer’s lack of intelligence prevents him from seeing how he’s unknowingly affecting people until it’s pointed out to him, but when he finally gets it, he always tries his best to make things right. The Homer in this film is not that Homer. He bears some similar attributes, but his heart isn’t there. He’s an aggressively moronic and pitiful man who garners absolutely no sympathy throughout the film. Maybe the writers thought that seeing him get hurt so many times would feel like karmic payback. Or score some easy laughs.
The other Simpsons are there too, I guess. Marge doesn’t have much to do outside of take Homer’s abuse (“Isn’t it great being married to someone who’s so recklessly impulsive?” “Actually, it’s aged me horribly.”) She gets her big scene where she once and for all “leaves” Homer, and between pairing it with the revisionist history wedding video and the producers forcing Julie Kavner to perform it five thousand times, it’s doing all it can to try and pack an emotional wallop… but it just comes off as empty since we’ve seen these two on the rocks dozens of times before, and on top of that, I don’t even care if they get back together considering how huge a prick Homer’s been through the whole movie. Lisa spearheads the environmentalist efforts in the first act of the movie, and has what I can’t even call a subplot in her romance with Tress MacNeille doing an Irish accent. Like Russ Cargill, Colin is a completely disposable movie-only character. They originally wanted to make Lisa falling for Milhouse, which I wouldn’t have wanted to see either, but maybe we can give the eight-year-old girl a plot line that isn’t about what boy they like? Bart gets the meatiest material of all, being reduced to a sniveling mess wanting Ned Flanders to be his Daddy, a man who won’t physically assault him or force him to go around in public with his genitals exposed. It’s very strange, borderline uncomfortable stuff (Bart instinctively preparing to be choked and his confused, euphoric reaction to being patted on the back.) But this story kind of conveniently removed Marge from the equation, who mothers Bart to death every chance she gets. Where is she in all this? As far as the Simpson family goes, Bart is easily the character the writing staff has struggled with the most as the series has gone on (and on and on and on…), and the movie is a pretty clear example of that. Bart nearly in tears begging to be a part of the Flanders family? Come on.
Presented in marvelous anamorphic widescreen, the movie is trying its damndest to feel worthy of its format. There are most definitely some fun visual moments and some pretty nice looking shots and cinematography throughout the film, but its overall look is kind of bothersome to me. The more pristine and polished the show became as it got on in years felt more and more off-putting, and this feels like the ultimate version of that. The squeaky-clean varnish makes all the characters feel flatter than their early 90s counterparts. I also don’t care for the fact that literally every single character, object and background has a shadow layer on it in every single scene. I guess it’s supposed to make things pop more off the screen, but they just feel extraneous, and at worst distracting in more benign scenes that don’t necessitate any dramatic shadows. Another visual issue for me is the CG integration in the movie, which is pretty shaky on the whole. Cel-shaded 3D objects will stick out from the 2D elements, and the instances where 2D characters are placed into 3D environments for certain shots feel incredibly awkward (the family driving home from church in a 3D car, Bart almost falling off a 3D roof.) Some shots fare better than others (Homer smashing through the blockades at the lake before dumping the pig crap silo looks pretty damn smooth), but most of these more ambitious shots don’t quite hit the mark, like the above scene of the gigantic mob; as the camera passes through the 3D environment, all of the characters end up looking like paper cutouts. It’s a bit befuddling to me how within the same decade, Futurama managed to integrate 2D and 3D so well, but a big part of that is they would render entire shots in 3D, characters included, and would shoot and cut them in such a way that drew attention away from any unconvincing elements. Here, the mixture of 2D and 3D isn’t quite up to snuff yet, which ends up becoming distracting. Since 2007, there’s been incredible technical advancements utilized in wonderful films that toe the line between the two dimensions (Klaus, The Peanuts Movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse), but here, it’s in that iffy between stage where the effects kind of work, but also kind of don’t at the same time.
A big portion of my original review was about the behind-the-scenes stories on the commentary, how Al Jean and the writers were wholly reliant on test screenings to decide whether to keep scenes, jokes and entire characters in, or whether to fix, change or remove them. Give it a listen if you want to feel depressed. The writing staff once famous for having a James L. Brooks-signed golden ticket protecting them from network notes, completely unheard of in the world of television, is now, completely voluntarily, at the complete beck and call of some schmoe in Portland who didn’t laugh at Homer getting hit in the nuts or whatever. There’s just so many things about the mindset in the creation of this movie that are so incredibly disappointing. The biggest, of course, is the complete lack of creative confidence, which I feel I don’t have to belabor too much. This is a series that thrived solely because of its writing staff who created stories and characters that they enjoyed, and as a result, we the audience enjoyed too. Almost twenty years later, this slavish dependence on audience approval makes the staff feel like scared and tired old men who can’t stand by their own convictions. All of this constant rewriting and rethinking based on focus group response resulted in a movie that not only feels completely watered down, but with a confused plot with things that don’t quite connect. The “thousand eyes” in the prophecy used to refer to an entire forest full of mutated creatures, but since that was reduced to one multi-eyed squirrel in the final cut, it doesn’t make sense. Despite being incredibly important to kicking off the plot, Plopper just disappears from the movie after the first act. The Simpsons are in hiding at the motel from a wide sweeping manhunt, then go to a carnival in broad daylight with no issue. In Alaska, the kids’ clapping avalanches Homer back into the house during the day, then it’s immediately nighttime for he and Marge’s Disney sex scene. When you rip your script to pieces so many times so close to the film’s release date, you’re gonna end up with some scattershot elements left in your finished film.
What’s most baffling to me is why the writers felt they had to do any of this. With eighteen years of public awareness and good will toward The Simpsons, they basically had carte blanche to do whatever the hell they wanted. FOX knew that they could open The Simpsons Movie and it would be a huge box office success by its name alone, so I’m sure they gave fuck all about what the movie was actually about. You would think this would be incredibly freeing creatively, lending you the ability to do basically whatever you wanted, so it’s very odd how the writers seem to have hobbled themselves in kowtowing to public response in such an extreme manner. I get that writing a film is a whole other ballpark than a TV script, and you want to make sure everything is working for an audience, but the endless amount of scenes and moments cited on the commentary being completely reworked after test screenings really speaks to a bizarre lack of confidence on their part, and that unsure attitude works its way into the movie itself. It’s impossible for me to separate the film from the behind-the-scenes stuff, but I can say this is one of those movies I remember liking less each time I saw it, for reasons I can’t entirely articulate (despite me being at like three thousand words at this point). But there’s definitely an overall malaise I get from this movie, a film made with good intentions and a lot of effort, but still a conflicted mess in what it wants to be. Is it social/political satire, or emotional character piece? PG-13 edgy, or genuine, saccharine emotional? For super fans of the show, or people who never watched it? In trying to be everything, and cater to as many people as possible, you end up with a movie for basically nobody, and that’s a sad fact.
I remember hearing Mike Judge talk about Beavis and Butt-head Do America, about how he wanted to make the movie as best a representative of the series as he could, figuring the film would be more readily available than the series itself, sitting on video store shelves, and as such wanted the movie to reflect the best qualities of the TV show. And at the time, he was right. In the 1990s and 2000s when Blockbuster was king, movies were the big dogs, and TV was secondary. A TV show getting a movie was a huge coup, being viewed as a step-up in mediums. But over time, things changed. With the rise of premium cable channels, and later, streaming services, TV series became more prestige and valued. At the same time, video stores shuttered as streaming TV started to become more and more peoples’ first choice for home entertainment. As different streaming services continue to emerge, beloved TV series have become hugely hot commodities, as these services have to promote how they’re just exploding with large amounts of content for people to binge, much more than individual movies. A sizable piece of Disney+’s launch marketing was the inclusion of thirty seasons of The Simpsons, and I would think that was a pretty huge selling point for a lot of people that they could watch the entire show. The Simpsons Movie was also available, but just as a minor addendum to the series itself. And that’s basically what the movie is: a disposable vestigial limb to a once-great series. It had its brief moment in the sun when it came out, everybody was singing the Spider-Pig song for like a couple weeks, but now, fourteen years later, there really isn’t much of a reason to go back to it at all.