Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Simpsons Movie: a film and a history

The Simpsons Movie was worth my time and money, and I recommend you all see it... you can find all that stuff in my review of the film over on BlogCritics. Here on Benefit Of The Doubt, I'm going to give you a little more developed, less opinionated view of the film, and how it relates to what has become a legacy of FOX and Matt Groening.

I loved the movie, and I have to say, it wasn't because it was ground-breaking. That's a positive spin on a hard truth, which is sort of what this blog is about: looking at media artifacts in terms of what they did well, and what they claim to do. The Simpsons Movie never really claimed to be revolutionary, and thankfully so; if anything, it came across as reminiscence, albeit some of the most entertaining reminiscence this cycle.

If you thought too hard, you might have been a little annoyed by some of the derivation the movie leaned on. In particular, none of the conflicts were anything new... Marge has spent a number of episodes resolving her issues with her marriage to Homer (like 7F20 and 7G11), and Bart has spent a number of episodes struggling against Homer's bad parenting (like 9F12). Lisa's unlikely romance was taken from a cluster of episodes, as well, down to the fact that her potential boyfriend has a cool UK accent (as per episode 2F15).

Whether or not to expect a fresh plot is up to the viewer, and for most, the recycling game won't wreck the film. Those who are looking for some emotional satisfaction will find a dramatic rise and fall in the movie, even if it's on a track they've traveled before. These conflicts are just the first of a few ways in which The Simpsons Movie was a retrospective on the series.

The second, and most salient, form of nostalgia inherent in The Simpsons Movie was the range of humor the writers tapped. There are fundamentally different styles of humor characteristic of every Simpsons era... the first season was rude slapstick and awkward anecdotes, mostly in the context of the characters' everyday lives as a one-dimensional dysfunctional family. The heyday of the Simpsons, seasons two or three through eight or nine, were centered around constant clever lines, observations, and breakdowns in expectation, delivered with perfect pacing. These episodes were the marathon of characterization that have delivered a fully-formed family and community to the viewers. After these golden years, the Simpsons began slipping into ridiculous antics and non-sequitors, only a few of which still had the wit of the earlier stretch.

The Simpsons Movie managed to tap almost every style of humor described above, and it made them all work in their unique ways. From goofy politics (a depiction of a new President, or the gay cops a la episode 4F11) to absurd, repetitive slapstick (the familiar Wrecking Ball scene) to brilliant revelations of character and relationship (virtually every line written for Grandpa and Mr. Burns), we can find examples of humor from every age of our favorite animated series. As I mentioned in my review, this kind of reference wasn't a drawback or an annoyance... it was a prompt to set our minds wandering over a whole history of awesome Simpsons memories.

There's one other element to the intense "nostalgia factor" engendered by The Simpsons Movie. This film, at the tail end of this franchise, generated some of the more interesting promotion I've seen in recent years, and definitely some of the most ubiquitous. From the 7-Elevens recreated as Kwik-E-Marts to the site Simpsonize Me to the endless barrage of commercials, billboards, and images on television, it seems we've been flooded with images of Groening's brainchild baby. You might see this as tragically obnoxious, an insult to the series. But (with Dom's help, I must admit) I've gotten past this.

After all, there was once a time when The Simpsons had to be on EVERYTHING, from t-shirts to cereal boxes to candy bars. Viewers probably remember this time well, and without a hint of disapproval. After all, we thought those shirts were FUNNY, dammit. But nature took its course: along with the decline in viewership, there was a steady decline in ubiquitous merchandising in recent years. If you were a fan of the show, I don't think you rejoiced to see it all disappear... you may have even started to miss it. And now, the movie has brought back that shameless saturation of Simpsons stuff. This is what it was like in '96... everywhere you looked, that recognizable family of silhouettes. It makes me proud to remember the good ol' days.

And that recollection is what makes The Simpsons Movie so strong... it's a window into a beautiful history of smart humor and adventurous writing, a tribute to a permanent fixture in American consciousness. As a retrospective, a mirror and a map of the series and its philosophy, this movie is a resounding success. In a way, it makes me want to get back into the series.

And in a way, I guess, it makes me want the series to end.

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