When it’s on: Tuesday, 28 August (7.15 pm)
It was 1998 when we first had cable installed in our house. Back then, I think it was still Cable and Wireless, soon to be NTL, and a revolutionary new way to find excuses to stop in with all those movies and sports channels, the rediscovery of old gems like The Avengers (Mrs Mike’s favourite) and Man in a Suitcase (loved it). Perhaps best of all was our sudden access to The Simpsons on Sky One. The show had debuted on terrestrial television a couple of years ago, (the future) Mrs Mike and I forgetting the charms of Didsbury’s pub life for half an hour in November 1996 to catch ‘There’s no Disgrace like Home’ on BBC1. But whereas the Beeb screened weekly episodes, on Sky you got one per evening, with the promise of brand new instalments appearing there first.
For me, The Simpsons was always a strange, dislocated experience. Despite the BBC getting its act together in the mid-nineties, the show had already made its splash as a cultural landmark thanks to those lucky people who’d had satellite dishes installed, along with American influences. Do the Bartman had been a hit years ago. The former President Bush’s comment about American families needing to be more like the Waltons than the Simpsons was also long in the past. And then there was the weird gulf in class between older episodes and new releases. I felt late to the party. Whereas reruns were never short on quality, more recent stuff felt tireder and less inspired. Movie parodies had long been a staple of the series, but these seemed to be leaned on more and more, whilst increasingly unlikely adventures for the family pulled the show away from what had made it so great in the first place. By the time The Simpsons Movie was announced, we had long since stopped watching the show.
Big screen spin-offs of TV series are nothing new, of course, and a Simpsons film had been discussed and promised for some years. By the time the project was greenlit, there was an air of desperation about it. Viewer ratings for the show were falling. Other animated efforts either took the formula further or in surreal new directions. Compared to Family Guy, The Simpsons felt very safe and cosy, which was never really the point. To finally come up with the theatrical release felt like a last throw of the dice, something reflected in the endless rewrites and editing, the latter taking place right up to the deadline.
It’s fortunate that the film didn’t really blow it either by being a live action affair or fully computer animated. The finished product looks and feels like an extended episode, playing things safe and even recapturing the glory days by setting its early scenes firmly within the confines of Springfield. There’s nothing on display you haven’t seen before, unless you include a full frontal shot of Bart, but it works, the laughs coming steadily through recognition and relief, and some very funny material that involves Homer adopting a pig. Of course it’s all derivative. The Spider-Pig stuff is great, but fans of the tenth season episode ‘Lisa gets an A’ in which Homer looks after a lobster (Mr Pinchy) will have seen it before.
Regular supporting cast members all get their moments, which is sort of disappointing because everyone has their favourites (Mr Burns for me) and to see them get short shrift is a shame, though understandable. It’s when the main plot kicks in that things go a little west. Due to one environmental disaster – caused by Homer, obviously – too many, the entire town in encased in a glass dome. Mr Simpson is blamed and somehow escapes with the rest of the family before they can be lynched, eventually fleeing to Alaska. After the usual redemptive business (which includes a very funny scene that both parodies Disney’s family fare and perverts it), they return to save the day, wrapping the yarn up nicely in a sub-90 minute stretch.
If there’s an air of slight flatness about The Simpsons Movie, it isn’t because there are no laughs (there are) or plotting inconsistencies (even Bart’s potential closeness with Ned Flanders had been covered previously in season five’s ‘Boy-Scoutz ‘n the Hood’), but because it feels like several episodes grafted together. Sure, the animation’s a bit smoother. There are some smashing celebrity cameos, fortunately ones that never intrude on the main narrative. But the biting satire feels a bit toothless and it’s suffused with an earnest desire to deliver on audience expectations. None of it comes across as daring and innovative. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and given the hype surrounding the film’s release it’s almost certainly about as good as one could ever realistically imagine. Maybe they should have put it out years before, as originally promised, back when The Simpsons was a genuine treat and new episodes were eagerly anticipated. As it is, the film is certainly good fun, and new gags are right around the corner if you don’t like the one happening, but the zeitgeist moved on long ago.
The Simpsons Movie: ***