I am convinced beyond a shadow of doubt that the only reason ‘The Simpsons’ (currently in its 21st season) is still going is because, apart from the inexplicable fact that the show still seems to make Fox money, if the show were cancelled tomorrow, ‘South Park’ would takes its place as the longest running animated comedy series. Even though South Park still has a long way to go to surpass the Simpsons run, I really do believe that. The Simpsons, for whatever reason, is determined to stretch its run so far that the goal of overtaking it will be insurmountable to anyone else. When it finally does end, I hope they can feel proud of their achievement because they have sacrificed any other legacy the show had in the process.
I was once as big a fan of the series as anybody you could find and whilst I heard the rumblings feeding back from the US a few years ago that the show was deteriorating in quality and that it had finally jumped the shark, I still remained faithful. I will never forget the moment when I realised what my American friends were saying was true. It was an episode where the Simpsons went to Africa. That’s all I remember about the episode’s content. In fact, I didn’t even watch the whole thing. Not only did I realise that the show had run out of ideas and become totally formulaic (throwing in yet another plot which serves no function other than to get the family out to another country, or continent in this case, that they haven’t been to before) but………there wasn’t a single joke that worked. The Simpsons had stopped being funny. Now I know it is silly to give up on a show just because of one terrible episode. Believe me, that was just the beginning of a long process of eventually turning my back on the series.
But that didn’t stop me from being giddy when the movie was finally announced. I maintained a belief that the people behind the show had waited this long to make a film so they must have a real story to tell, one that cannot be told on television. And it is no word of a lie to say that ‘The Simpsons Movie’ was the single biggest disappointment of 2007 for me (yes even more that Spider-man 3). There is no worse feeling upon exiting a movie theatre for me than knowing I have just seen a bad comedy film. You go in with such high hopes. You thought the film would be a slam dunk. You start to question whether it is your sense of humour which is the problem. Maybe you’re just not in a funny mood today (this happened to me after seeing ‘Austin Powers: Goldmember’ as well). But nothing can shake the feeling which slowly sinks in that the film just wasn’t very good.
‘The Simpsons Movie’ did make the right choice of focusing solely on the actual family rather than making them supporting characters fighting for screen time amongst all of the fan favourites. But what is the point of that if, instead of giving us a real character driven story, the film serves as an excuse for just another wacky adventure where the Simpsons get to go to yet another far away place they haven’t visited before? The best moments of the series for me, are the emotional ones such as hearing Maggie say “daddy” for the first time or Bart’s breakdown after trying so hard to get a pass grade on a school test. My favourite moment of the entire series is in the episode where Homer eats supposedly deadly blowfish sushi and is given 24 hours to live. After making the most of his last day, Homer sits in his recliner and decides to spend his last moments listening to the Bible on audio cassette (read by Larry King). He slumps in his chair and drops the tape player and, given that the show was breaking so much new ground by this point, we actually think he is dead. But Homer survives, vows to live life to the fullest.............and goes right back to his usual coach potato routine.
The only moment of the film which I thought really worked was the scene where Homer finds that the rest of the family have left their Alaskan cabin and returned to Springfield with only a videotaped message from Marge to explain any of it. She tearily confesses that she cannot live with Homer’s screw ups or his inability to fix them anymore and is leaving him for good. Once the message ends, it cuts back to their wedding video (the priceless memory which she had to tape over to make the message). That’s the kind of moment which can separate a Simpsons movie from just a silly comedy film. But did we get more of that? Nope; we got Bart getting drunk and Lisa falling in love (which she’s only done about ten times before that on the show).
It goes without saying that ‘The Simpsons’ needs to end as a series. I don’t know anybody who is watching it anymore and I don’t know anyone who even talks about it anymore, except with disdain once they hear it has been renewed for another twenty seasons. I am, however, game for a second Simpsons movie, if only so they can make the film we were all hoping to see the first time out. Let’s see a film which, with the series being out of the way and no continuity to worry about, takes risks and gives us something we haven’t seen before.
Allow time to finally pass and age the characters, specifically the children.
The second film would take place roughly ten years into the future. Bart and Lisa, despite being polar opposites in terms of ambition, are at the turning point in their lives where it is time to progress into adulthood and perhaps leave Springfield for good. Lisa, of course, is dying to leave and head for university, feeling that being able to put Springfield behind her is the justification she needs that tells her she is a success (or at least is going to be). Bart meanwhile, in what could turn out to be the most touching part of the story, feels the exact same way as Lisa but lacks the actual education to accomplish what she can. After graduating from high school with less than average grades, Bart has been working in a variety of odd jobs with no focus and no foreseeable goal while his sister has marched along the path to success, unstoppable. And no matter how Marge may try to hide it, Bart knows that his mother is disappointed in him. Having learned nothing from the previous twenty seasons of the show, Bart decides an elaborate lie is the best way to make it go away. He manages to convince his parents that he has been accepted into a college and will be leaving Springfield but in actual fact, the latter is the only truth in it. Bart intends to leave the town with absolutely no idea of where to head. He only knows that it will be worth leaving if he has a proud mother.
That idea of a child who wants to be smart and make their family proud but doesn’t believe that they genetically capable of it, no matter how hard they try is something that I believe helped make Bart so appealing to kids back in the early 90’s when he was the epitome of pop culture and it is central to his character in my opinion. In fact, the concept of betterment of one’s self, of realising all you can be before your time is up and the symbolism of escaping the home town you seem glued to in order to accomplish those goals is the theme that will reverberate throughout the film, for all of the characters.
With the recession having struck Springfield’s economy badly, the eccentric millionaire and supervillain wannabe Montgomery Burns offers to throw enough money at the town’s problems to solve everything, so long as all of its assets now fall under his control. With no other option, Springfield becomes completely owned and controlled by Mr Burns. As its citizens imagine the horrors that are to come under his tyrannical rule and Lisa and Bart realise they couldn’t have picked a better time to leave, the unthinkable finally happens; Mr Burns dies. What’s more, for some inexplicable reason, he bequeaths his entire estate and holdings (which now consist of the entire town) to the Simpsons.
Each one of the family react to being in charge of Springfield in a different way. Surprisingly, it is Marge who embraces the power the most, seeing the opportunity to transform the town into the pure Christian place of morality and old fashioned family values that she always imagined she would grow old in. By accomplishing this, Marge will have a legacy to be proud of rather than feeling she wasted her life as a homemaker. Lisa now finds herself stuck in Springfield once again, unable to break free because of the commitment and responsibility she now has to make life in the town better. Bart now has enough money and freedom to do anything he wants, provided he stays in Springfield but is that enough to satisfy him given that he hasn’t earned or achieve anything, that it’s merely been dropped in his lap. Maggie, now the same age as Bart was in the series, is just as marginalised, neglected and lost in the shuffle as she’s always been with the only difference being she now has a voice to express exactly how she feels. And Homer, unable to dissuade Marge from her crusade and charged with running the nuclear power plant, is totally isolated from his friends but caught in the dilemma of whether it is better to be liked or to bathe in money.
Of course the family succumb to their weakness and run Springfield into the ground through bad management at which point the unthinkable happens again; Mr Burns comes back to life. In what turns out to be a ridiculous practical joke played by an old man in his last stretch of life (not to mention last stretch of sanity), Mr Burns sank huge amounts of money into the town, faked his death and left everything to the Simpsons all so he could amuse himself by watching them destroy the place. As far as Burns is concerned, he is Springfield. He made it what it is and is thinks it only fair that it should die at the same time he does, and only the Simpsons can stop him.
I’ll be honest with you. This whole plot point exists for two simple reasons. The first is that every person I talked to about the first film was disappointed by the complete lack of Mr Burns. You can loose a lot of supporting characters (and the focus should be on the family) but Mr Burns is the consummate villain of the piece and he needs a grand send off. The second is that I would just love the climax of the film to mirror the final level of Konami’s classic Simpsons arcade game in which the family face off against Burns at his manor, only to find him clad in a giant robot suit. That would just be glorious.
However the Simpsons save the day, the important thing is that by the conclusion things don’t just go back to normal. Mr Burns really is dead by the end and the kids really do leave Springfield. Lisa heads for university but, having learned she will be far more capable of great things in her home town where she truly is its most special citizen, no longer has the urge to leave for good. She intends to train as a veterinarian and return to Springfield to practice. Bart is also able to reflect on his worth during a heart to heart with his usually callous idol Krusty the clown who runs of an extensive list of all the times the kid has saved his life. Since Krusty has been chosen as the replacement host of ‘The Tonight Show’ (a cheeky stab at Conan O’Brien given his ties to the series), Bart gets a job there and is able to leave Springfield having earned his accomplishments and a proud family. In a particularly melancholy moment, Bart and Lisa leave 742 Evergreen Terrace and their teary eyed family for what will be a good few years at least and drive past all of the recognisable parts of Springfield. They drive past the school, the movie theatre, the Kwik-E-Mart, City Hall, the church, Moe’s Tavern, the Mall (including Ned Flanders’s Leftorium) etc. and reflect that time is moving on. Who knows what Springfield will look like by the time they come back? As Bart and Lisa leave, Homer, Marge and Maggie sit on their porch and watch as the sun sets and one chapter of the Simpson family legacy draws to a close.
And um………yeah hopefully they’ll throw some jokes in there as well. Sorry, I can’t write funny (that’s what the people who make the show are paid to do) but I really think a much better chance can be had at making a great Simpsons movie if its heart and theme are in the right place. All comedy is very brittle, especially film comedy. That film you belly laughed at so much when you saw it in theatres retains little of that hilarity when you pop the DVD in for the first time. Only a very select few comedy films will remain as funny and fresh after multiple viewings and often they are the films which offer more than just laughs (see ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’ for example). They provide heart and warmth and character development. The Simpsons, at its best, gave us this in spades. We need to see it again.
If we do, maybe, just maybe, ‘The Simpsons’ can end their legacy on a high note.
p.s. Despite what I thought of the first film, the promotional gimmick of transforming 7-Elevens into Kwik-E-Marts was transcendent genius. When the second film gets made, all Burger Kings in the world must become Krusty Burger restaurants.............forever.