In an early episode of The Simpsons, Bart and Lisa Simpson speculate about the comic-book characters Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Specifically, they imagine that the latter is in fact the former’s ghost. “Wonder how he died?” asks Bart, and Lisa replies: “Perhaps he realised how hollow the pursuit of money really is and took his own life.”
That moment epitomises the paradoxical combination of pop-culture knowingness and off-beat philosophising, of cynicism and idealism, in The Simpsons—at least in its earlier years, its Golden Age, as Chris Turner calls it in his book Planet Simpson. That Golden Age, says Turner, lasted from 1992 to 1997, and then the TV show settled into its “faded-but-still-very-good Long Plateau”.
I suspect that diehard Simpsons fans will find The Simpsons Movie an extended example of the Long Plateau, but the television programme’s own history is remarkable. From a few minuscule sketches as part of The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, the animated adventures of this bright-yellow family ballooned into a massive phenomenon, saving the bacon of the network on which it appeared, Fox. Because it had been commissioned at a time when Fox was rather insecure and because nobody seems to have guessed The Simpsons would become such a huge hit, the show’s creators were given complete control. The result was a bitingly satirical cartoon for grown-ups, one that took swipes at everything at the heart of contemporary America—from Christianity to advertising, “family values” to government, and even the Fox network itself (“Fox News: your voice for evil”).
The town where the Simpsons live, Springfield, has the same name as the locale of another, older TV show, Father Knows Best, a sentimental picture of idealised family life of the 1950s. In The Simpsons, father most definitely does not know best: dad Homer Simpson is the least mature, most impulsive and outright stupid member of the family. He’s barely fit to be human, let alone a parent. He’s the anti-Cosby. His wife Marge (of the purple hair stack) is sensible and amazingly patient; wise-cracking son Bart takes after dad but is clearly much more intelligent and tuned-in, if also deeply cynical, while precocious first daughter Lisa is the “moral centre”, with crusading liberal impulses that also get sent up somewhat. Baby Maggie is an enigmatic dummy-sucking presence who, nonetheless, stages the odd important intervention.
Bartmania ruled in the early 1990s, but it seems that Homer Simpson has become the de facto hero of the show. He’s a ravening maw of selfish, all-consuming appetite, a perfect example of idiot consumerism run riot and, yet, as Turner reports, “In a 2003 poll conducted by BBC Online ... Homer was voted ‘the greatest American’. Ever.” Abraham Lincoln came second, Martin Luther King third. In that, somehow, is the embodiment of Homerness.
Certainly, Homer, in all his disgusting glory, is very funny. In The Simpsons Movie he ruins everyone’s life in Springfield, though ultimately he redeems himself. He does indeed feel like the protagonist of the movie, the one who has to go through an arc of moral education. The rest of the characters do not change; they are who they are. But then, I suppose, one can’t take Homer’s learning curve all that seriously. After all, there has been nearly two decades’ worth of TV shows and by the start of this movie he’s as unregenerate as ever.
On the way towards Homer’s temporary redemption, though, the film packs in a great deal of inventive incident and humour. The plot is way too complex to explain in any detail, but basically there is a toxic event in which Homer plays a key part, followed by heavy-handed state intervention, and the Simpson family goes on the run—this after the good citizens of Springfield turn into a lynch mob, which they seem to do rather often.
In the world of the Simpsons, the family is radically dysfunctional and society likely to turn into a bloodthirsty rabble at any point. But despite that underlying assumption, and the TV show’s long tradition of poking fun at anything and everything, The Simpsons Movie lacks edge. It’s enjoyable, rollicking along as it does with all manner of absurdity, but it has very little of the satirical bite of the TV show at its best.
Simpsons creator Matt Groening has said that the show aims “to entertain and subvert”. The movie simply entertains.