One day in the far-flung future, a generation of octogenarians will tell rooms full of vat-grown grand-clones about how The Simpsons—which will by then have transcended the limitations of mere mortal creative properties and become some sort of Aesop’s Fables for the Buck Rogers crowd—began life as an upstart, a rebel, something worthy of scorn and protest in certain circles.
Those were dark times. Tipper Gore wannabes wandered the Earth in search of hip-hop acts to drag before Congressional subcommittees. Unwitting youths were herded into camps for nothing more than wearing “Underachiever, and Proud of It” T-shirts. Maddened mobs of soccer moms stormed department stores in search of TVs to stuff into their station wagons to later burn in effigy.
Thankfully, that era is (more or less) past, and we live in an age in which, despite our other setbacks on the off-again, on-again quest for a perfect civilization, we realize that an animated image of a bright yellow spiky-haired bug-eyed moppet isn’t going to turn a generation of Americans into rampaging lunatics.
Perhaps this is why FOX’s venerable flagship comedy saved its feature-length effort for nearly 18 years, long past the expiration dates for such franchise milestones as “quick cash-in” and “sophomore slump ratings boost.” Think about that number for a minute. As I write this, there are high school graduates today who have never lived in a time without The Simpsons, and despite the failure of certain wingnuts from the late ’80s and early ’90s to prevent this state of affairs from happening, we have remained a relatively sane and functional society.
Of course, the movie fared ridiculously well in its theatrical release. Its subliminal siren’s call of “come and see your family, only yellow and ridiculous” was irresistible to the generation of completely normal, mild-mannered young citizens who grew up on the stuff. But the DVD release raises the question: As well as The Simpsons Movie worked in its original release, can it work in long-form on a small screen?
Groening and Co. didn’t hedge their creative bets. Where a lesser team would have left abrupt starts and stops in the story to accommodate the commonly-used “movie now, chop into three TV episodes later” cop-out (see also: every animated movie made in the ’80s), The Simpsons Movie has all the size and scope of a real feature. The umpteen-million moviegoers who poured $500-plus million into the film’s theatrical release would probably agree that no matter what The Simpsons Movie is, it definitely isn’t a trumped-up straight-to-video release (not to impugn you, Futurama). This is risky, even when you’re dealing with near-guaranteed hits of Simpsonian proportions. Previous animated-TV-to-movie conversions have been hit-or-miss affairs—for every Beavis and Butthead Do America, there is an Aqua Teen Hunger Force (which I loved all the more because the rest of you didn’t) dragging the average down.
There really is no unexpected twist to the story here. The Simpsons Movie plays on the small screen like a higher-budgeted 90-minute commercial-free TV episode written by a team that has been consistently creating one of the best shows on television for nearly two decades. That is to say, really well. The main differences between the 90-minute feature and its two decades’ worth of 20-minute predecessors amount to issues of timing and aesthetics, and Groening’s team easily tackle them in ways that both fulfill their desire to do something “bigger” with the movie and require no reverse-engineering to fit the new format. The creators’ commentary supports this, as the only real acknowledgments of deviation from the television incarnation are Matt Groening’s repeated iterations of, “And this scene is an example of something we really wanted to do on the show but couldn’t because of restraints on our time/budget/screen-aspect ratio/etc.”
Despite Groening and company’s well-defined sense of humor, with the exception of a relatively-bare set of special features, the joke still isn’t on us. Yet.