The Front Page: We are Curious…Yellow!

[22 July 2007]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Finally, in five days, we’ll know. After 18 seasons, almost as many years, and over 400 fabulous episodes, fans and the curious alike will learn if The Simpsons can make the translation to the big screen. It’s been a long hard road for America’s favorite family, one that began back with a classic Christmas Special in 1989. Of course, true believers have followed the adventures of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie since their inception as bumper material for Tracey Ullman’s variety/sketch show. Back then, Matt Groening was an underground cartoonist whose Life in Hell panel effort drew on the more acerbic, cynical side of humor. Indeed, no one really thought his brand of pop culture deconstruction would work. Now, two decades later, he’s built an empire that stands as one of the most popular – and profitable – in all of broadcast television.

Oddly enough, a movie version of the show has been brewing as far back as the third season. About that time, The Simpsons went from cult concern to full blown phenomenon, and Fox was anxious to do what networks do best – cash in. The creative team behind the show – Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon – was approached about a celluloid version, yet negotiations broke down almost immediately. The reason? The trio wanted the ability to develop a script, and yet reject any possible production if they felt the results would be no good. The studio balked, and that has been the basic reason why the familiar faces living on Evergreen Terrace have, until now, been a boob tube only enterprise. Aided by other minor issues – talent contracts, behind the scenes staff drama – the whole “play and pass” facet of the agreement kept The Simpsons Movie dormant.

Then a major announcement came in the Summer of 2006. Apparently, after years of speculation and numerous rumors surrounding possible storylines and release dates, a full fledged Simpsons film was finally in the works. The opening was set – 27 July, 2007 - and a teaser was offered, featuring Homer cluelessly wondering what he was supposed to do next. It got the devotees nice and worked up. As the newest version of the old employee’s water cooler – the Internet – went ballistic over casting (which guest stars, if any, would make an appearance) and potential plots (Marge and Homer spilt! Bart becomes a movie star!), the team behind the series started gathering together its crew. As the months moved along, the buzz built and died, each new version of the slick scattered trailer bringing new questions (what’s with all the nuclear warheads???) and quotables (Spider Pig…Spider Pig…) to the discussion.

And yet, amazingly enough, Fox has managed the unthinkable. Somehow, in a domain that loves to have its efforts leaked to maximize publicity and exaggerate hype, The Simpsons Movie’s main ingredient – the storyline – has yet to be revealed. Even J. K. Rowling couldn’t keep her pleaded for embargo in place until Harry Potter 7 hit bookstores on 21 July. Yet in the recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, a first tidbit about the narrative has been exposed. According to the magazine, the plot revolves around Homer adopting a pig. Having a hard time dealing with the waste, he dumps the hog sewage in nearby Lake Springfield as a solution. The resulting natural disaster (???) threatens the town, and as a result, the entire planet. Thus – extrapolated out from the trailer – the whole town moves, the government gets involved in solving the pollution problem, and everyone learns a lesson about the environment and ecology. Maybe.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that, as a big screen project, The Simpsons Movie will be an opening weekend wonder. Everyone, from the faithful to the dejected, the still supporting to the long since forgotten will queue up to see what’s become of the yellow brood with the nonstop support of the entire encyclopedia of pop culture. One things for sure – they won’t have critics to guide them. Fox has taken the unfathomably cautious steps of having their sole press screenings either the Tuesday before release (therefore thwarting many print publication deadlines) or Thursday, one day before opening. This latter move was meant to keep the online community, capable of releasing their thoughts within hours of viewing, from supposedly spoiling the film. While some have questioned the marketing savvy of such a strategy, the studio feels it is being reasonable. It’s a battle – and a story - best saved for another day.

No, the focus here remains The Simpsons, and the question over whether a series some feel has ‘jumped the shark’ (to use an equally overdone phrase) can remain a viable cinematic experience. The war between the “rules” and “drools”, the “sucks” and “rocks” has raged on newsgroups and messageboards for years. Those who still adore the show have played apologist and acolyte, while others who felt the show lost its edge somewhere in the middle of Bill Clinton’s first term in the White House have argued for its quick and painless cancellation. As animation tastes have varied from King of the Hill to Family Guy, South Park to Aqua Teen Hunger Force, it’s clear the film has its work cut out for it. In fact, these latter two examples provide the perfect illustration of what can go right, and very wrong, when bringing an established TV toon to the cinema.

On the plus side is South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. As part of their deal with Comedy Central and its subsidiary company Viacom (owner of Paramount), series savants Trey Parker and Matt Stone were required to come up with a big screen version of their corrupt kiddie cartoon – a nice little knock-off in the vein of Beavis and Butthead Do America, meant to maintain product placement while hopefully maximizing market share. Of course, what no one could have expected was the raging genius inside Parker and Stone’s twisted brains. They didn’t want to settle for something cold and familiar. They wanted to expand the South Park concept while bringing in familiar facets that viewers of the show would easily recognize. So what was meant as a minor effort, a way of bringing both the TV series and the film fanbase into a kind of symbolic synergy, ended up as one of the best, brightest, and ballsiest comedies of the last 20 years. From its free speech mantra to memorable musical numbers, the South Park film remains a pen and ink masterpiece.

And then there’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie for Theaters. Now, it’s obvious to anyone whose ever seen this strangely surreal Adult Swim offering (part of the Cartoon Network’s overnight programming) that ATHF is an acquired taste – kind of like caviar dipped in depilatory cream. The show features a talking mensch milkshake, a science oriented order of French fries, and a childlike wad of meat. Supposedly set up for fighting crime and solving mysteries, the Aqua Teen team really does little except argue and abuse each other. They’re like the Three Stooges on donkey tranquilizers or a middle schoolers imagination on a Ritalin and Slurpee bender. Each 10 minute installment is jammed packed with non-sequitors, inside jokes, running gags, and crude characterization, and no matter how funny these episodes can be, expanding them by eight into a standard mainstream movie running time seemed antithetical to what the series stood for. It’s a short attention span show.

Yet that’s exactly what Aqua Teen did. Thanks to a failed street beat publicity campaign that had the citizens of Boston seeing Al-Qaeda instead of animated characters, and a critical response that was less than impressed, the movie blew in and out of theaters in less than two weeks. Instead of expanding the name brand value beyond its limited late night demographic, the failure of the film proved that not every cartoon cavalcade can make the jump to celluloid. While The Simpsons is light years away from Aqua Teen in reputation and recognition, there is still that unhappy faction who would probably be happy if the movie failed to live up to its lofty, laugh riot ambitions. In fact, it’s safe to say that as many people are pulling for Groening and the gang to succeed as are hoping they crash and burn like the series ruining bastards that they are.

From what we know (and that’s still very little) there are signs that point to both possibilities. Many of the people involved in the show’s heralded past – Brooks, Al Jean, John Schwartzwelder, etc – are back to work on the film. Reports have them going over gags dozens of times to make sure they are polished and potent. In addition, the flat look of TV animation has been replaced by a combination of CGI (for big effects set pieces) and more meticulous and detailed drawing. This gives the characters a new found fullness that many find pleasing. Finally, the previews themselves have been hilarious, a collection of classic jokes with very few of the head scratching asides recent years have offered. Working against it, of course, is the impenetrable veil of secrecy, something that suggests less than excellent results. Tie that into the lack of advanced press screenings (at least ones not limiting a journalist’s ability to report) and the flop sweat appears to be flowing.

In addition, there’s the whole 90 minute time frame. In standard Simpsons terms, that’s the equivalent of four episodes tied together. Even the funniest film made by meticulous comedic craftsman can’t sustain a consistent level of humor for an hour and a half. From recent examples like Knocked Up to past classics like Blazing Saddles, only the most rarefied cinematic satires (the original Producers, for example) can maintain the merriment for the long haul. Granted, South Park managed, but that seems to be the exception that still bends the rule. No, The Simpsons faces having to fill time it never needed to worry about before. Some have even speculated that the film took 18 years to be realized because the writers were hording material during each and every production run. After all this time, they finally had enough quality material to make a movie.

Of course, we’ll have to wait until 27 July to find out. There will be no torrent posted on the web waiting to be downloaded and bootlegged ala SiCKO, and only the most ardent, workaholic critic will have a review ready to post prior to the first legitimate tickets being sold (for our part, SE&L is shooting for Friday at Noon to post its thoughts). If it flies, it could mean more films in a franchise that could go on indefinitely. If it fails, there’s still the TV series, renewed up and through 2008 (and more than likely, even further) to fall back on. Of course, neither outcome will stop the debate. In fact, The Simpsons Movie may even start its own tangential attacks (“they should stick with films”, “the movie ruined the small screen series”). Fox isn’t letting us in on the answer until the moment the credits finally roll. After 18 years, a few more days of waiting doesn’t seem so bad after all. 

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/the-front-page-we-are-curiousyellow/