The funniest part of The Simpsons movie may be the opening, when frustrated father Homer Simpson groans over watching a movie that is essentially a big screen version of what you can see at home on TV. This self-awareness sets up the movie nicely, also setting the level of expectation one should have watching a movie that has been on for over eighteen years and can be found in syndication everywhere.
What do we expect when the longest running prime-time animated sitcom of all time finally has a story on the big screen? Even in Entertainment Weekly, Writer/Producer Mike Scully admits “Story-wise, character-wise, joke-wise…after 400 episodes, we feel like not only have we done it all, we’ve done it all three times, and the audience has been very kind not to notice.”
Inept father Homer will screw up and learn a lesson (he will forget by next episode). Marge will be firm, but steadfast and dutiful. Lisa will be a know-it-all, and Bart will misbehave. Mr. Burns will release the hounds, and the list goes on… we know the drill, and still laugh after a couple decades and a few weak seasons. At this point, The Simpsons movie is incapable of offering anything original, save for slightly higher quality animation around familiar themes. This is the cinematic equivalent of a comfortable pair of slippers, a cel-shaded family reunion, familiarity as fun.
With that in mind, The Simpsons Movie delivers beautifully. Inane situations coalesce into a plot; Homer adopts a pig, but dumps the porker’s waste in the already dangerously polluted Lake Springfield, pushing it to toxic levels that lead a sinister EPA Executive to seal all of Springfield in a giant dome, dooming its residents. It’s up to the escaped and fugitive Simpson family to save the town… but Homer wants them to start a new life in Alaska instead. The city is in danger; the situation tests Homer and Marge’s marriage. Lisa complains about the ecological impact. Bart misbehaves. Has it been done? Yep. Did the audience invariably laugh at Homer’s rendition of “Spider-pig”, even though it’s in every trailer? Without question. Like a donut from Lard Lad, The Simpsons Movie is cinematic comfort food.
Although the movie, like the show, pokes fun at faith (Homer flips quickly through the Bible while his father is having a prophetic vision or seizure, concluding that “this book doesn’t have any answers!) it set the trend of actually depicting a family and community that actually DEALS with it. In his book The Gospel According to The Simpsons, Mark Pinsky pointed out that “90 percent of Americans pray, and 75 percent pray on a daily basis… that reality is rarely evident in other series or prime-time television.” In a study of prime time TV, “fewer than 6 percent of 1,462 characters had a recognizable relgious affiliation. Through this fiction… religion is ‘deligitimized’ by television.”
Until recently, as more films and programs have begun to depict aspects of belief in – and existence of – God, faith and theology were portrayed as non-issues; if art is supposed to reflect life, very few television shows – and films – portray this accurately in the ratio of their characters. In the late 80s and 90s, The Simpsons sitcom was a rare exception. Its willingness to take jabs not only at Christians, but to also parody Hindiusm, Buddhism, and athiesm (with several hilarious pokes at Unitarians) may have helped pave the way for film and television more willing to deal with this aspect of our lives through fiction and narrative.
It may no longer be groundbreaking, but The Simpsons has established a firm foundation. Sadly for Homer, the same cannot be said of his roof.