Simpsons Did It! Simpsons Did It!

I’ve never really been able to have low expectations for things. Setting myself up for disappointment never mitigates its arrival; instead, it just makes me feel like I should’ve known better than to have wasted my money.

After seeing The Simpsons Movie Sunday night, I can safely say I don’t feel like I wasted my money. The opening Itchy and Scratchy sketch primes the crowd with its excess, and the movie maintains the manic pace through the first act, with gags about church and inter-species sexual confusion, as well as a killer mob scene.

Still, none of those topics tread new ground for the show, which brings up the movie’s biggest weakness: it never really surprises you. Instead of representing an evolution for the series, The Simpsons Movie is an expansion, stretching a familiar concept to three times the length. Marriage in jeopardy because of Homer’s thoughtlessness? Check. Bart chafing under his father’s lack of care? Check (although the drunkenness is a new touch). Lisa swooning over a dreamy foreign activist, implying her character is somehow incomplete without a love interest? Check as well.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest mistake is a plot twist that takes the Simpsons out of Springfield. The city is as much of a character as any of the family members, and all of the scenes set elsewhere drag. For a stretch the movie seems to be just killing time until it can return to Springfield and all the supporting characters that give the series its soul.

Still, it’s hard to think of how the movie could’ve avoided being a disappointment. Over the years, the show’s most fertile ground has been worn down to a few patches of weeds covered with beer cans. All of the most promising scenarios—Homer loses his job, Marge gains a career, they both fret over the state of their marriage, Bart gets into trouble, Lisa can’t fit in—have been done before.

I’ve spent the past week trying to think of new paths the movie could have taken, and the only thing I’ve come up with is having Grandpa Simpson pass away. It’s a little heavy for a comedy, sure, but it’s big enough to justify a movie. All the themes the show likes to examine—family, faith, the indignities of everyday life—could be touched upon as each of the Simpsons mourned in their own way. Abe’s will could inspire a crazy quest or spark a conflict in the town as the citizens argue over what should be done with his money. Most importantly, by confronting Homer with his own mortality, the premise could end up restoring a bit of his dignity.

The other route I can think of is the topical one of having the town devolve into paranoia and back-stabbing in the wake of a supposed terrorist attack, perhaps one sparked by a Bart prank that he fails to take the blame for. Mayor Quimby could use grand speeches about freedom to cover up his womanizing, Chief Wiggum could tap the phones and round up the undesirables, and Mr. Burns could profit from it all. Homer could lead the true believers, Lisa and Bart could round up a resistance, and Marge could try to work within the system to bring the town back to its senses. Each of the those themes has been done before—see Homer the Vigilante, Wild Barts Can’t be Broken, and Itchy & Scratchy & Marge—but it would be a worthy target to take a swing at.

As it is, The Simpsons Movie fails to take any swings outside of its comfort zone. The final product is a fine commercial undertaking, but I was hoping it at least had intentions of being an artistic undertaking as well.

A movie it could have looked to for inspiration is the South Park movie. While that show has largely fallen into headline pimping and libertarianism for ignoramuses, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut took full advantage of the longer format. Trey Parker and Matt Stone worked in their schizer video references, sure, but they also told a full narrative, one poking fun at censorship and offering a prescient look at the ease of misleading Americans into pointless wars.

Parker and Stone had the advantage of working with a show that was at its creative peak. Maybe it was inevitable that after being on the air for eighteen years, the Simpsons didn’t have enough meaningful statements left to fill a movie. As it is, though, it doesn’t seem like they tried very hard to find out.