Why is The Simpsons Movie so forgettable? You and I both know the answer if you and I are the same age. The Simpsons started in 1989, for heaven’s sake! There was never an ice-cube’s chance in hell of its movie spin-off being memorable after the better part of twenty years. But still, we hoped. We remembered laughing ourselves hoarse the first time we watched Homer try to jump Springfield Gorge on a skateboard (and miss). We remembered the question (true or false?): “You can get mono from riding the monorail.” Or maybe it was the time Marge served a three-eyed fish to Mr Burns. You and I have a thousand fond memories of the salad days of the TV show – that’s why we regret it when I’m forced to write a bad review.
When The Simpsons began it was not good. That took time. The best of the show probably began somewhere round the third season – once the writers’ had found their feet and Dan Castellaneta had worked out how to do Homers’ voice (not Walter Matthau with a headcold). Once those guys knew what they were doing there was no stopping them. They wrote great parts for Albert Brooks and Danny DeVito, gave Michael Jackson a soul and showed that American comedy was the best in the world (full disclosure: I’m British – so that comes from someone who knows wit in his bones). What made the show great was that it was a cartoon that didn’t behave like a cartoon. This has been so comprehensively forgotten in the years since Matt Groening left that you’d scarcely believe it to look at the show now. But the Simpsons were best when you believed in them as a family – when the writers’ wrote dialogue for bug-eyed, yellow cartoon characters that put live-action shows to shame. And better than that – not only did they give them souls; they spared the audience from sanctimony. Never once did they make the Roseanne mistake of sacrificing laughs for an issue of the week. The Simpsons in its heyday had its sights set on what would always be funny. They weren’t desperate to follow trends or to book big names or to pander to their audience. The difference is that The Simpsons used to feel like it was written by Ben Hecht and I.A.L. Diamond, now it feels like it’s written by Joss Whedon (no disrespect, but no-one’s going to be watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer 50 years from now either).
The Simpsons Movie is a waste of time because it was made twenty years too late. Good comedy doesn’t date, but any good source of comedy can only last so long. Watching the movie is a nostalgic experience, but that’s what’s wrong – comedy should be unexpected. The best this movie can do half the time is re-hash old jokes or have the characters say something they wouldn’t be allowed to stay on TV. But this only puts the spotlight on the dearth of ideas that spawned this feeble enterprise. The Simpsons Movie isn’t written (as the early shows were written) to create something new, or better an existing template; it’s written to revive interest in a comatose TV series, and to prop-up DVD sales and sell a new computer game to the ’tweens. Fine, fine, and fine – if you’re a shareholder. But if you loved the show – steer clear. Anyone who tells you this is one of the best movies of the year must not have been around when The Simpsons first started. This is the Buddy Buddy of Billy Wilder movies – the last gasp – funny maybe, but sad too. There was a time when you and I never missed an episode of The Simpsons. You owe it to yourself to miss this – and keep your fond memories well preserved.