The Simpsons Movie
PG CERT, 87 MINS
At the Republican National Convention in 1992 George Bush Stu made a pledge to his the "We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make it a lot more Like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons." That year Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton, and The Simpsons has gone on to be the longest-running American sitcom, and the longest-running animated programme ever.
Watching the first feature-length Simpsons movie, out this week, Bush's soundbite seems so distant and old-fashioned that it serves as a shock reminder of how much has changed in the intervening 15 years. For although the Simpsons remain eerily unaltered — never ageing, never changing — the perspectives behind the president's remark have been altered beyond recognition.
First on the list is the idea that watching The Simpsons was somehow bad for children's moral development. It was a cartoon, but the lead characters were not traditional heroes; cynical, knowing and adult, Bart Simpson and his dysfunctional family were shown doing rebellious, questionable things and — shock, horror — were not always punished for them. In 1992 it was considered morally subversive — some American public schools even banned Simpsons merchandise.
Since then children's entertainment has become exponentially more sophisticated and worldly: in comparison to lifelike video games and the internet, with its adult content and spooky online worlds such as Second Life, the idea of children watching The Simpsons on telly on a Saturday afternoon now seems like wholesome family fun.
In terms of moral rectitude, I admit to being disappointed by how faithful to the good-natured television series The Simpsons Movie actually is. The gags are a friendly mixture of cultural references (spoofs of Titanic and Snow White), some well-animated slapstick and some ironic pokes at the audience (Homer. "I can't believe we're actually paying to see something we can see on TV for free!"). The nearest Homer and Bart get to true political incorrectness is playing on rooftops without safety equipment, and the plot punishes Homer good and proper for his selfish deeds.
Even more unrecognisable in this movie is the reputation The Simpsons had in the 1990s as front-line political satire. In fact, the 2007 film is as politically satirical as the television series has ever been, but in comparison to the brutal cartoon South Park, or to postings on websites such as YouTube, its satire now seems soft, half-hearted. The plot touches on the politically "hot" issues of the environment and government encroachment on civil liberties — little Lisa has become an environmental campaigner, and her father's wilful neglect of waste-dumping rules sees President Schwarzenegger impose a glass dome over the town of Springfield — but neither of these issues is tackled head-on. Even the evangelical neighbour is let off lightly (the only hint of hypocrisy being his predilection for luxury hot chocolate), and the subjects of Iraq and Islamic terrorism are almost totally absent.
Personally, I found even 87 minutes too long for such gentle fare. The 24minute television episodes suit the format better (I noticed a dip in the cinema laughter levels after about half an hour), and I reckon the producers know it, too — why else did they hold off doing a movie for so long? The whole project has about it the whiff of a retirement fund for the production team.
As a cashing-in exercise it will work a treat, for the accumulated affection built up towards this yellow family over the last 18 years is a guarantee of success. Commercially, the decision not to reinvent the concept is the right one, as is the nostalgic decision to maintain the basic television-style animation for the feature film. The Simpsons is a warm, good-natured family show that reminds us of how it used to be. You guessed it: i . t LS the Waltons of today.
Which brings me to the most important reason why George Bush's remark would now be inconceivable: instead of the antitype, the dysfunctional Simpsons family now represents the Hollywood ideal. The parents argue, the children tell them where to get off, the baby threatens to attack with a broken glass bottle, and yet they all love each other really. The Simpsons started the "we're dysfunctional and chaotic, but aren't we full of love and isn't that great?" school of Hollywood family, and it has since become the ideal. From Mrs Dozibre to Little Miss Sunshine to TransAmerica, it is not a schmaltzy. happy movie set-up unless the parents are divorced, the son is gay and their love shines through despite blazing rows. The respectable Waltons family are more likely to be the villains.
And you know what? That is The Simpsons's greatest achievement. The stiff Depression-era ideal of the Waltons was dishonest. keeping pain locked away in the realm of the taboo. If Hollywood has since too much elevated the difficult and wacko, it is an error in the right direction: I would rather know about the fundamental quality of a relationship than its model or etiquette. Me? I would be a Simpson over a Walton any day.