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(Credits: Far Out / Alamy)

Film

The improbable triumph of 'The Simpsons Movie', 15 years later

“There’s something strange about that ‘Sop’ sign.” Of all the gags that are littered throughout The Simpsons Movie, somehow this is the one that keeps popping into my head 15 years later. I’m sure the same could be said for “Praise Jeebus”, “He’s not Bono!”, “I was elected to lead, not to read”, and the seemingly endless number of jokes that come at lightning speed throughout the succinct 90-minute flick. They are relentless, almost as if there had been two decades of build-up behind each and every irreverent quip.

The idea of turning The Simpsons into a feature-length film had been bandied about ever since the show quickly became a ratings hit after premiering in 1989. Different writers pitched different ideas, some revolving around the iconic Treehouse of Horror Halloween episodes and some expanding the scope of Springfield to create a full-on musical. Maybe something would come to pass when the show reached a break or even, god forbid, ended for good.

Obviously, that never came to pass – by the mid-2000s, The Simpsons was still one of the highest-rated shows on television, not to mention a merchandising goldmine. But pieces for a full-length film began falling into place. 20th Century Fox green-lit the film back in 1997, with the cast being signed on to voice their television counterparts in 2001. From there, work began on the most vital aspect of the movie – the script.

A core team of the show’s most essential voices, including creator Matt Groening, executive producer James L. Brooks, showrunners Al Jean and Mike Scully, and producer Richard Sakai, were tasked with bringing the dysfunctional family to the big screen. They, in turn, drafted some of the show’s most iconic writers, including Mike Reiss, David Mirkin, and Jon Vitti, into the production. Legendary writer John Swartzwelder even came out of retirement to contribute elements to the screenplay.

For years, this team threw new ideas around: Scully wanted Steven Spielberg to be the film’s main villain, while Jean wanted the family to rescue manatees. A number of classic villains, including Sideshow Bob, Han Scorpio, were tagged as potential antagonists, but the writers decided to not restrict themselves to previous storylines and created a new character in Russ Cargill, the power-hungry leader of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Eventually, a number of ideas filtered into the movie’s plot. Lisa goes on an environmental quest while pursuing a young Irish musician; Bart makes a connection with Flanders and questions his own father’s abilities; and Marge attempts to stop the town’s imminent apocalyptic disaster while becoming conflicted over her relationship with her husband. Homer is his clueless self, but he also goes on a journey of self-discovery, aided, at one point, by an impressively-chested Inuit woman.

Essential to pulling all the disparate plot points, gags, and past references together was director David Silverman. With constant revisions being made to the script and over 300 characters from the series being integrated into the film, Silverman not only had to make the film coherent and concise, but he needed to do it in a way that felt true to the show. All told, Silverman was able to hit just about every beat in a tight 90 minutes.

With 18 years of anticipation and expectations, The Simpsons Movie had to face not only stiff competition at the box office but also the scepticism that followed the show itself. The idea that The Simpsons was declining in quality had already been knocking around for years by the time The Simpsons Movie was set to premiere, so had the movie failed, it could very likely have been the force that took down the longest-running animated show of all time.

Instead, The Simpsons Movie was met with both critical acclaim and financial success. Grossing nearly half a billion dollars during its theatrical run, the film was the second-highest traditionally animated movie at the time, behind only The Lion King, a record it still holds to the day.

What’s remarkable is how well the decade-and-a-half-old jokes have aged. Apart from the cognitive dissonance of watching Bart call Disney an “evil corporation” while currently watching the film on Disney+, the only other time that the film seems stuck in 2007 is when Comic Book Guy records Grandpa’s religious experience on a flip phone. Everything else, from the absconding to Alaska to the presidency of Arnold Schwarzenegger to, yes, the “Sop” sign, feel rooted in a kind of timeless comedy vacuum, much like The Simpson family themselves.

As another decade and a half has now passed between the film’s premiere, there’s no better time to revisit why The Simpsons has remained a cultural institution. In a strange twist, The Simpsons Movie is now the perfect entry point for anyone who hasn’t seen the series or just needs to be reminded that the show was, in fact, quite funny. With mile-a-minute gags that haven’t seem to have aged a day, The Simpsons Movie was an unlikely triumph for America’s favourite yellow family.