Is there a family in media who’s persisted quite so much as The Simpsons? Matt Groening’s five-person (and one dog!) family of yellow oddballs has been going on strong since 1989, as long as some of our parents have been married, if not alive altogether. Depending on who you are, time hasn’t entirely been kind to the show, whose 34th season is presumably due to air in a couple of months. And in the case of its first and surprisingly only theatrical film, time has proven how everlasting this show will remain.
The Simpsons Movie released on July 27, 2007, and is a film whose creators basically have the show encoded into their DNA. Directed by longtime episode director David Silverman, its screenplay came from 11 writers, all of them Simpsons vets, including Groening, Mike Scully (showrunner of seasons 9-12), and Al Jean (showrunner for seasons 3, 4, and 13-33, and co-creator of cult classic cartoon The Critic).
The path to this movie was a loooooooong one, with the idea to make a theatrical film said to have been considered early into the show’s run. Multiple ideas were considered back then, from a Treehouse of Horror anthology film to a live-action flick based on the late Phil Hartman’s infomercial actor Troy McClure. The season four episode “Kamp Krusty” was even attempted to become a film, but ultimately, none of those got far for one reason or another. In 1997, 20th Century Fox finally greenlit the film’s production, and the show’s voice cast signed on in 2001. As the series grew over the years, additional staff was hired so that both it and the film could be worked on effectively side-by-side.
For those who either weren’t alive or watching The Simpsons in the mid-2000s, the idea of it becoming a movie was a big deal at the time. It certainly wasn’t the first movie to be based on an animated series, but it was—and possibly still remains—the biggest animated series to make the jump to film. Fellow cartoon juggernauts at the time, Spongebob Squarepants and Powerpuff Girls, both went theatrical, and wound up on complete opposite ends of the box office spectrum: 2002’s Powerpuff Girls Movie was a bomb, while 2004’s Spongebob Squarepants Movie was such a hit that Nickelodeon reversed creator Stephen Hillenburg’s decision to have it serve as the series finale.
When The Simpsons Movie released, it earned itself a $536.4 million global box office, and still stands as the second highest-grossing animated film to use traditional animation, just behind Disney’s The Lion King. (The one people like.) Though it wouldn’t go on to be nominated for an Academy Award, it did win a small handful of awards, including Best Comedy at the British Comedy Awards and Best Animation at the ITV National Movie Awards. And the reviews that liked the movie really liked it, praising it for effectively just being a comfortable, standard episode granted with a bigger budget and longer runtime.
All these years later, it wouldn’t be wrong to view getting a theatrical film as an end goal for Western cartoons to strive towards. It’s not that hard for Japanese animation to get bumped up to a theatrical film, as shonen anime fans are well aware. But it’s still a substantial hurdle that not many cartoons in the west have been able to dream of, much less make happen into reality. Surely, all of us have a cartoon that we wish was big enough to become even bigger with a silver screen adaptation, so we could watch it flex its expanded budget in a theater with our friends and fellow fans. The toons that have made the jump to film have typically done so via streaming or straight to DVD affairs, and though those films can be pretty charming and fun in their own right, getting bumped up to theaters means something substantial.
In this regard, The Simpsons Movie remains unique. Its widespread appeal for both children and adults meant something back in the day, and likely still does now. I enjoyed the Bob’s Burgers when it came out a few months ago, but its existence is a niche one compared to that of the Simpsons. And it’ll likely be the only cartoon to be like this ever again. At the very least, it’s true for Fox’s cartoons: it seems doubtful that King of the Hill will get to the point of a movie if it makes a return, and Family Guy has too much cultural baggage behind it for a hypothetical movie to garner anything more than an “Alright, I guess.”
Movies based on TV shows can serve a dual purpose, whether that’s to provide a (hopeful) new beginning or deliver the kind of spectacle and fun that can only be done if allowed to break that show’s original half-hour runtime. The Simpsons Movie is neither; it’s a victory lap for a brand that has only ever known victory. There was never any real danger of this film being a bomb back then in 2007, it was too much of a cultural fixture, and remains so to this day. A movie was always in the cards, it was just a matter of when. If Fox and Groening hadn’t been so determined to make it happened, Disney probably would’ve not long after the ink dried.
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