D'Oh or Don't Worry? The Simpsons and American Animation

Twenty years, three decades and four presidents in the making, The Simpsons Movie is finally coming out on July 27th. From its beginnings as an update of The Honeymooners (like The Flintstones, All in the Family, and so much more), The Simpsons has become the most influential television show of its generation, and on a short list of the best ever. And while its quality has been on a decline, frankly, for at least a decade, the show has probably had more high points, more quotable lines, and more great episodes than any other television show. Its children are everywhere, both direct descendants like The Critic, King of the Hill, and Futurama, and spiritual children like South Park and Family Guy. It's been a hell of a ride. We'll see if the movie can live up to the history.

The Simpsons' TV success, as a prime-time animated sitcom aimed at teenagers and adults, is part of a strange phenomenon in American animation. While television cartoons can be aimed either at kids or at grown-ups (think David the Gnome versus Stripperella), animated movies are nearly always marketed to children. Recently, the divide has crystallized into a visual dichotomy. Nowadays, almost all big-screen animation is computer-animated and three-dimensional, while the majority of television animation is still two-dimensional. However, the new computer-animated kids' movies suffer from the same creative bankruptcy that plagued their immediate hand-drawn predecessors, mediocre to dreadful stuff like Return to Neverland, Treasure Planet, and Home on the Range, whose lack of box office success all but killed the art form on the big screen. But the technology has permitted the corporate suits to wrap the same tired product into a shinier package and rake in enough dough to justify yet another sequel.

Modern children's movies balance cheap scatological humor and faux-hip dialogue for the youngsters (sample dialogue from Shrek 3: "Sleeping Beauty: Who dat?") with puns, product placements, and hoary pop soundtracks for the kids' baby-boom parents, talking out of both sides of the script to each half of the audience, subtly endorsing an idea that nothing a kid would like could appeal to an adult. This smarmy instinct (which Disney, rest his anti-Semitic soul, would abhor) has resulted in a numbing march of slick, computer-animated talking-animal and fractured fairytale rehashes that swipe jokes from each other and fully appeal to no one -- like Antz, The Ant Bully, Barnyard, Ice Age and its sequels, Madagascar, Over the Hedge, Racing Stripes, Shark Tale, Valiant, Happily N'Ever After, Hoodwinked, and the unending Shrek series. Small wonder the movies are so hard to swallow: as critic David T. Lindsay points out, "I am unable to think of anything that's inappropriate for a kid to watch that's not just as inappropriate for adults."

The sole American animated exceptions to this parade of horribles have all been made by Pixar, the CGI studio with the Midas touch. At the same time that Japanese anime has increased in visibility, ubiquity, and cache, Pixar has become just about the only domestic exponent of serious animation. Suitably hip and techno-savvy from being owned by Steve Jobs (and once a tiny jewel of the LucasFilm empire), they've assembled a stable of Disney veterans who have done nothing but create classics for a new generation, combining the maniacal humor of Bugs Bunny, the beauty and pathos of Disney, and, yes, the genre-busting ingenuity of the Simpsons. Small wonder, given the sensibility, that their movies The Incredibles and Ratatouille were directed by Brad Bird, a Disney veteran and member of the founding braintrust of The Simpsons (and later of The Critic and King of the Hill). Bird also directed one of the last great American two-dimensional movies, the woefully little-seen The Iron Giant, which he made at Warner Brothers literally as the studio was dismantling its animation department.

So why should the disappearance of hand-drawn animation from the big screen be mourned? The historic influence of American animation is impossible to overstate, which is why its decline has been so hard to swallow. Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny have informed directors from Sergei Eisenstein to Blake Edwards, Hayao Miyazaki to Jerry Zucker, and their cartoons stand, like Shakespeare, both as the most influential work in their medium and as its pinnacle. The Simpsons Movie will be the first major American two-dimensional animated film to hit the big screen in several years, and it is significant as a continuation of that tradition. Fortunately, while the animation departments at Walt Disney and Warner Brothers have flagged in recent years, the elders of Pixar have arisen to take their place. Though their movies are three-dimensional, they connect to the old tradition, and create a last bulwark against the encroaching forces of cheap pandering crap. They make movies that everyone can enjoy, and all comers enjoy them for all the same reasons: they tell compelling stories with interesting characters, and the humor is timeless, neither topical nor condescending. Within each Pixar film (except for Cars, the lone misstep) is a transcendent moment where your eyes widen, your smile broadens, the screen disappears, and you get taken away. And, well, that's why we go to the movies in the first place. The Simpsons have had more than a few small-screen moments like that themselves, though not in many years. If we're lucky, they'll be able to rediscover their magic on the big screen. It's hard to know the chances they'll succeed, but they do have one thing in their favor: at least the main characters aren't talking animals.