“Well, you know what? I’m glad you’re nervous, because that means we’re on the right track!” – Herb Powell
Several weeks ago I came across bobservo’s post about The Simpsons Movie commentary in which he described how the creators of the movie basically focus grouped it into oblivion. There are two commentary tracks on the disc and, having slogged my way through the all-star one (Brooks, Groening, Jean, Castellaneta, etc.), I have to agree with him. The commentary reveals another problem as well, one that resulted from all that focus group feedback, but we’ll get to that in a second. First, the timidity, then the horrible damage it did.
Both The Simpsons and Zombie Simpsons are famous for their lack of network/studio interference; whatever their respective merits, both shows are the product of a group of people who thought A was funny and B was not, the outside damn world be damned. According to the commentary, that famous independence was completely abandoned during the creation of The Simpsons Movie. Rather than the writers writing, the actors acting, the animators animating and letting chips fall where they may, a partially completed version was repeatedly shown to test audiences, and everything was redone based on their reactions. The fickle minds of Sally Housecoat and Eddie Punchclock so terrified the powers that be that they nervously offered up whole new scenes and endings based on the reactions of a few dozen people in Tempe and Portland. For a show that once prided itself on doing what it wanted without interference, this is an unsurpassable capitulation.
The result of all that bowing and scraping is a fractured movie. Scenes and characters were added and removed willy nilly such that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. For example, halfway through the movie the family finds itself basically teleported to a carnival so Homer can ride a motorcycle in a big metal ball. Seconds prior to being at the carnival, they were holed up in a hotel room, hiding from a massive police manhunt. There’s no scene of them traveling to the carnival, nor is any reason given why they would want to go there. They’re in the hotel and then – poof – they’re at the carnival.
While at the carnival, no mention is made of the police chasing them, nor are they at all concerned about being seen by a crowd. The entire story the movie was telling has been dropped so that Homer can ride a motorcycle. Why does Homer ride a motorcycle? Because he rides one at the end and they need to establish that motorcycle riding is something Homer can do. According to the commentary, they originally had no scene to establish that, and they crammed in the carnival as a patch job when somebody noticed. The next time we see the family, the police chase is back on and they’re once again running for their lives as though the carnival scene had never happened.
The commentary is littered with moments like that, where a line was given to a different character or something was removed or added with only minimal regard to what that did to the rest of the movie. Test audiences and rewrites had them so tied up in knots that the script was never finished; things were being taken out and put back right up to the end. This movie feels like a creaking mass of parts barely held together by spit and string because that’s exactly what it is.
Now comes the inevitable “to be sure” statement, and here it is. To be sure, there are good jokes in The Simpsons Movie, some survived the test screenings, fewer were a result of them. But whatever can be said of this movie, good or bad, it was not made the way The Simpsons was made. It was made… tentatively. There was neither confidence nor verve in its creation; the script was passed around and vetted until it resembled refrigerator instructions. There are bits and pieces that work, but taken as a whole it is a jumble, and heaven help you if you try to make sense of it from start to finish. Worst of all, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before: put things inside, make them cold – hit Homer in head, make Tempe laugh.
Commentary #1 has James Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Mike Scully, David Silverman, Dan Castellaneta, Yeardley Smith and Richard Sakai. As if to further prove how slapdash this effort was, Sakai is not listed on the DVD menu as one of the commenters. Maybe he was left off intentionally. Then again, maybe they just didn’t care.
1:20 – First mention of the test screenings, and it’s very revealing. They were talking about what to do with the Itchy & Scratchy opening, and how they expected that as soon as people saw Scratchy they would be clapping and cheering just because they recognized the character. No one slapped their fins together at the first test screening though, and they seem surprised by this. Is it any wonder this show runs on nostalgia fumes? They thought people would cheer out loud just because they saw a character on screen!
1:40 – They’re recording this before the movie came out.
2:20 – This should come as no surprise, the end of the cartoon, with Scratchy getting filled with missiles, came very late in the process.
3:30 – Green Day was coincidental, they just happened to want to be on the show when they were trying to pick a band for the opening. They’re laughing about how they could’ve plugged in any band here.
4:45 – The church sign says “Thou Shalt Turn Off Thy Cell Phone”, the alternate was “Stolen Bible Amnesty Day”.
5:45 – First time pausing the movie. Ugh, this is going to go on for a while. Marge was originally going to be the one spazzing out in church, not Grampa.
8:15 – Discussing how widescreen means they can cram more stuff into the background. This reminds me of nothing so much as “Phantom Menace” when the fact that every shot had a bunch of crazy crap going on in the background was considered an unalloyed good.
9:00 – Someone compliments Castellaneta on his performance of Grampa speaking in tongues. Castellaneta seems taken by surprise, I don’t think he was paying attention.
9:30 – The scene in the car with Grampa in the rug was endlessly rewritten.
10:45 – As Homer and Bart are on the roof, someone says “With this movie, for better or worse, everything done is crucial. Everything is either setting up a joke, paying off a joke, or giving you information you have to have.” That seems a rather grand assessment.
11:45 – They’re very pleased with themselves for having Homer fall through the roof instead of off the roof. Truly, creative genius at work.
12:30 – More about how many rewrites they had to go through, this time in regards to the scene with Lisa going door to door.
12:45 – Continuing in the same vein, they initially had Lisa and Milhouse getting together, but test audiences weren’t familiar with Milhouse’s longstanding crush on her.
13:45 – A lot of things changed between the test screenings in Portland and Phoenix.
14:25 – Discussing the little banner at the bottom of the screen to advertise a fake FOX show, they originally had it a bit crueler, “What are you going to do, entertain yourselves? Don’t make us laugh.” But that got shot down. At least one person here, I can’t tell who, sounded a little mournful about that getting bumped for safer material, “I was hoping to take a chance with it.”
15:15 – Very pleased with themselves for managing to show Bart’s dick.
16:25 – Still laughing at how cool they were for keeping in the nudity. Nevermind that Bart is handcuffed to a pole for some reason.
16:35 – Rewrote the whole handcuffed to the pole scene after the original “didn’t work”.
17:15 – Now Bart’s getting humiliated in the restaurant and they’re going on and on about how they toned this down. In the original, Homer was even less likable here. Test audiences to the rescue!
17:45 – Apparently it was a lot “coarser” originally and just kept getting toned down.
18:30 – They went through lots of designs on the pig. I’m sensing a pattern here.
19:00 – Yeardley Smith just showed up.
20:10 – Al Jean (I think, might be someone else) is talking about how this schmaltz (he uses the words “sweet and deep”) with Bart looking enviously into the Flanders house while Homer cuddles the pig is his favorite scene. Someone else then cracks that it’s a good time to go for popcorn. First time I’ve laughed.
21:20 – Homer getting electrocuted while biting the fish survived years of rewrites.
21:45 – Test audiences love Flanders cocoa preparation.
22:00 – Spider-pig was a late entry.
25:00 – Apparently both David Silverman and Richard Sakai left. I, uh, didn’t notice.
25:10 – The computer animation technology they used was very new. They didn’t think that even a few years ago they could’ve done as many rewrites after test audience reactions. They used Wacom Cintiq tablets to do quick story reels, which were brand new at the time. Here’s a YouTube.
26:30 – Discussing the silo, they had long arguments about how many euphemisms for “shit” they could come up with and whether or not they could call it “crap”.
27:30 – As Homer drives up to the lake to dump the silo, there are a bunch of signs that say “No Dumping”, and one with Hans Moleman saying “You Suck”. They had a lot of other signs there, but they all got dropped. No explanation is given, but I choose to chalk it up to continued desire to make this as bland (and profitable) as possible.
28:30 – Talking about the squirrel with all the eyes, originally there were lots and lots of creatures, but audiences didn’t know what was happening at the end, and so they dropped it. Hence, the “thousand eyes” thing from Grampa’s rant doesn’t work.
29:45 – Went through a lot of designs for Russ Cargill (a/k/a Not Hank Scorpio), to the point that Burger King had the wrong design made into toys.
31:15 – They stopped playback at the point where the dome is coming down and the church people run to Moe’s and the Moe’s people run to church. According to them this was one of their favorite jokes, they all loved it, and yet they were going to ax it until, you guessed it, one test audience finally laughed at it.
31:45 – We’re still paused here and this deserves some more attention. They had to make the sign at Moe’s say “Moe’s Bar” instead of just “Moe’s”. There’s some crosstalk, but you can hear Jean (again, I think it’s him, not sure) in the background saying that they did that in case people didn’t know what “Moe’s” was. That ought to tell you everything you need to know about the mentality behind this production. They’ve dumbed it down to the lowest possible level out of what can be roughly described as total audience paranoia.
32:00 – Now comes the obligatory, “The church isn’t next to bar!” rag on the “die hard” fans who won’t like that. It goes on for thirty seconds and someone even mentions No Homers.
32:35 – Getting into more of the cut jokes, as the dome is coming down they originally wanted Burns to pop in and say that at this point you can no longer get your money back. They were afraid people might not realize that it’s a joke and actually ask for their money back. Wow.
33:10 – Mildly interesting trivia point: Edward Norton came in and did a Woody Allen impression for the guy who gets crushed by the dome, but they dropped that too.
34:15 – The dome has come down, and they’re aware of how much pointless exposition they now have to get through. But putting the screen in the dome made it “interesting” enough, according to them.
34:45 – The “trapped like carrots” line was a Swartzwelder joke that lasted from the first draft.
36:00 – They had some writers from the show come in late and do a lot of the lines for Albert Brooks. They’re the ones listed as consultants after the credits.
37:20 – Talking about all the writers who aren’t here for the commentary. Meanwhile, the crap silo is being lifted and the movie is steadily getting worse. Long silence.
39:00 – Talking about how tough the big crowd shot was to do. Needless to say, they cut jokes about three times after the audiences didn’t laugh.
40:15 – The scene with the arms breaking through the door was a late entry as well because they “could never get a great joke for these arms coming through”. Oh, we know.
40:45 – As the Simpsons are being driven out of their home and are fleeing over the wooden board to Flanders’ house, there is much discussion about how things were changed even after the animation was done, and how they had to keep at it because a lot of the jokes just didn’t work.
41:20 – “I just love Marge’s hair burning like a q-tip, and she calmly shakes it off.”
41:30 – Odd discussion about how they didn’t want to make Homer too much of a jerk. Huh? This is him not being too much of a jerk?
42:30 – The treehouse scene was actually worse in earlier drafts where they had lots of other things going back and forth during the mob scene.
43:10 – They were surprised the censors let Homer use his middle fingers. That was one of the few things I actually laughed at in the theater.
44:50 – The little moment that Lisa and Colin share was originally Bart and Flanders with Bart mooning the dome and it turning into a heart shape. But people thought it was weird. The test audiences may not have been a bad idea after all.
45:50 – The “gone mad with power” joke, which is maybe the best line in the whole movie, is the one they used to test the foreign language auditions for Not Hank Scorpio.
46:30 – The two policemen kissing and falling into the hotel got cut in Singapore. Now you know.
47:25 – The motel scene, as Marge and Lisa and Maggie are scolding Homer, was rewritten more than almost anything. Despite that it still ended up “burdened with a ton of exposition that has to get in.” Alaska wasn’t even in the movie for the first two years of the script.
48:30 – “The original idea was that Homer wanted to go to Homer, Alaska.” It’s really getting weird on the commentary, they’re recounting all the different rewrites and dead end ideas they eventually discarded or worked into the movie. I think they can tell they kinda went off the rails and this list of justifications just reinforces that.
49:45 – And – wham! – we’re at a carnival where Homer is going to ride a motorcycle for some reason. The list of equally terrible alternatives continues, at one point they were going to be on some kind of clown try out show. No wonder this film feels like disjointed nonsense, that’s how it was put together.
50:30 – “The lesson of editing this film was definitely getting from point to point quickly, and not laboring, and not making it look like a new film was starting.” Let’s consider that comment, they realize that they have a bunch of unrelated scenes that have nothing to do with one another. Instead of trying to justify them or weave them into a coherent story, their solution was to jump from one unrelated thing to another as fast as possible.
50:55 – The whole carnival scene was kept in because originally they hadn’t set up that Homer could ride a motorcycle, which they needed him to do at the end. For a while they didn’t have any set up for their ending.
51:30 – The scene at Moe’s where every thing gets stolen was another late, unrelated addition.
52:00 – The drawn out joke where Marge doesn’t want the attendant to see the wanted poster comes in for some heavy, preemptive defense here. This was, I think, not a unanimous winner among the writers.
52:40 – The cut to Burns house leads to another round of “Oh this scene was a pain!” and how they didn’t have anything that really worked. Some of these really feel less like explanations than justifications.
53:30 – Talk of which stuff is computer animated and which isn’t.
54:00 – They really had a bug up their ass to send the family to Alaska, and they went back and forth a ton on why they were there.
55:15 – The whole point of the long, drawn out throwaway avalanche scene was to get Bart and Lisa out of the house so they could have a sex scene. These guys can’t write their way around a problem in less than thirty seconds of screen time.
57:15 – After a long discussion of how they had a hard time coming up with a reason for the people in Springfield to riot against the dome (really? they riot all the time), they decided that the audience would be really focused on the family. That lead to this damning self indictment, “We really wanted to write this movie for people who weren’t that familiar with the Simpsons.” Which prompts someone else to reply, “We found out we got no free laugh when a character said, ‘Oh that’s that character, it’s good to see them in the movie’.”
In those two sentences lies the root of why this movie sucks. They wrote a movie that didn’t try to appeal to fans because their earlier attempts to appeal to fans fell flat. Why did those efforts fail? Because they were using single test audiences whose main sin appears to be not laughing uproariously when a known character simply appeared on screen.
58:00 – Silence as the plot to blow up Springfield commences in the President’s office.
58:40 – They selected Tom Hanks because they thought he was the most trusted celebrity in America.
59:30 – Pretty much ignoring Homer’s freakout and Bart’s taunting of him and talking about the background animation.
60:15 – They actually think they’re keeping Homer from being a jerk as he walks out on his family.
61:10 – At one point they had Homer riding a moose. Like you do.
61:40 – Kavner had to do a ton of takes for Marge’s videotaped farewell to Homer before they finally decided that she nailed it.
63:20 – We’ve paused again as Homer floats away on the iceberg. Castellaneta describes doing Homer’s voice nowadays as “physically exhausting” because there’s so many emotional changes and “lots of yelling”. He should have some pull with the writing staff by now, maybe he could do us all a favor and see if he can get them to make Homer yell less.
64:20 – Castellaneta’s still talking, this sounds like Behind the Actors studio (such a pleasure to work with X and Y). Somewhere, the disembodied spirit of James Lipton is smiling.
64:30 – Yeardley Smith chimes in with this interesting little factoid. She’s talking about how recording this was like the early years of the show when it would take about eight hours to get all the voices recorded; now they’ve got it down to about four.
65:30 – Smith’s going on about putting emotion into cartoons and what a great character Lisa is. Meanwhile, the movie is still paused which means we’re not advancing towards the end at all.
66:15 – Right after discussing how improbable it is that Marge would ever leave Homer, they talk about how they were really going for a gut slamming moment with this breakup. Nobody noticed that those two statements are contradictory. Also, movie still on pause.
66:40 – Oh hell, the seconds are going slow, literally. While it’s on pause like this the timer is moving at about one half speed, which means this pause hasn’t been three minutes, it’s been more like six. C’mon, unpause . . . unpause . . .
67:00 – They’re just filling time now, except that there’s no need to because it’s paused. All they’re doing now is congratulating one another.
67:30 – I keep expecting this to end, and it keeps not ending.
67:40 – Thank fuck, we’re moving again.
68:00 – As the polar bear menaces Homer for no reason, they’re discussing how the upcoming “epiphany” scene is one of the “biggest problems” in the movie, “audiences had a hard time with it, we had a hard time with it”.
68:40 – They were thinking about cutting the epiphany scene, but they didn’t think it felt “thick enough” without it. Translation: even when we don’t have a set amount of time to fill, we use filler. Hans Zimmer, the composer, had to tell them that Homer was already trying to find his family when he left the cabin. In other words, they had constructed a story so poorly that they needed the soundtrack guy to tell them where their plot holes were.
69:15 – Still defending the inclusion of the epiphany scene.
70:20 – Talking about yelling as things get worse on screen.
71:05 – More help from Zimmer as they thought the hallucination was too scary until he made up the orchestral arrangement of the Spider-Pig song for them.
71:20 – You can detect hints of shame as the hallucination rolls on, they’re speaking awfully defensively, especially given the fact that no one in the room is being critical.
71:40 – After Homer gets dismembered, including an “Ouch, My Balls” moment, there’s this: “Every crude physical joke, played great.” So, they know this scene sucks, but they think hitting Homer in the balls makes it okay. Remember, this took years to develop.
72:50 – After Homer runs out of the tent, they used to have the medicine woman saying “I will bill your HMO” or “How come they all think I work for free?”, but they never got a big enough laugh so it got cut. The testicle hit though, that stayed in.
73:35 – The dogs attacking Homer stayed in from the beginning.
75:00 – Rather than discuss the pointlessness of having Homer get lost again, they’re talking about more things that didn’t test well and got cut.
76:00 – The wrecking ball was in there from the beginning, someone even calls it a “classic coyote shot” and “Chuck Jones 101”. I’d call it Remedial Chuck Jones 1a on account of the coyote always got hurt in quick and inventive ways whereas this wrecking ball is the same joke over and over and over.
77:00 – Changed the backgrounds of the town so it doesn’t look as bad in response to – guess what – audience testing.
78:00 – A couple more concepts that didn’t make it past the test audiences.
79:00 – More discussion of things that didn’t please test audiences and now aren’t here.
79:50 – Having Homer write his plan down on a leaf was used to “re-establish story”, whatever that means.
81:10 – Cletus distracting Not Hank Scorpio was, just like so many other things, a late substitution. It used to be Lenny.
82:00 – Now that we’re back to the dome, there’s a lot of talk about the large backgrounds in a lot of shots.
82:30 – Homer kicking the bomb so the timer goes faster was in there from the beginning, unlike so much else, it tested well.
83:30 – Talking about how much of Bart’s personality they could retain while he’s with Flanders. They had him “de-Barted” to a greater extent earlier.
83:50 – Mildly interesting note, they were nervous about the police bomb robot killing itself because there was that Super Bowl commercial with the suicidal robot that pissed off the anti-suicide people.
84:15 – “Once again, Homer’s gonna get hit in the head”, followed by polite chuckles.
84:40 – They didn’t know how much people needed to be reminded of the whole carnival/motorcycle thing. I can’t imagine why people would have forgotten a throw away scene that had nothing to do with anything that was about seventeen such scenes ago.
85:15 – They weren’t sure how to get Homer and Bart to reconcile, and they ended up doing it the way they did because Hans Zimmer wrote a musical cue that they liked. Zimmer sounds like he should’ve gotten story credit at this point.
86:30 – Martin getting his revenge was in from the beginning.
86:50 – They were nervous as to whether or not people were going to buy the whole “riding the motorcycle upside down and hanging on by the hair” thing, but ultimately they figured they’d done so much already that people wouldn’t care.
88:15 – Originally they were going to be chased down the dome by the bomb, but they thought the cracking dome made “more logical sense”. They actually said that.
89:30 – Originally they weren’t going to have Not Hank Scorpio confront Homer, but then “Matt” (not sure if it’s Groening or Selman or someone else) pointed out that, yeah, you might want to have the hero confront the villain.
90:15 – After Maggie saves them, they laugh about how she just wanders off instead of being taken by Bart and Homer. Originally it was going to be President Schwarzenegger, now it’s Maggie. I’ve lost count of variations on “this was character X, but then we changed it to character Y”.
91:00 – Yeardley Smith improvised the line about Lisa’s had being sweaty. I like that line.
91:30 – As they’re all celebrating, originally they were going to have Grampa come up and says, “I never thought I’d be happy to say these words, but . . . my son.”
92:50 – Homer falls off the roof to end the movie and someone, I think it’s Castellaneta, jokes “You could see it coming from two hours away.”
93:30 – As the credits roll, Smith jokes about “sequel” being Maggie’s first word, which prompts lots of joking around about how it’s not important that she already had her first word fifteen years ago. Do people really care about that?
96:00 – They’re still hanging out during the credits, talking about animators and editors and generally congratulating each other. I’m done.