Irreverent, hip, path breathing, anti-establishment, perpetually cutting edge - these are just some of the terms that are not usually associated with animation, both on big and small screens, till not so long ago. Disney, which got the art of animation down to a science, ever since "Steamboat Willie" (the first appearance of Mickey Mouse on the screen) captured the minds, hearts and imaginations of young and old alike, half a millennium ago. Since then Disney treaded a very safe ground, transforming various fables, folk-lores and other pieces of fiction from all over the world into easily digestible, kid-friendly potables mixes, as popular and as powerful as the closely guarded chemical concoction that makes up Coca Cola. What Amar Chitra Katha was for the Indian mythologies and folklore was how Disney was (and is) for the animation industry. A lead hero/heroine, a standard wise-cracking sidekick, a powerful villain, a strong soundtrack, and if the recent times are taken into consideration, easily identifiable celebrities, who lend their silken voices to the leads - the Disney formula was just unassailable. The success of Disney stemmed from the family-friendly natured themes that stuck to the core traditional values of life - respect the elders, treat thy fellow beings with compassion, truth always prevails and father knows best. Disney's strict adherence to this tenet brought it as much success in the past, as much it caused it to get into a rut, by refusing to change with the changing times and adapt to the natural societal shift that happens with the change of guard at the dawn of every new generation. However much Pixar, the trendy offshoot of the Disney ideology, is touted to be the heir apparent of the now defunct Disney formula with its trail-blazing innovations in the art of rendering animation, the foundations of Pixar are still firmly rooted in the Disney lot.
The loss of innocence that purportedly happened with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in the 60s, the mistrust in the establishment that grew during the Watergate era of 70s, the meddling of the CIA into the various regimes all over the world dragging the country through unwanted muddle during the 80s, collectively gave rise to the current American looking glass - cynicism, the hallmark of the collective outlook of an entire generation; and with it came the open arms embrace of the dystopic view of every aspect of American life - family, work, government, inter-personal relationships and life, in general. The conditions were ripe for the animation world to catch up to the regular media - the print media that disassociated from the government ever since Nixon's presidency, and the movie media that received a jump start during the 70s. And the result - "The Simpsons", which started as a small sketch of another scintillating program "The Tracy Ullman Show", and later grew into in a separate half an hour spin off of its own, entirely devoted to the dysfunctional aspect of everyday Americana. The patriarchal father figure, who could be termed as a bumbling idiot at best, a doting mother, the only voice of sanity in the household, a wild and rebellious child, the voice of the new generation, his precocious kid sister - a genius trapped in a kid's body, and their forever infant sister, who never grows up and never talks. Terming "The Simpsons" as just another animated show, is to overlook the vast cultural impact it has made over a period of 17 years. The razor edge sharp wit, the biting satire, and the unwitting sarcasm that poured out of hundreds of episodes of "The Simpsons", indicate that, while the mainstream media played safe, sticking to non-controversial subjects, parking their vehicles on the right side of the road, the only show that dared to ask the tough questions, mocking the stereo-types by reveling in them, is one that had yellow colored round characters, sporting funny hair-dos.
It would not be an exaggeration to state that "The Simpsons" became the beacons of the current counter-culture mindset, so much so that it spawned an entirely new brand of its own - one that is steadfastly adopted and faithfully followed in other landmark animation shows such as "Beavis and Butthead", "South Park", and the current animation du jour - "Family Guy". The first sketch of "The Simpsons" might just be one step for the animation character, but it certainly is a great leap for the animation kind.
That said, moving a wildly popular series, that is celebrated as much for its wit as it is for its brevity, to a wider format and a longer time-slot, would have been suicidal, if not for the great efforts of the dozen or so screenwriters, who worked on chisellng down mountains of material to a brilliant shining stone. In the last few years, in terms of challenge, expectations and anticipation, James Cameron's "Titanic" might be the only other movie to come close to the "The Simpsons" - the one movie that everyone prayed to succeed, as history, odds, law of averages and everything in between, seemed to be stacked up against, considering the track record of the talents involved. It was a situation where only the extremes mattered - either it was a resounding success or it was a colossal failure. There was no middle-ground. Almost every trivial piece of "The Simpsons" history is a part of the American lore; every character, every move, every mannerism, every trademark catch phrase, got etched in the public minds so much so that the trademarks defined the characters, than it should be the other way around. Simpsons' stomping grounds, Springfield, Illinois, is littered with thousands of cross-cultural, self-referential references, that it is just practically impossible for any story or idea to incorporate them all, wrap a bow tie around the package, and hand it to the world that has been eagerly waiting for it for more than a decade. On the top of it, since the seventeen years or so, Simpsons have dealt with all major/minor political, social, religious and cultural issue, that nudged the society one way or another. Abortion, sexual orientation, campaign contributions, role of gays in the military, female empowerment - Simpsons had been there, Simpsons had done all that.
It is not so much as the quality of the end product (that is just fantastic anyway) that needs to be appreciated, but the audacity of the makers to take the challenge head on, and come up with an idea that is both topical and contemporary and yet had enough twine to string together as many faces and as many trademarks possible, is what is the true highlight of "The Simpsons".
Homer falls in love with a pig - and the idea snowballs from there on, sometimes, quite literally. "The Simpsons" is nothing without the social relevancy of its idea. To tackle the growing concern about polluting the environment, the writers found themselves in familiar territory, one they had been constantly ascribing to Lisa's already long list of virtues. An avowed vegetarian, a tree-hugging green-nut peacenik, Lisa Simpson is the voice of that is good and virtuous about the world (apart from Mr.Flanders, if one can discount his hard leaning towards the literal truths of The Good Book). And to center the movie on Lisa's pet project, provides the cruelly cynical world of "The Simpsons", the much needed humanity. Once the emotional center and the core idea are set, the wordsmiths set about expanding the idea, to include as many known faces as possible, recruiting the characters based on their inherent traits and characteristics, than showcasing the characters are cameos for audience's cheers and claps. So, when Springfield is deprived of electrical power due to some evil machination of the government bureaucracy, the town representatives (the doctor - Dr. Hibbert, the trader - Apu and the enforcer - Chief Wiggum) approach the only guy in town who owns a nuclear power plant - the evil incarnate, Mr. Burns. Mr. Burns comes and goes in a blink of a second, but not without moving the story forward a few more inches in the right direction. The transition from one known character to the next is so smooth and seamless, that the movie never feels like an after-thought idea, which is how most of the animation movies are fleshed out in reality.
That seems to be the sole reason why some of the other characters (Disco Stu, Duff Man, Barney etc) do not make into the final cut, however memorable they are, which brings back to the original point. "The Simpsons" is never about the drawings, the cutting edge technology, or the computer wizardry. It is about the writing - the great joy and pure fun in making a bunch of animated characters deal with the issues that everyday society graples with on a daily basis in real life, in a surrealistic way, employing its trademark humor. That is why Homer is not a bulbous yellow head on a out-of-shape body. Homer is "D'oh", Homer is "ummm... donuts", Homer is "If he is so smart, why is he dead?".
"The Simpsons" movie is just the first step that the makers bravely took venturing into an unknown territory and hopefully not the last, if the second-ever word spoken by Maggie Simpson (the first being "daddy") - "sequel", is anything to go by. Now that would make Homer (and the audiences alike) go "wuhoo..."
Ramblings on films
Lage Raho Munnabhai
The Da Vinci Code
Rang De Basanti (Hindi)
Mangal Padey (Hindi)
Anukokunda Oka Roju
Batman Begins (English)
Mughal E Azam
Kakha Kakha (Tamil)
Mr & Mrs Iyer
Srinivas Kanchibhotla how you liked the article