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The Simpsons Movie: TV Adaptations Can Work!

By Brian Gallagher — December 17th, 2007

The Simpsons: The Movie is coming to DVD on December 18th, 2007. Aptly timed for late Christmas shoppers and fans alike, this should be one hot seller. I know I'll proudly add it to my collection when it hits store shelves this week. The animated flick comes hot the heels of its very successful theatrical run, taking in $183.1 million at the domestic box office and $525.1 million worldwide. Its domestic haul has put the film in the top 10 of the year, and it is the highest-grossing animated TV adaptation of all time. Which is amazing for several reasons, especially since the movie's success was nowhere near guaranteed.

The film had been in development for ages, with rumors popping up on the web about its production. Fox even registered the web domain www.simpsonsmovie.com all the way back in 1997. The film has a whopping 11 credited screenwriters, with another four credited as "consultant writers." Screenwriting by committee generally doesn't bode well for most movies. The script went through at least 158 drafts, some dating back to 2003. The storyline was kept tightly under wraps, and the trailers didn't really give us much of a clue as to what the plot would be. All that we were really told was that it would revolve around The Simpsons saving the world. When all was said and done, and the end credits came up, we saw that the film was basically an elongated episode of the show (and a wonderful one at that). A fact that was set up brilliantly by Homer Simpson himself:

"I can't believe we're paying to see something we get on TV for free! If you ask me, everybody in this theater is a giant sucker! Especially you!"

While it was an ingenious, self-deprecating line that got the movie off to a fantastic start, the statement itself is usually what plagues TV movies to box office doom, and, concurrently, what makes The Simpsons Movie success that much more amazing.

TV movies, animated and live-action, have historically not been the biggest thing at the box office. It seems that the formula for a TV movie's success is to have it as far removed from the series itself as possible. The top 5 live-action TV adaptations (in order: Mission: Impossible 2, The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible III and Charlie's Angels) were films with revamped updates and star-studded casts. They were also based off shows from the 60s and 70s. If you ask me, I don't think the second and third M:I flicks really belong here, because they're based off the first movie, not necessarily off the show. But I digress. While The Simpsons Movie is categorized in the animated TV adaptation genre, for the TV genre as a whole, it would rank 3rd best all-time, just barely below ($700,000 and some change) The Fugitive... and that's still with The Simpsons' original series very much alive and kicking on network TV.

That alone is a feat in itself, especially when you take into consideration the recent box office failure of Reno 911!: Miami ($20.2 million domestic) while the series was still airing and the failed resurrection of Strangers With Candy ($2.07 million domestic), a film which I'm personally thankful for its failure. That show just bugged me... OK, back on track.

The Simpsons Movie easily has the top spot in the all time animated TV genre, some $82 million above The Rugrats Movie, the only other animated TV adaptation to break $100 million. The animated TV genre seems even harder to break into while the TV series is still on the air. Pokemon: The First Movie and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (3rd and 4th all time in animated TV genre) both took in decent B.O. grosses ($85.7 million and $85.4 million respectively), but given both show's immense popularity at the time, the grosses really aren't that impressive. What's interesting about the Pokemon movies, is that each time they put out a new movie, five altogether, it did worse and worse at the box office, ending up with 2003's Pokemon Heroes, which made just $746,000 and change at the domestic box office.

Even Beavis and Butt-Head Do America ($63.1 million domestic) and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut ($52.03 million domestic), both at the height of their popularity on TV didn't make a huge dent at the box office. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut's mediocre showing was even more surprising, since it had an R rating and tons of uncensored naughty language that they couldn't use on Comedy Central... and it was fricking hilarious! When you look at the fact that The Simpsons have nowhere near the high ratings they had a decade or so ago, and the fact that they essentially changed nothing at all for the movie, The Simpsons Movie's success is just that much more astounding.

So, how did they do it? By being smart enough to realize that it ain't broke and that they surely didn't need to fix it. Sure, the ratings have sagged in recent years, but it's still the longest-running prime-time show in history for a reason. Perhaps the reason the script went through so many drafts is that they did set out to tweak the program for the movie and, eventually came to the conclusion that it wasn't needed. At the end of this meticulous process, after years and years of development rumors and seemingly endless script drafts and everything else, The Simpsons Movie succeeded both financially (the flick had a modest $75 million budget) and critically (88% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

Why did I go and pay to see something that we could've seen for free on TV, and why will I pay again to add this to my DVD collection? Because it's The Simpsons, plain and simple. Because those yellow folks from Springfield are American icons who I've been waiting to see on the silver screen for a very long time, and, when I finally did, they didn't disappoint me one bit. So, I might be a "sucker" according to Homer, but it's a moniker that, for just this once, I'll surely relish.

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