The Simpson’s cartoon show has been a portrait of the “American” family since its emergence back in 1989. Being a longtime Simpson’s aficionado, I was thrilled when The Simpsons Movie, a full-length motion picture, debuted in 2007. I was further intrigued to find out the movie featured a Simpsonized version of what Joseph Campbell refers to as the monomyth (also known as the Hero’s Journey), which follows a basic pattern of separation, initiation, and return.
In the film, Homer’s call to adventure takes the form of a serious blunder…
Springfield, USA is facing serious water pollution problems, as evident by the fact that the band Green Day perishes after a performance where their stage barge dissolves in the acidic lake. Grandpa Simpson has a vision during their memorial church service and warns them: “twisted tail, 1,000 eyes, trapped forever!” Most of the townsfolk shrug off Grandpa’s experience as a bizarre outburst. But when Homer comes home the next day with a pet pig, Marge is alarmed by its twisted tail and fears the prophesy is coming true.
Homer is so enamored with his new pet that he ignores Marge’s concerns, including those about what he plans to do with the pig’s “leavings.” He builds a silo in the backyard to store the manure, and though he has the intention of disposing of it properly, he hears of a free donut giveaway while he is waiting in line at the hazardous waste management facility. Of course, Homer cannot contain himself. To save time, he cuts the crap-filled silo loose into Lake Springfield; as it submerges, the water boils and turns black, an image of skull and crossbones forms on the surface, and a laughing, ghoulish voice cries out “EVIL!”
As Homer makes his getaway, a squirrel jumps into the lake and reemerges snarling, growling, mutated, and with many more eyes than before its dark baptism – maybe even 1,000. Almost immediately, the Environmental Protection Agency shows up; the government’s solution is to seal off the town under a huge dome, leaving everyone “trapped forever.” Now Grandpa’s prophesy has come completely to fruition.
Springfieldians have no idea why or how this all happened – until they discover a large silo in the depths of the lake with “Return to Homer Simpson – No Reward” written on the side. An angry mob unites against the Simpson family. Just as it seems like all hope is lost, salvation is found at the bottom of the abyss. The Simpsons narrowly escape by jumping down into a sinkhole which miraculously pops them through to the other side of the dome.
Now the Simpsons are forced on the lam and Springfield is seemingly doomed. Homer already has a backup plan to move to Alaska. When Lisa’s knowledge of physics helps him win a truck by driving a motorcycle around a spherical metal cage in a carnival game, the family heads north and it looks like they are ready to live happily ever after.
Having crossed over the threshold of adventure, it seems like everything is okay, but further trials emerge. And so starts Homer’s initiation. It is here that the hero undergoes a series of trials – including facing himself and his own shadow – in order to become initiated into a higher life…
Soon after settling in to their new home, Marge sees a television commercial that advertises “a new Grand Canyon” east of Shelbyville and south of Capital City in their old home state. She immediately realizes this is all part of a government plan to blow up Springfield. Marge and the kids want to save their hometown, but Homer loves his new life in Alaska and sees no reason to return.
The couple argues and Homer stomps off to a bar – only to come back a few hours later and find that Marge and the kids have left to save Springfield without him. And to prove how serious she was, Marge recorded the message over their wedding tape.
Homer is devastated, alone, and confused. He wanders into the wilderness with no direction. He only knows that somehow he has to get his family back. He gets caught in a blizzard, and just when he is on the brink of collapse and about to get eaten by a polar bear, Homer is rescued by an Inuit shaman woman.
She prepares a drink for him in her hut and conducts a ceremony using the ancient art of throat singing. Homer has a vision where he falls down infinite flights of stair mazes and lands in the middle of a dark forest where the trees have arms and hands. Homer knows the only way out is to have an epiphany. He blurts out sudden realizations in vain; the trees slap him around, as if to say, wrong answer – try again! After many failed attempts, the trees dismember Homer completely while moving his eyes above so he can see himself in pieces. He finally has an epiphany! He says that he does not care about himself anymore, that nothing matters without his family. Then he exclaims, “In order to save myself, I have to save Springfield!” The trees reassemble him and applaud.
Homer is now ready to return and share his boon with society. His far-fetched plan to infiltrate the dome over Springfield surprisingly works, but the EPA-planted bomb is still ticking and death seems imminent. But as Homer goes looking for his family, he receives a bit more supernatural aid. A tree branch slaps him in the face and a leaf flutters toward a motorcycle illuminated by a shaft of light.
He has another “epiphitree,” as he now calls it, remembering how Lisa’s physics helped him with a miracle before. Homer jumps onto that motorcycle, grabs the bomb, and ascends the side of the dome. He knows he has one chance to make things right, to save his family and town, and to regain his own integrity.
Homer saves the day – with the help of his son Bart – and so ends another manifestation of the monomyth. Yet most of the adventures were perhaps invited by Homer’s continued selfishness – we see him choose a pig over his family, free donuts over environmental safety, and many other examples of being an irresponsible husband, father, and citizen. If a hero’s journey serves to push one beyond individual ego and initiate him into a higher way of life, can we say Homer has successfully fulfilled the pattern? By the end of the film the triumphant hero has reunited with his family and Springfield is rebuilding itself, but will there be any long-term change?
At the end of the closing credits, Maggie’s first word is “sequel?” Maybe we will have to wait and find out….
Heidi Fraser Hageman is an integral educator, writer, and researcher at the School of Consciousness and Transformation at the CA Institute of Integral Studies. She has a keen interest in exploring where myth and archetypes manifest in modern life.