The team behind Maggie Simpson's epic day out discuss how the new Disney+ short celebrates two unique pop culture classics.
At Jabba’s Hut Pre-School, Obi-Wan Kenobi masterfully slaps together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while his former nemesis General Grievous is relegated to diaper duty. Misbehaving younglings are dealt with swiftly, dunked into carbonite and hung up for time out. Lando Calrissian has been made baron administrator of the Cloud City Nap Room.
And in the middle of the action we find Maggie Simpson on a desperate quest to rescue her beloved pacifier.
“The Force Awakens From Its Nap,” the new Maggie short now on Disney+ in celebration of Star Wars Day, isn’t the first time The Simpsons have given a nod to the galaxy far, far away. In one full-length episode of the animated series -- now in in the midst of an impressive 32nd season with over 700 episodes -- Homer Simpson famously spoiled the surprise in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back for a line of eager fans on opening night. “There’s always been a little bit of having fun with it, it’s such a huge thing in the culture and The Simpsons has a history of taking shots,” says Michael Price, a writer and co-executive producer for the hit series for the last 20 years and co-writer of the short. But this time it’s different, a loving fusion of small-town Springfield co-existing with characters and situations plucked straight out of the Star Wars galaxy. “I think it’s fun to have the chance to do it for real. We did our parody of The Phantom Menace with a parody of the George Lucas character and there’ll be jokes here and there. But to have the chance to actually have the characters kind of live in that world was really fun. And also at the same time we take our little jabs. Like there’s a thing at the end, the crawl to explain the rules. It’s fun to have a little bit of fun that way.”
“We’ve been in awe of and inspired by Star Wars for years,” adds Al Jean, one of Price’s co-writers on the short alongside Joel Cohen and a longtime Simpsons writer and executive producer. “So it was a true thrill to combine them for a short.”
Price has been writing Star Wars stories with tongue firmly planted in cheek for years; his first LEGO Star Wars short The Padawan Menace arrived in 2011. Since then he’s penned LEGO Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out, The Yoda Chronicles, and Droid Tales among other animation. “I’m old enough to have seen Star Wars when it first came out, back when it was just called Star Wars. When it wasn’t Episode IV yet,” he says with a laugh. “I remember that summer. It was a different time, too, in terms of learning about things. There wasn’t as much publicity. So I remember it kind of seeping in. I had some friends -- I was doing a play that summer -- and suddenly one day all my friends in the play, they had all gone to see it, and they picked up broomsticks and they started [dueling pretend] lightsabers.”
Price knew he had to get in on the action so he went to his hometown theater in New Jersey soon after. Unfortunately, he didn’t account for the film’s popularity creating a line that wrapped around the building and he missed the opening crawl and the first few minutes. Still, the first images he glimpsed are seared into his memory and made him an instant fan. “The very first thing I remember seeing was walking into the theater with my brother five seconds before Darth Vader first shows up on the Rebel blockade runner,” he recalls. “I loved it immediately. Saw it a couple more times that summer. And then totally got into it. Whenever a movie came out, I was there opening night.”
In those intervening years, Star Wars, like The Simpsons, has become a phenomenon. The secret to that success and longevity is difficult to quantify. “In both cases there is an enormously devoted fan base and on the inside, an enormous amount of work,” Jean says. “Also, Maggie is our R2-D2.”
But beyond those fervent fan followings and silent, pint-sized stars, Price sees some similarities in the timeless story elements and expansive universes. “In Star Wars, it’s literally, well, a galaxy, a gigantic galaxy with characters and planets and places and things. There’s so much room for new stories. And even though The Simpsons takes place in this little town of Springfield, there are so many characters and so many places to go and so much freedom to go in terms of stories. I think that’s why we’re able to keep finding new stories to tell 700 episodes later. I think there’s just a basicness to it. Star Wars is really basic. It’s good versus evil and heroes and villains. And Simpsons is basic family stuff. The basic family unit but with a weird, crazy, beautiful eye on it all.” The unique lens has certainly helped them maintain popularity as well as making the fusion of the two worlds in the new Maggie short feel effortless. “In their own way they’re both about unreal fantasy worlds but there’s such a wealth of detail to it,” he says.
In this case, Maggie Simpson must face her greatest fear -- going without her pacifier! -- and her greatest foe, the buck-toothed, unibrow baby Gerald Samson. The entire sequence is built around foley sounds and a music score, cleverly woven together to lead up to an epic battle for pre-school dominance.
“Maggie, God love her, is our pathway to silent film comedy,” says James L. Brooks, the producer, writer, and Academy Award-winning director who has been with The Simpsons from the family’s humble beginnings as a short on The Tracey Ullman Show.
“She doesn’t talk and she can take a fall, just like Buster Keaton,” adds Jean.
For the short, Jean says the team collaborated on the joke ideas first then built a plot around Maggie’s relationship with the one-of-a-kind, orange and white droid BB-8, who plays a key role in helping her recover her lost pacifier. Ultimately, she faces off with baby Gerald, reimagined here as Darth Maul, in a showdown overlaid with the original John Williams score from Anakin Skywalker’s fateful duel with his own master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, at the climax of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.
“He’s been Maggie’s nemesis forever, that one eyebrowed baby,” Price says, so turning him into Maul was a no-brainer. “He’s so great,” Price says with a laugh. “I remember going to see The Phantom Menace and he stood out. He was so strong and so great and so exciting.” In one LEGO short that Price wrote, longtime Maul voice actor Sam Witwer performed a musical number as the Zabrak character, heralding his own arrival and awesomeness with his famous double-bladed lightsaber sprouting eight different blades. “And so once the idea of Maul came around it’s just perfect,” Price says. “He’s such a perfect corollary to the one eyebrowed baby.”
Their final duel is Jean’s favorite moment in the short. On Monday, he tweeted a sneak peek at his notebook showcasing the rough sketch of the pacifier-turned-lightsaber. “[It’s] the first drawing I’ve ever pitched for The Simpsons,” he adds.
In just three minutes, the story is brimming with Easter eggs and subtle nods spanning more than four decades of Star Wars storytelling. The carbonite rack has a striking resemblance to a similar contraption spotted on the Razor Crest in The Mandalorian. A pint-sized Max Rebo is in the lunch line alongside kid versions of Kylo Ren and Boba Fett. One child plays with toy thermal detonators while another completes a Death Star III -- “guaranteed unexplodable” -- that immediately blows up. And, of course, there’s Aurebesh, including a sign written above a toy chest that can be translated to read: “Good job, Nerds. You figured it out.”
An earlier version said “nerfs,” Price notes with a chuckle, which could have served as yet another reference. And after a Maggie transforms into another iconic Star Wars character, and the rules scroll across the screen, the credits roll with Ralph McQuarrie-esque paintings featuring Homer belly-up to the bar at the Mos Eisley cantina, Kylo Ren kneeling before Mr. Burns, and Chewbacca getting married to Aunt Selma.
“That was really fun to do,” Price says. “I was really trying to work as much of The Simpsons worlds in as possible but keeping it mostly about Star Wars.” And he hopes that the short, like his LEGO specials before it, will reach Simpsons and Star Wars fans alike, pleasing young viewers and adults. “I would say I brought a Simpsons writer sensibility to those…little kids were enjoying it on their own level because it was funny and it was LEGO, but I was making somewhat sophisticated referential Star Wars jokes. Hopefully this short will sort of hit that same sweet spot, where a little kid or a young person can enjoy it just as a fun thing, but the people who are big Star Wars fans will notice the little shout outs.”