So I meant to get this review up at the beginning of the week but life happened so I'm posting the night before the release of Matt Groening's new show, Disenchantment, worldwide on Netflix.
So here for delectation is my rambling, hopefully helpful review...
Itís been almost 20 years since the launch of Matt Groeningís last show, Futurama but on Friday 17th August Netflix will launch all 10 episodes of his newest show, Disenchantment. I was lucky enough to get access to the first 5 episodes(actually it was 7 but I didnít want to binge all 7 for the purposes of a review). This is a relatively spoiler free review of those first 5 episodes from the perspective of a Futurama diehard. But also from someone who is realistic about whatís bad and whatís good. Iíll be the first to admit Futurama had some dud episodes but there were handful of episodes that were some of the best television of the last 10 years. Disenchantment has a high bar to clear.
So I came into this show with quite high expectations. Matt Groening, animation by Rough Draft who produced Futurama, music by Mark Mothersbaugh, some of the best Futurama writers including Futurama co-creator David X Cohen, Futurama voice castÖ This all sounded great and to sum up my feelings on the show, I loved it. But with some caveats. Some bigger than others.
The basic concept for the show is thus; itís about a Princess, Bean, who doesnít really want to be a Princess and would rather gamble, drink and hook up with guys and go off and have her own adventures. So she hates the fact she is being forced into a marriage created mainly for political reasons. For reasons that donít really matter just yet, a personal demon, Luci, assigns himself to her and makes it his job to persuade her to misbehave and generally cause trouble. Sheís also joined by Elfo, an elf who escapes his kingdom fearing heís missing out on the world. Together under the watchful and frustrated eye of her father King Zog we follow their adventures around the kingdom of ĎDreamlandí.
There is quite a lot going on with this show so Iím going to break it down into some elements to make it easier.
The first area is animation which is easy to sum up - fantastic! Rough Draft have really out done themselves on this. While the character work is relatively the same quality as on Futurama there is some interesting work going on with Luci who is jet black with eyes and no other defining look. This makes for some interesting movements and some good comedic moments like when Bean kicks him against the wall and he slowly rolls down it like a sticky toy. Elfo also seems slightly devolved in his look like heís jumped straight out of the pages of Groeningís comic strip Life in Hell. And I like that about him!
But where the visuals really stand out is some of the amazing painted backgrounds and sets. Rather than being drawn like Futurama or the Simpsons these have far more detail and look gorgeous. It also adds to the whole fantasy world setting much more. The 3D work is also really seamless. While on Futurama it stood out more that was ok because it was a sci fi show, this isnít so it needs to blend in with the new painted backgrounds which for the most part it does very well. It will be interesting to see what flourishes they come up with as the show gets going and gets more adventurous with plots and locations.
Then on top of all that is some really nice opening credits which show scenes from the episode underneath the credits made out of simplified outlines in different tones of greens or blues etc. Its really nice.
Next up are the actors, which again is hard to find fault with. All the Futurama cast bar Katey Sagal are here which is an embarrassment of riches in itself. These are people on the top of their game and itís hard not to be in awe. Theyíre also joined by Abbi Jacobson as Bean, Eric Andrť as Luci and Nat Faxon as Elfo. Theyíre well cast too.
Jacobson brings a rebellious but often insecure quality to Bean which makes her likeable from the start while Eric Andrť is obviously having fun being a very smooth kind of evil and his droll delivery of put downs are fun to hear roll off his tongue. My favourite of the three is Nat Faxon though. Is zany delivery always gets a laugh but he can also dial it back to bring some real heart to the confused, slightly stupid little elf.
Other actors such as Matt Berry, Lucy Montgomery and Noel Fielding are fun too and while itís shame thereís not more Billy West itís great to see Maurice LaMarche and Tress MacNeille with leading roles.
The real stand out though, is John DiMaggio as King Zog. Itís hard not to wonder how he has a voice anymore after you hear him rant and rave at Bean. You can almost hear the veins on his neck pulsing.
But the great thing about his performance is not all the yelling but how he manages to convey a character with real depth. While heís a very angry and demanding King itís obvious heís quite insecure and is sometimes torn between making Bean do what he thinks is right and gradually realising he canít really control her and that Ďtraditioní makes her miserable. Itís really great to hear and scenes with him often really crackle. I particularly like the way he looks at things, vocalising his inner thoughts as he casts his eye over the different parts.
Mark Mothersbaugh from the band Devo who also created the fantastic score for Thor: Ragnarok last year has provided the music, including a very catchy theme tune. The music has a grand fantasy feel to it thatís been mixed in with some nutty rhythms and eccentric brass instruments and many more elements. Itís really great and adds so much to some scenes that sometimes might be lacking a bit of zip. More on that later.
So plenty of great ingredients there so what are the actual stories like? In short, very good but certainly with room to grow as the characters and writers fall into a rhythm.
One thing that can be said is that the plotting is pretty much solid all the way through. These are folk who really know how to break a story and create good arcs both within episodes and longer ones for characters. Groening has said that for this they wrote the stories and then added jokes and you can tell as the rhythm of each episode moves well with not many instances of skipping over plot points or lingering too long within scenes that donít require it. Sometimes the pacing could be a bit quicker but it doesnít often feel like weíre in a scene for no reason.
The first two episodes act more as a two part pilot and were the strongest of the 5 I saw. While it starts off a little slowly as weíre introduced to the world and our main protagonist it quickly picks up and by the time we meet Elfo a few minutes in the plot is moving along well and the jokes are flowing.
The scene in Elfoís home land is very funny and reminded me a little of Santas elves in Futurama though doing a lot better for themselves.
It also has one of the darkest jokes so far where one of the characters gets hung but then is too light so someone suggests just stabbing them. Itís very funny for sure(trust me) but it shows a real bite which does seem to appear more regularly than on Futurama or The Simpsons. Matt Groening has said this show is more adult and I think this is what he means rather than putting in strong language, really crude humour all the time(though there is some of course!) or really edgy plots that aim to offend.
It almost seems like some of the darker humour from Life in Hell(still some of Groeningís finest, unfiltered work) is making itís way onto the show and I for one welcome that.
But back to the first two episodes. It has to be said what an achievement it is for these two. Nostalgia always plays a part affecting our memories but if youíre really honest the first episodes of most shows including Futurama and The Simpsons were not huge successes. They were good for sure but itís hard to set up a new world and new characters in just half an hour.
If you look at Futurama, it does a solid job of setting up the show but there was lots that it grew into. Fry was a slightly stupid but earnest character. Leela was very bossy and Bender was mainly a sarcastic, selfish robot. Think about how much that show blossomed and added so many more layers in just following few episodes. Donít get me wrong I really love that episode but the really great stuff comes later. On Disenchantment they seem very sure of their world early on. A lot of the characters have direction early on and you understand a lot of what theyíre about.
The parts with Elfo were the most enjoyable as he journeyís through Dreamland encountering lots of weird things and creatures including a very funny Ďwarí.
By the end of the episode weíre all set with a 3 piece gang ready for adventures. The next three episodes are good but maybe suffer a little from growing pains. Thereís some really great stuff with Elfo & Luci plus we get to know more of Beanís insecurities but I couldnít help wanting them to go and find some weird creatures in the land and in episode 4 when Bean throws a ĎCastle Partyí after Zog goes away it kind of feels like weíve seen this sort of story many times before. Luckily there is some good character work and you start to really see Beanís loneliness and how she lives.
It seems so far that the show really hits a rhythm with story and especially jokes when weíre away from the castle in particular like when at the end of episode 5 we meet a very twisted version of Hansel and Gretel.
But the writers are certainly having fun creating this world, from versions of modern things such as police chases to ĎLand Vikingsí there are some really enjoyable twists on the fantasy and medieval tropes.
The joke rate in these episodes is maybe not as consistent as you might expect but itís not that the jokes arenít landing itís just there are less. The focus is more on story and character.
Iím putting this down to the show finding itís way and Iím sure by the end of this season weíll be moving along at more of a click. And itís certainly better to pick your jokes when theyíre funny rather than throwing so many at the wall to see what sticks. Ahem, Family Guy.
The humour of the show seems much more akin to Futurama. While The Simpsons got most of itís jokes out of satire or very relatable family situations, Futurama was about people who werenít sure where they were going but were trying to have fun anyway and the jokes came from that. It was a much more loose show that felt it could go anywhere and Iím sure it will.
Thatís really what it comes down to. The show is growing into itself and has all the ingredients for something amazing. For now itís just great with a lot of potential and already some really noteworthy moments under itís belt. Iím really enjoying it so far, things are looking good for this show and I canít wait to dive into more episodes.
Though I wonít be binging and I wouldnít recommend it. Youíre going to want to savour this. Itís not often a Matt Groening show comes along and when youíve watched it itís another year until season 2! Itís your choice but thereís something to be said with enjoying an episode and letting it sink in rather than sitting for 5 hours and being done with it!