Bender scores big and Judge William Lee takes an inaugural swing with his shiny metal gavel.
Our reviews of Futurama: Volume One (published April 28th, 2003), Futurama: Volume Two (published August 4th, 2004), Futurama: Volume Three (published August 10th, 2004), Futurama: Volume Four (published October 13th, 2004), Futurama: Bender's Game (published December 4th, 2008), Futurama: Bender's Game (Blu-Ray) (published November 4th, 2008), Futurama: Monster Robot Maniac Fun Collection (published August 22nd, 2005), Futurama: The Beast With A Billion Backs (published June 18th, 2008), and Futurama: Volume Six (Blu-ray) (published January 1st, 2012) are also available.
"We're back, baby!"—Bender
Though grounded after four seasons on the Fox television network, Futurama has retained a loyal fan base thanks to reruns on the Cartoon Network and the release of the 72-episode series on four volumes of DVDs. Fans of the consistently smart and funny television series might have thought it too good to be true when it was announced in 2006 that the show would return as four, direct-to-DVD, feature-length movies. Christmas comes early for Futurama fans with the Fox release of Futurama: Bender's Big Score.
Facts of the Case
Nerds…er, I mean, fans are reunited with the Planet Express crew at roll call where Professor Farnsworth informs them that they were fired two years ago. It's a not-too-subtle reference to how the show was unceremoniously canceled by the network. But Farnsworth almost immediately has some good news too:
"Those asinine morons who canceled us were themselves fired for incompetence…And not just fired, but beaten up, too."
Ah, yes, imaginary revenge is sweet—and violent. After being re-hired, Fry, Leela, Bender, Amy, and Zoidberg take a package to the Nude Beach Planet. There, Scammer Aliens collect their e-mail addresses and later bombard them with spam. Soon, Farnsworth is duped out of control of Planet Express and Bender is infected with the iObey virus. The Scammers' hunger for information eventually leads them to sniff out the code for time travel—which has been tattooed on Fry's butt. With the ability to travel back in time, the Scammers send Bender to steal Earth's greatest treasures from the past. But they also risk causing serious damage to the space-time continuum. Meanwhile, Lars, a bald and bearded worker at the Head Museum, catches Leela's eye. How can Fry compete with this charming newcomer and prove his worth to the one-eyed mutant he loves? All this and the Hypnotoad too.
During its initial broadcast run, Futurama was an award-winning show that never received the ratings it deserved due to mishandling by the television network. It eventually ended without being officially canceled. The show's demise was a disservice to fans that were denied any conclusion to the evolving storylines of the characters. Four years later, perhaps that lack of closure can be viewed as a blessing in disguise? Rejoining the Planet Express gang in 3007, it's comforting to discovery that it feels just like 2004.
Futurama: Bender's Big Score picks up right where the televised episodes left off and it's business as usual in the Planet Express hangar. Without any forced sentimentality, we're quickly re-introduced to the ship's crew: Leela is still the no-nonsense, ass-kicking captain; Fry is still the immature slob; Farnsworth is still the senile mad scientist and Bender is still the kleptomaniacal jerk. It is very much the same Futurama that fans are already familiar with—plus a considerable amount of bare butts. The production value looks about the same as it did back in the day of the series. The animation by Rough Draft is just as good now as it was then and the backgrounds contain a bit more detail and richness of color.
Writers David X. Cohen and Ken Keeler have constructed a mildly complex, but thoroughly enjoyable, time travel tale. Sci-fi fans are notoriously picky when it comes to continuity details so Cohen and Keeler have tried to do right by them. Altering events in the past demands a consequence in the present and ignoring this causal relationship would have been a cheat. Not even the wise, and detrimentally cute, Nibbler is allowed to explain it away. "It's a paradox-correcting time code," he says of the ass-imprinted code, "It all works perfectly. Except when it rips open the universe!" Director Dwayne Carey-Hill successfully navigates the minefield of time paradoxes and causal inconsistencies. The temporal transgressions of this story appear logically sound with what has occurred before. Details from past episodes are subtly incorporated to suggest that they were planned all along. Some smaller details (like the fate of Fry's dog) are so fleeting that I missed them the first time through. To the casual viewer these potential inconsistencies may seem superfluous, but it takes a nerd's attention to detail to satisfy nerds.
The voice cast provides excellent work and sounds like they haven't missed a beat since the last episode was recorded. Many of the actors do multiple voices and it is really to their credit that there is such a richness of distinct characters in the show. Coolio, Al Gore and Sarah Silverman provide voice cameos.
With Futurama: Bender's Big Score, the series enters the anamorphic widescreen realm. The backgrounds have been stepped-up in detail from the episodes of the series but remain consistent with the feel of the show. The image is bright and clean, though the colors seem just slightly less vibrant compared against the Season One DVDs. Computer-generated special effects and 3D models are appropriately used throughout but it is nice to see that Futurama largely remains a hand-animated cartoon. The audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby Surround and the sound mix is relatively uncomplicated…which makes it easier to catch the audio gags such as sound effects lifted from other movies. The dialogue is witty and fast so I was actually glad there wasn't constant music and peripheral effects. Even so, some of the nuances in the script are difficult to hear and during the musical numbers, I needed the subtitles in order to catch the full lyrics.
The audio commentary with cast and crew is lively and full of details. The filmmakers obviously love the universe they have created and are happy to talk about it. Creator Matt Groening (The Simpsons) is quiet for most of the talk leaving the impression that the other nerds have taken over the laboratory. Executive Producer Cohen and producer Claudia Katz are especially good at pointing out a lot of on-screen detail in a short time. A lot of attention was turned toward addressing the possible paradoxes that would develop in a time travel story so that topic is recurrent in their talk. They also sound a little surprised (and proud) at how "blue" the show has become.
Fox has also packaged Futurama: Bender's Big Score with a bundle of fan-friendly extras. There are storyboards to three deleted scenes, the original first draft of the script, and a lecture by Dr. Sarah Greenwald, titled "Bite My Shiny Metal X," on the mathematical jokes that are regularly worked into the show. During the lecture, select members of the crew get to prove their nerd credentials.
There are three extras that Futurama devotees will find especially interesting. The 5-minute promo shown at Comic-Con and a live comic book reading by the cast is proof that the producers identified and reached out to the show's enduring fan base. On the cast reading titled "Futurama Returns!" (recorded at the same Comic-Con event) you can hear the audience having a great time. The cast sound like they're having fun too, so much so that they miss their cues at times. Unfortunately the only video for the cast reading is a slide show of the comic book pages they are reading without any close-ups of the panels. This would have been a great extra if we could have seen the actors while they performed the reading. Lastly, the fans demanded it and the producers have responded with the inclusion of a full 22-minute episode of "Everybody Loves Hypnotoad"…sure to give that fireplace log video some stiff competition this winter.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For fans, Futurama: Bender's Big Score is like a jar of Gummi Fungus labeled as anti-depressants…you think that you'll feel better because you want to believe it's exactly what you ordered. This movie plays like a very good extended episode…but maybe a little slower than usual. The show never aimed for the broadness of The Simpsons nor did it go for the jugular like Family Guy. But it feels like the makers were holding something back when they should have pulled out the stops for this return engagement.
The writing is even more plainly aimed at sci-fi nerds this time around. It would seem the makers have decided to cater to their established fan base rather than try to win over a broader audience. Personally, I applaud their conviction to make this the Futurama movie that it deserves to be. But it may be difficult to convince anyone other than the loyal fans to pick up this title. And while we're on the title, the movie isn't as concerned with Bender as the title implies.
Those already won over by the series will find this to be a worthy first Futurama movie. It delivers what longtime fans have come to expect: smart, funny writing, and a lovable bunch of oddball characters. Even though it's an animated comedy series, Futurama treats science fiction seriously and respects the devotion of its fans. Futurama: Bender's Big Score is the triumphant return of another mistreated Fox television show.
Not guilty. The court is pleased to verify the reinstatement of Futurama's license to deliver smart sci-fi comedy.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Matt Groening, David X. Cohen, Billy West, John DiMaggio, Phil LaMarr, Claudia Katz, Dwayne Carey-Hill and Ken Keeler
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