Judge Adam Arseneau rolls natural twenties.
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: Volume Eight (Blu-ray) (published December 29th, 2013), Futurama: Bender's Big Score (published December 7th, 2007), 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.
"Just knowing we're in the same genus makes me embarrassed to call myself homo!"
Fry and the crew from Planet Express come roaring back in for their third direct-to-DVD adventure, Futurama: Bender's Game, this time tearing a Fry Hole directly through the fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons in loving homage to D&D creator Gary Gygax, whose recent passing helped inspired the film. More Futurama in our lives is never a bad thing, but does this newest adventure live up to the show's previously established lofty standards?
The story: as the galaxy's supply of dark matter, which fuel's space travel, begins to run low, prices at the pumps are at an all-time high. Trying to save a buck, the Professor restricts leisure usage of the Planet Express ship in order to conserve. As it turns out, the Professor knows more about the shortage than previously revealed. While working at Mom's, the mega-corporation that now controls Mombil and the world's dark matter supplies, he made some alarming discoveries about the nature of the energy source—and its potential undoing.
Meanwhile, Bender and the kids enjoy a rousing game of Dungeons & Dragons, which Bender struggles to appreciate, being deficient in the imagination department. Fully immersing himself into the fantasy world, he re-imagines himself as Titanius Anglesmith, Fancyman of Cornwood. His friends are unable to convince Titanius (nee Bender) of his true humble robotic roots and are forced to commit him to the HAL Institute for Criminally Insane Robots for recovery.
As Bender struggles to regain his sanity (e.g., break free), the Professor leads a charge against Mom and her conglomerate of energy controlling thugs in order to liberate the world from her grip on energy. As things often go in the future, one event leads to another; in the end, Bender's fantasy world of Cornwood turns real and drops the Planet Express crew (and Mom) into a world of dungeons, dragons, and wizards. Don't ask how—it's not important.
One thing is for certain—I'm going to miss Futurama. Woe to the show that nobody appreciated, only now getting the due it earned in popular culture, agonizing months before releasing its final straight-to-DVD feature and vanishing from our lives forever. Hope springs eternal, of course, but a show only gets so many third and fourth chances. This inherent tragedy of this brilliant cartoon's passing is further compounded by the slow, inexorable decline of these straight-to-DVD features, which started off solid and have been getting…less so.
Two separate films are dueling within Bender's Game, the first about environmental themes and science fiction-styled allegories on declining oil reserves and the other a loving tribute to all things Gary Gygax and J.R.R Tolkien. One might take a wild stab and assume the nerdy D&D foray would be the superior element and the other element preachy and heavy handed…but as it turns out, it is the other way around. The crisis surround dwindling dark matter supplies is heartwarmingly fun, poignant, and full of hilarious Futurama-styled bumbling (albeit extraordinarily familiar bumbling, taken page-for-page from the previous environmental-themed episodes, especially "Crimes Of The Hot"). It is repetitive, but shows the series at its most approachable. The adventure into Dungeons & Dragons world is novel, but…well, lame.
I cannot even believe I am using the word "lame" in a review about Futurama. This is going to send me straight to nerd therapy. Alas, I cannot be but truthful in my condemnation of Bender's Game and its mediocrity. There are some funny moments, but just as many jokes that fall painfully flat; almost violently so, as if the writers simply forgot how to pull this off. These made-for-DVD movies have become nothing but exercises in self-referential humor, and that is not the place where Futurama should ever be. Family Guy might be content to squander its comedic potential in this purgatory, but please no…not Futurama! So much of the humor in Bender's Game are simple re-appearances of old gags and characters, as if to say "hey, remember that joke we did back in Season Two that was so funny? Well, here it is again!"
This kind of comedy is destructive, like eating away at one's own body fat for sustenance. Sure, you get some laughs and get lean, but eventually the jokes leave naught but a hollow empty shell behind. This is not to dismiss the humor of Bender's Game right out of hand, as anyone who has taken the twenty-sided die for a roll in their lifetime will find the nerd-related gags in Bender's Game to be particularly sly. Unfortunately, this nerd humor fails to compensate for an overall jumbled narrative and repetitive gags. The transition between "environmental message" and "fantasy world" is awkward and poorly conceived, and it really feels as if two entirely contradictory storylines were crammed into a single DVD feature simply because the writers wanted to get every possible idea packed into Bender's Game.
So what to do with Futurama: Bender's Game? On the one hand, it's Futurama, so it is automatically christened as awesome. On the other hand, even when compared to previous "episodes" in this "season" (Futurama: Bender's Big Score and Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs), this feature feels oddly sub-par. It's still fun and full of some amazing gags, but one cannot escape the nagging realization that these features are not improving as they continue. If you're a fan of fantasy and role playing games, you'll probably get a kick out of it more than most, but to be honest, if this film were broken into standalone episodes, only half of them would be any good—the rest would be the "mediocre" episodes people skip when watching them on DVD.
As for technical presentation, here is where our coverage gets wonky. DVD Verdict only received a screener copy from Fox of this title, so we can't quite give you an accurate representation of what the retail product is like. Our copy was laden with blocky artifacts and pervasive compression that at times made Bender's Game actually nauseating to watch. I guess Fox really wants people to be buying the Blu-Ray edition of the title, which by all accounts of our review of Futurama: Bender's Game (Blu-Ray) is a stunning technical triumph. Go for that if you can. The audio on our screener copy was a boisterous 5.1 surround presentation, which hopefully is the same version that makes it to the retail edition, because it rocks the house. Punchy and energetic, the rear channels sweep in with every opportunity, with clear dialogue and overactive bass response. It is an excellent presentation, but it makes the shoddy visuals all the more lamentable.
In terms of extras (disclaimer: we assume these are identical to the retail version but can offer no assurances to this fact) the disc is nicely packed for a single-disc release, with extras coming out the Hawking Hole. A full-length audio commentary track is first out of the gate with creators Matt Groening and David X. Cohen, voice actors Billy West, John DiMaggio, and Tress MacNeille, director Dwayne Carey-Hill, writer Mike Rowe, and producer Claudia Katz. If you've spent any time listening to the commentary tracks on the Futurama television series DVDs, you know exactly what kind of raucous, hilarious affair to expect here. We get a peculiar feature, "Futurama Genetics Lab," allowing viewers to mix-and-match body parts onto on-screen characters—what is this, a Disney release? "D&D&F: Dungeons & Dragons & Futurama" discusses with creators their early childhood memories of being gigantic women-repulsing nerds, and a story animatic recreates the first half of Bender's Game in storyboard. The rest of the extras are take-or-leave, but nice to have: we get a 3D model gallery, one deleted sequence, "How to Draw Futurama in 83 Easy Steps" (pretty self-explanatory, if a bit tongue-in-cheek) as well as "Blooperama 2," showing the voice actors futzing their dialogue up during recording. Finally, we get an amusing anti-piracy warning (hosted by Bender) and a preview for the final Futurama feature, Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder. It's an impressive offering for a single-disc screener, but again—screener, so no promises.
It saddens my Futurama-loving heart to admit this aloud, but Bender's Game is a step backwards for the franchise, at a time when we only really have one or two steps left. The feature is touching and heartwarming and features all our favorite characters, but its emphasis on environmental themes should not extend to the recycling of comedy. Too much of this feature is content to cram every single extra, guest star, cameo character, and obscure one-gag joke featured in past seasons into every nook and cranny, regardless of whether they belong or not. Bender's Game is still funny, but it just isn't up to the show's own standards.
Ah, who am I kidding? Even its weaker moments are still hands above everything else on television, especially given the crudely dire state of animation these days. Bender's Game is far from the finest moment of the franchise, but we can forgive that. It's still Futurama, and it's still one of the best animated shows ever. You know you're going to buy it, and you know you're going to love it. It's not perfect, but it's better than no Futurama of any kind.
Oh Fox, why must you break our heart over and over? This is like tearing a bandage off in agonizing, slow, direct-to-DVD doses. Put the darn show back on the air and end the torment already! Not guilty, but not as innocent as in cases past.
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