Several long running cartoon series- The Simpsons and Family Guy for instance been accused of diminishing quality. Futurama was another series, which never got a chance to become disappointing, a wacky sci-fi comedy created by Matt Groening it followed Philip J Fry a (idiotic) delivery boy who is cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the year 3000. Quickly gathering a small but hard-core fan base, it won several notable awards, and critical acclaim, yet was cancelled after just 4 seasons. But money talks and following the massive sales of season Box Sets Futurama made its overdue return in 2008 with this, the first of Four Direct to DVD films, it was a welcome, if flawed return for The Simpsons Geekier Cousin.
All the key Voice cast and characters returned for the Films (plus Scruffy the Janitor), whilst Ken Keeler responsible for some of the series best episodes serves as Bender’s Big Score’s writer. Though the plot is perfectly accessible for first time viewers, fans will certainly get more out of watching this film (indeed it’s largely down to them this return was possible).
In a typically far-fetched storyline Bender, Planet Express’s lovable Chain Smoking Robot, downloads a virus, and involuntarily helps a race of nudist space aliens (Known as ‘Scammers’) take over the Earth. Meanwhile Fry discovers a time code tattooed on his ass, and is forced to travel back to the year 1999- on the very night he was frozen and sent to the future, Bender is sent in pursuit. Whilst Leela (rather less surprisingly) is busy considering yet another marriage proposal from the mysterious Lars. The different storylines gradually gel; leading to an epic battle and a twist ending (which is actually quite obvious early on) that sets up the next DVD film -The Beast with a Billion Backs.
Even by Futurama standards it’s quite a complicated plot, with lots of characters (mostly returning favourites from the series) and names to remember, fans will be glad to see some surprise cameo’s, but newcomers to the franchise may be a little lost, in any case this is a film best watched with at least some previous knowledge of the show. Whilst old characters are handled with ease, the same can’t be said of the Scammers.
Lacking the personality and striking design work of previous Futurama bad guys such as the Robot Devil or Mom, they are a surprisingly weak addition to the Futurama cannon, and annoying evidence of the show’s over reliance on ‘funny voices’. Their angry, shouty way of talking is amusing at first, but soon gets repetitive, whilst their generic master plans and appearance is a poor catalyst for the plot, it may be a Comedy, but that doesn’t excuse lazy scriptwriting. Sadly they aren’t the only flaw.
The Original series answered many questions, but also gave way to new ones- Who were those Aliens we see during Fry’s montage in the Cryogenic Tank?, How exactly was his dog Seymour Frozen?, Will Fry and Leela ever get together? All are answered in this film (well the last one’s left kind of ambiguous…) – in surprisingly convincing fashion (it’s almost as if the producers had planned for a cancellation…) it’s rewarding for fans, though largely irrelevant for first time viewers. The film contains many similar in-jokes, the usual geeky references, and yet another Al Gore cameo, the series’ attention to detail, at least, hadn’t changed much.
Whilst the plot and characters are vintage Futurama, the same cannot be said about the jokes. With 5 years at their disposal to think of gags, this film can only be viewed as a disappointment. There are certainly moments of brilliance- a hilarious Robot Santa Song, thinly veiled digs at the Republican Party and Zapp Brannigan’s (on gloriously inept form) interesting theories on warfare being examples, but there is a definite overreliance on body and sight gags. In a 22 minute episode this wouldn’t be so much of an issue, but in an 85 minute film it gets a little repetitive, such jokes are always hit and miss, and in this film, unfortunately its often the latter, there is only so many times you can watch someone hit by a blunt object, before it becomes, well, painful.
Whilst it doesn’t completely succeed as a comedy in most other senses this is successful. Though the film is 85 minutes in length (more than 3 times the length of a normal episode), it never feels particularly long, the different plot strands are handled, and tied together with ease, the film is well-paced throughout. A five year absence and an increased budget works in the film’s favour, the animation is sharper and more interesting than ever before- the last 20 minutes are impressively mounted as they are entertaining (Solid Gold exploding death stars anyone?). A great musical score, exciting direction, and most importantly enthusiastic voice acting-which by and large works, are further bonuses.
The budget and length may be different but at its heart it’s still the same show, albeit not at its height, great animation and an interesting narrative can’t completely disguise the variable humour, and its occasionally self-indulgent nature. Ultimately, this is a flawed but entirely welcome return for an underrated show, not quite the rib-tickler it could (or should) have been, but for fans still an worthwhile watch, and for others a respectable introduction to the show.
6.5/10 Paul Ashwell