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"Futurama: Bender's Big Score" Still a Winner for Casual Fans

I always enjoyed Futurama, but I never managed to get into the habit of watching it. I guess that means it’s all my damn fault it was canceled for disappointing ratings, so maybe this is an incredibly bad way to start off a review of the direct-to-video movie Futurama: Bender’s Big Score.

We're back on the air, baby! Woo-hoo!I have ALWAYS been a HUGE fan of Futurama, adoring it with a love that burns like an eternal, undying flame. Or maybe like jock itch. Sometimes, they feel a lot alike. Anyway, longtime fans of the show get a second chance now with the direct-to-video movie Futurama: Bender’s Big Score, and unappreciative bastards like me who KILLED YOUR FAVORITE SHOW have a chance to atone for our sins by buying the first of four DVDs that will give the show a second lease on life.

For those who have never watched the show at all, what you really need to know is that Futurama follows the adventures of Philip J. Fry, a pizza delivery boy from the 20th century who was cryonically frozen and woke up in the 30th century. He lands a job at the Planetary Express delivery company, joining the shapely, one-eyed Leela and the crass, selfish robot Bender. After taking several amusing jabs at the executives who cancelled the show, Bender’s Big Score cuts to an intergalactic nude beach, revealing a tattoo of Bender’s head on Fry’s butt and a trio of nudist scammer aliens. The scammers quickly manage to steal control of Planetary Express through assorted e-mail frauds and seize control of Bender through a computer virus, and discover that the tattoo on Fry’s butt contains a binary code for time travel. Before long, subplots begin piling up, including the revelation of the truth ablout Leela’s pet Nibbler; a love triangle between Leela, Fry, and newcomer Lars; a limbo accident that just keeps getting worse; and the story of how a narwhal changed Fry’s life in the 20th century.

It’s one of the hallmarks of a Matt Groening’s show that it tends not to focus on one thing for very long, and Bender’s Big Score is no exception. By the time it’s done, it will have linked the nudist scammer aliens and the time-travel tattoo to spin out a story that careens between the 20th century and the 30th, lurching around and dashing off in unexpected directions every five minutes. This isn’t meant as a criticism, since the show would often do the same thing. The movie only loses coherence near the end, when the cuts between the time eras get in the way of the two stories that are being told. Still, the movie holds together pretty well. It also holds up on repeated viewings, proving that it didn’t cheat on the time-travel.

Robot Santa, Kwanzaabot, and Chanukah ZombieThe movie shares the same sense of humor as the show, with equal bits of slapstick physical comedy, witty and razor-sharp verbal humor, lines that are taken a bit too literally, gleeful extensions of a joke past its obvious punch line, surprise guest stars, math and science gags, running jokes, and the occasional gross-out or pop-culture reference. Futurama has always been a show made for DVD, since many of the jokes weren’t apparent on first viewing or flashed by far too quickly to be caught while the show was running. Bender’s Big Score follows the same tradition, with more signs in alien alphabets and myriad blink-and-you’ll-miss-it background gags. I’m sure that the movie is even funnier to the hardcore Futurama fans, but it still delivers plenty of laughs even if you only have a passing familiarity with it. There are also an array of guest stars, including Sarah Silverman (reprising her role as Michelle, Fry’s 20th century girlfriend), Coolio (returning as Kwanzaa-bot), and former Vice President Al Gore (having way too much fun poking fun at himself). Futurama fans will also get a kick out of identifying the dozens of supporting characters who all get at least a background appearance in the movie.

The DVD itself is excellent. The movie was animated in widescreen and gets an beautiful anamorphic transfer for the home-video presentation. Futurama has never looked better than it does here. The 90-minute movie gets a full, feature-length commentary track by creator Matt Groening, executive producer David X. Cohen, producer Claudia Katz, writer Ken Keeler, Bender’s Big Score director Dwayne Carey-Hill, and voice actors Billy West, John DiMaggio, and Phil LaMarr. The commentary is excellent, being informative and nearly as funny as the movie as the crew points out show references, explains some of the more esoteric jokes, and generally make each other laugh a lot.

The disc is also packed to the gills with extras, starting with the occasional interjection by Bender throughout the DVD menus. Three deleted scenes are presented as animatics, with the funniest being a scene (cut for time, sadly) where Bender crashes an expensive Monte Carlo casino. There is also a full 22-minute episode of Everybody Loves Hypnotoad, which the crew has apparently been threatening for a while; it’s surreal and hilarious minimalist humor. We also get “A Terrifying Message from Al Gore,” the animated YouTube promotion for Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which also gets a video commentary by Gore, Matt Groening, and David X. Cohen.

Nudists. Why'd they have to be nudists?There is also “Bite My Shiny Metal X,” which is a fun lecture and demonstration of the math and science jokes in Futurama led by Dr. Sarah Greenwald an unidentified math professor who DOES NOT run a Futurama-themed math website and whose career will IN NO WAY be ruined by being included on such a disreputable video. Two more extras come from the ever-popular Futurama panels at the San Diego Comic-Con: a live comic-book reading with the cast of the show and the original five-minute preview for this DVD. The official extras are rounded out by two art galleries and the first draft of the script, but there is also an Easter Egg of the scribbled timeline that the writers used to keep track of the different plot lines running through the movie.

Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to Bender’s Big Score is that it rekindled my interest in Futurama. It’s funny as it is, but I can’t escape the sense that I’m missing something more and I want to catch up. If you had even a passing interest in Futurama before, you’ll still hit the jackpot with Bender’s Big Score.

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