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"Futurama: Bender's Game" Gets DTVs Back in the Saddle

Disappointment seemed to be the general reaction to the second Futurama direct-to-video movie, The Beast with a Billion Backs (read our review here). As a result, it’s a little hard to completely filter out how much lowered expectations will affect one’s reaction to Bender’s Game, the third of four direct-to-video movies that will act as the fifth season of the animated science fiction comedy series. Despite the title, Bender’s Game borrows little from the similarly-titled Orson Scott Card novel, opting instead for a combination of timely social commentary and good-natured ribbing at the expense of Dungeons & Dragons and the geeks who love it (ahem). If the movie still doesn’t quite make it up to the standard set set by Bender’s Big Score, the first of the Futurama movies (reviewed here and here for Toon Zone), it’s still a nice step up from the last DTV.

We all live in a Yellow...um, SpaceshipLike The Beast with a Billion Backs, the opening credits sequence to Bender’s Game plays an elaborate animation joke, planting the crew of the Planet Express in a hilarious send-up of the psychedelic world of Yellow Submarine. Once this silliness is done with, the movie gets down to its three main plots. Bender experiments with imagination to join in on a Dungeons and Dragons game, quickly tipping into delusion and becoming convinced he really is Titanius Englesmith, fancy man of Cornwood. After trying to skewer cars and running around a sewer in a live-action role-play, he’s dragged off to the HAL Institute for Criminally Insane Robots for a bit of deprogramming. Meanwhile, skyrocketing prices for dark matter, the energy source of choice in the 31st century, make it more and more expensive to keep the lights on and the ship flying at the Planet Express. Unfortunately, Mom Industries has a lock on dark matter production, and isn’t explaining why mining dark matter is getting so expensive while it’s racking up gargantuan profits. The third plot centers on Leela, whose anger management issues lead to a training collar that shocks her whenever she’s about to punch someone out, swear, or do any of the other things that make life worth living.

I knew we should have taken that left turn at AlbuquerqueThese three plots careen around Bender’s Game without much obvious coherence, making it similar to The Beast with a Billion Backs. For that matter, these plots are still only tenuously connected by the end of the movie, which takes a sharp left turn into weirdzo land in its last half-hour. It’s at this point that the movie shifts into the parody of fantasy fiction used so heavily in the trailers. If one complains that this portion is too short and comes a bit too late, it’s only because it’s funny enough that it’s easy to wish there was more of it. Each of the Futurama characters gets turned into some fantasy version of themselves, often with hilarious results. The bits involving Fry’s Gollum-like transformation are quite entertaining, and I don’t dare give away the spit-take-inducing alteration to Hermes. As always, knowing more about Dungeons and Dragons or fantasy fiction makes a lot of the jokes funnier, but this portion of the movie is still plenty funny without such knowledge.

Even if the movie doesn’t have a whole lot of coherence, it still hangs together more solidly than The Beast with a Billion Backs. While the Bender and dark matter plots work out pretty well, the Leela anger management plot is rather underdone, although it’s also the least important. On the commentary track, the writing staff says that they wanted this plot to be their statement on the sliding moral scale of most fantasy heroes, who proclaim their ethical fortitude while slaughtering the bad guys indiscriminately. If that was the intent, it doesn’t really come off. It’s mostly a source of laughs at Leela’s expense, although the demolition derby early in the movie that results from this plot is funny enough to make it worthwhile. The movie proves to be funnier in general than its predecessor, which might be the factor that makes the lack of a cohesive narrative more palatable. Some of the more sensitive viewers may object to the fact that half the gags in the movie are poop jokes, but to their credit, the writing staff has come up with some of the most creative poop jokes I’ve ever heard. If all poop jokes were this creative and funny, so many people probably wouldn’t object to them on general principle.

Hai-yaaaaa!!!Long-term Futurama fans should probably know that Bender’s Game is almost entirely independent from the earlier two films, so don’t expect much continuity. There are probably more references to assorted episodes of the TV show than there are to the earlier two movies, and those seeking more resolution to the Fry-Leela relationship will be best off not getting their hopes up for this one. Whether or not this makes Bender’s Game a disappointment will depend on how seriously you want to take the larger narrative of the series. However, it seems that the writers aren’t taking anything too seriously, so perhaps the best course of action is to relax and laugh along.

The animation of Bender’s Game is still up to par with the previous DTVs, being a step up from the TV show but not quite as high-grade as something like The Simpsons Movie feature film. The promotional screening copy provided by Fox suffers from a lot of digital noise and distortion, so it’s hard to give a final evaluation of the audio and video quality of the DTV. Also, while it’s not an issue that should affect the retail DVD, I also really wish that Fox would lighten up the copy protection enough for their screener DVDs to play in my Mac’s DVD player application.

Eat the shield of fancy man justice!Like the earlier DTVs, Bender’s Game is loaded with extras which are all amusing at the very least. As with the earlier two DVDs, the commentary track by a host of creative staff is informative and entertaining, and apparently includes a picture-in-picture feature on the Blu-ray version that will make it easier to identify who’s speaking at any given time. Listening to it is definitely worth sitting through the movie for a second time. A complete storyboard animatic for the first third of the movie is a boon to animation process fans. The “Futurama Genetics Lab” may be the only worthwhile DVD game I’ve ever seen, letting you meld two Futurama characters together into a freakish genetic monstrosity. “D&D&F” details just what the acronym stands for: Dungeons & Dragons and Futurama, and how the one influenced the other. Mostly, its an excuse for David X. Cohen and Eric Kaplan to show off what nerds they are, and Mike Rowe to have a bit of fun at Cohen and Kaplan’s expense. “How to Draw Futurama in 83 Easy Steps” hangs a camera over the shoulder of some of the animators at Rough Draft Studios, and is mildly amusing without really giving much useful information on how to draw the Futurama characters. Some of those animators re-appear to comment on the featurette that showcases some of the 3-D CGI models created for Bender’s Game. One deleted scene, “Cup or Nozzle?”, is included in animatic form, along with “Blooperama 2″ that’s mostly the actors in the recording booth messing around. There’s a DVD Easter Egg close to the blooper reel that spotlights Billy West having a lot of trouble with a line. “Bender’s Anti-Piracy Warning” mercilessly parodies the public “service” messages that are appearing on more and more DVDs these days. Finally, the DVD includes a trailer for Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder, the fourth and (for now) final Futurama direct-to-video movie.

Bender’s Game is definitely a step back in the right direction from the slight disappointment that was The Beast with a Billion Backs. It’s still not quite at the high-water mark of Bender’s Big Score, but if you’re prone to the kind of nerdy humor that Futurama specializes in, there are plenty lots of laughs to be had from the movie. Besides, getting more Futurama is never a bad thing.

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