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"Futurama: Beast with a Billion Backs" Has Some Performance Problems

by on June 25, 2008

The news that Matt Groening’s lesser-known animated comedy Futurama would be returning for four direct-to-DVD movies was cause for celebration among the show’s many fans, all of whom were richly rewarded for their patience last year with the first movie, Bender’s Big Score (reviewed here and here at Toon Zone News). Unfortunately, the follow-up movie, The Beast with a Billion Backs, comes off as a non-trivial stumble. While the movie is still quite funny and entertaining, a number of odd creative decisions also produces a movie that is lumpy and a little strange, but not in the good way that the best Futurama episodes could be.

Well, actually, yeah, I was going to eat that, Zoidberg...The Beast with a Billion Backs picks up immediately from where the last movie left off, as Bender’s persistent time travel has opened a giant rift in the space-time continuum. In its first odd creative decision, this plot is dropped almost immediately to put love into the air, as nearly all the parallel stories in the movie seem to center on hook-ups and break-ups. To the chagrin of many longtime fans of the show, the intense (if somewhat secret) relationship between Fry and Leela in Bender’s Big Score has been almost completely forgotten, as we are introduced quickly to Fry’s new girlfriend Colleen (voiced by guest star Brittany Murphy), leaving Leela oddly undisturbed in the lurch. Elsewhere, Kif and Amy finally decide to tie the knot, or the Fonfon Rou, as Kif’s people call it. And while it’s not quite a romantic entanglement, even Bender ends up seeking the company of his own kind, as he joins the secretive League of Robots. The sudden ending of Fry’s relationship sends him into the rift, where he meets the bizarre alien creature of the title, at which point detailing much more of the plot would ruin its surprises.

The Beast with a Billion Backs
is funny, to be sure, starting from the opening credits, which are a dead-on parody of classic black-and-white Disney cartoons from the 1930’s. The writers have lost none of their skill at crafting perfect one-liners for their cast of characters, and the animation staff can wring huge laughs out of the smallest pauses or expressions. The multiple levels of humor are also still present, as are many in-jokes and references to past episodes for the truly dedicated. If nothing else, the guest voice appearance by Prof. Stephen Hawking is almost worth the price of admission.

Steamspaceship LeelaHowever, while Bender’s Big Score felt like a single movie that could be divided up into multiple episodes of the show, The Beast with a Billion Backs feels more like a series of average episodes of the show that have been loosely stitched together to form a movie. The subplots and twists of Bender’s Big Score eventually added up to something bigger, but that doesn’t happen with Beast with a Billion Backs. The assorted plot threads never really manage to cohere into a single narrative, feeling more like a batch of really good ideas thrown out in the writer’s room but not worked over enough to form something cohesive. There are also plot decisions that feel arbitrary or poorly thought out, both of which are attributes not normally associated with Futurama. For example, on the commentary track, the writers and directors justify putting Fry with a new girlfriend so quickly after the events of Bender’s Big Score by saying it’s been six months in real time since the last movie. They seem to have forgotten that Futurama‘s audience is obsessive enough to freeze-frame videotapes to decode encrypted street signs in alien languages on screen for less than a second; the likelihood that this audience will forget or forgive something like that is pretty dim. Indeed, the whole Colleen subplot seems weirdly underdeveloped, as her story peters out to a surprisingly unfunny halt quite early in the movie. She continues to pop up throughout, although she seems less and less interesting each time. In the end, The Beast with a Billion Backs feels more like schtick than story, which was something that Bender’s Big Score nimbly avoided.

Like Bender’s Big Score, the DVD for The Beast with a Billion Backs comes with a raft of extras. A full-length commentary track for the movie features creator Matt Groening; producers David X. Cohen, Claudia Katz, and Lee Supercinski; voice actors Billy West, John DiMaggio, and Maurice LaMarche; writer and co-producer Michael Rowe; and director Peter Avanzino. This commentary falls more on the “entertaining” side than the “informative” side, with the commentators mostly clowning around with each other. The second extra is an episode-length “Lost Adventure,” which stitches together the cutscenes from the 2003 Futurama video game into a 30-minute episode. It mostly works, although there are still a non-trivial number of hiccups and abrupt changes that were no doubt filled in by gameplay. This video also comes with another commentary track by Groening, Cohen, West, DiMaggio, LaMarche, Rowe, and Supercinski, joined by writer J. Stewart Burns; this commentary track is about as good as the other.

Bend-arrrrr!!!Other extras include a storyboard animatic version of the first episode of Beast with a Billion Backs; several deleted scenes in various stages of completion; one featurette with David Cross, who plays the alien creature Yivo in the movie; one blooper reel of the cast in the recording booth; a gallery of 3D models with commentary by several crew members of Rough Draft Studios; a pencil art gallery of character models from the “Deathball” sequence; and a trailer for the next DTV in the series, Bender’s Game. While none of these extras are really essential viewing, they’re also all fairly interesting to Futurama fans and animation process junkies.

All the prior criticism comes off as much harsher than it’s intended to be, but Futurama has trained its viewers to expect more. Four episodes of Futurama are still funnier and far more clever than most other sitcoms, and despite its flaws, fans of the show will still want to watch or own The Beast with a Billion Backs. Unfortunately, unlike Bender’s Big Score, there isn’t as much here for the casual fan or someone coming to Futurama for the first time. Let’s hope they get their game back in time for Bender’s Game.

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