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Non-Review Review: Futurama – Bender’s Game

You could make the arguement that the first two Futurama movies – Bender’s Big Score and The Beast With A Billion Backs – cast their nets particularly widely in charting the universe the show had been cultivating for four years before it went off the air, perhaps drawing in more threads than it was fair to assume that an hour-and-a-half movie could handle. So Bender’s Game might seem a relief in that regard. It’s a relatively tightly-focused tale, involving a small subset of the show’s many, many characters. However, in doing so, it never really seems to justify why it’s a bigger and longer tale. Indeed, it could just as easily have been two shorter ones.

A Knight to Remember...

It’s fascinating, given the way the episode sells itself – with its name and its DVD cover and such – the movie doesn’t actually reach the realm of fantasy parody until about an hour in. The movie is, essentially, a game of two halves, split between an introductory section that balances a theme of environmental concern and Bender’s growing addiction to Dungeons & Dragons and a second half where the cast wind up living through the fantasy Bender has concocted in his imagination. Given how hugely this is influenced by The Lord of the Rings, it isn’t necessarily a particularly creative imagination.

I remarked in my introductory paragraph that this particular movie has a much tighter focus than the somewhat sprawling tapestries of the earlier two movies (the first of which tied up virtually every remotely unfastened end the show had and the second of which saw the entire universe dating a tenticle monster). Here, instead, we focus – as we commonly did while the show was on the air – on a tightly knit subset of that cast. In this case “Mom’s Friendly Robot Company”. In fairness, this tighter focus rewards itself with some decent (if entirely predictable) character development, but it’s odd to spend two hours with Mom, who is one of the show’s more… one-dimensional characters, if I may be so bold. Her schtick is that she’s an old dearie… who is bad to the bone! She isn’t exactly as charming as Zapp Brannigan, for example. Even when the episode happens to focus on Zoidberg (early on) it’s far more fun and fascinating. Although it is fun to see the addition of a wonderful new supporting character, in the form of the easily-distracted kill-bots. I wage we’ll see them again.

Shocking...

That isn’t to say that the first half isn’t entertaining – it is. Just not consistently so. You might even laugh through your “frontal face hole”. Contrary to what you might imagine on reading the plot summary above, the environmental subplot here is handled much better than Bender’s Dungeons & Dragons addiction. Watching it, I almost get the feeling that the writers are almost too fond of Dungeons & Dragons – or too afraid of alienating any fans in the audience. While they give it a very gentle once-over (“when will kids learn that playing Dungeons & Dragons isn’t cool?”), there’s no real zest to the plot (unlike, say, the crew’s wonderful willingness to rip into William Shatner’s ego during the Star Trek episode Where No Fan Has Gone Before).

Instead, the story that works for the first half is the environmental one. This is a bit disappointing, because not only has this been done before (and much better) but it’s also going to provide the backbone of Into the Wild Green Yonder, the final installment of the movies – and admittedly one which also handles it better. There are still more than a few moments of hilarity to be found (most notably the fate of Scott Bakula during a demolition derby – “Way to kill the franchise, Bakula!”), but the movie doesn’t really kick off until the two-third mark. This isn’t helped by copious amounts of exposition, however much the writing might acknowledge and mock it (“Quit trying to explain things!”).

It’s only when the movie branches off into a fantasy parody (more specifically a Lord of the Rings parody) that things get going. Here there’s the familiar bite of Futurama humour – such as when the Ent asks if there’s anything more he can do, and Leela and co. don’t hesitate to put him to good use. Or Bender’s way of dealing with infirm dwarves. There’s more than a moment or two of inspired comedy here, and the laugh count goes way up. In fact, the movie’s take on Gollum’s inner debate (or “tedious debate”, as the movie flags these types of scenes so common in these sort of films) is inspired and probably one of my favourite gags of the entire four movies, though I’m damned if I can explain why. Of course then I remember how Bender got his pirate ship from the Robot Devil, and there’s just no contest…

The movie offers wonderful take son the staples of fantasy, as Leela wonders if she saw a Hobbit (to which Bender replies, “Nah, that’s a hobby and a rabbit – but they’re making a Hobbit”)  and the group is attacked by familiar-noise-making Morks (“Maybe it’ll go away if we just don’t laugh at it!” “It won’t!”). This is the sort of razor-sharp wit that the writers should be giving us all the way through the movie, rather than in small bursts. I would have thought Dungeons & Dragons would be ripe for parody (to quote Al Gore, “Put the dice away before I take them away!”), but evidently not.

Bender’s Game isn’t as solid as the last film, and doesn’t have the same attention deficit disorder which gripped the first film. It feels almost like a regular episode of the television show, but where the introduction has been stretched and padded out before we jump into the real funny stuff. It’s still Futurama, but it’s not perfect.

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