Monday, August 16, 2010

DVD Review: Futurama: Volume One

Futurama: Volume One

(Released: 2003 by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)
Another Looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

Ten years after his success with THE SIMPSONS, creator Matt Groening produced his second (and, as of yet, unfortunately last) animated series for the FOX Network – FUTURAMA.

Groening has often acknowledged the influence of THE FLINTSTONES on THE SIMPSONS, to the extent of copious references within SIMPSONS episodes, so it adds that his next primetime series would smack of THE JETSONS.

While THE SIMPSONS reflects THE FLINTSTONES in structure, FUTURAMA reflects THE JETSONS in setting. The Future… and all that comes with it!

Unlike THE JETSONS, however, we “see” this future, its ways, and its denizens, through the eyes of a semi-relatable, 20th Century dolt named Philip J. Fry. Further, to connect FUTURAMA with THE SIMPSONS, in more than just the uniquely familiar art style of Matt Groening, Fry (by his actions) would seem to be SOME RELATION to Homer Simpson. Picture Homer at 25, with no family to ground him, and you have Fry.

Where Homer has, by some incomprehensible means, managed to attain the position of “Nuclear Technician”, Fry (in New York City, circa 1999) had not managed to progress beyond the station of pizza delivery boy. On New Year’s Eve of that year, his route includes a “Cryogenics Facility”. He blunders into a freezing tube, and wakes just in time to see 2999 turn to 3000!

While Fry is frozen, we see (through sped-up animation) civilization fall – not once but twice – leaving “New New York” (built atop the ruins of “olde” New York) to become his home. There he meets Leela (an attractive – but tough – purple-haired cyclopean alien), the robot Bender, his great, great, something, something, grand-nephew the ancient Professor Farnsworth (owner of the package delivery firm “Planet Express”), the professor’s office manager Hermes Conrad, his intern Amy Wong, and the company doctor – hapless crustacean alien Dr. Zoidberg. And, in another of those great instances of “cosmic balance”, Fry once again becomes a “delivery boy” – this time for Planet Express.

CGI animation is widely used in FUTURAMA (to an extent uncommon for the time), for various ship movements, space scenes, and complicated backgrounds and character movements. I’ve never been much of a fan of CGI, but it is used well in this series.

The voicing triumvirate of Billy West (Stimpy of “Ren and…”, as well as contemporary voice of Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, and Bugs Bunny as Fry and Farnsworth), Katey Sagal (“Married with Children”, “Lost” as Leela) and John DiMaggio (Aquaman on “The Brave and the Bold” as Bender) are superb, and are backed by the talents of Tress MacNeille, Maurice LaMarche, Phil LaMarr, Lauren Tom, and Dave Herman.

As Bart Simpson was to his series, Bender is the “breakout character” of FUTURAMA. And, to note how times have changed between debuts of the two series, recall that Bart’s catchphrase was “Eat my shorts!”… and Bender’s is “Bite my shiny metal ass!”

Here’s a quote from Matt Groening on Bender (taken from one of the set’s Extra Features): “Bender is a robot who is Fry’s best friend in the whole universe. And Bender is a pretty cool robot. He’s a ‘bender’. His full name is ‘Bender Unit 22’. He’s programmed to bend girders. That’s all he’s programmed to do, but he hates his job. And, as a result, he drowns his despair in beer and shoplifting, and reads ‘robot pornography’ (like circuit diagrams) – and so he’s not really like the other sci-fic robots you might remember from the past. Not like the one in LOST IN SPACE, or the FORBIDDEN PLANET Robby the Robot. He drinks beer and then he eats the bottles!”

A character description like THAT, from the character’s creator – no less, is worth the price of admission, I’d say.

Revisiting FUTURAMA in 2010, I must say that I find it far more enjoyable than I did at the time of its original airing. There are certainly more “laugh-out-loud” moments than I recall in 1999. It also taps nicely into the “Y2K Panic” of the time, that I was so personally involved in combating in my “day job”. The satire in FUTURAMA is both clever and absurd, and lots of “what you like about THE SIMPSONS” is here as well.

This set covers the first 13 episodes of FUTURAMA. Though, as I recall, only the first NINE of those aired as part of the first season, which began in March 1999. The final four were shifted to the beginning of Season Two. Perhaps that’s why the set is titled “Volume One”, rather than “Season One”. FOX is to be commended for packaging the “First Season” as it was INTENDED TO BE, rather than as it was broadcast.

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.


I must be on a “hot streak”! Other than “Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season One”, my DVD reviews of late have been notably “CON-free. I’d have to think really hard to
find a true CON with this set… And, like Fry, I don’t feel like thinking quite that hard!


General: The episodes, the cast, and the print quality are all first rate. The packaging is both attractively illustrated and perfectly functional.

These 1999 shows are in WIDSCREEN, something THE SIMPSONS would not get around to until 2009. Oddly, in the second season, the shows go back to standard ratio. I’ve given up trying to figure this out. See THIS POST on whether or not BUGS BUNNY was ever done in widescreen.

Finally, unlike any of the FOX TV broadcasts, the end credits can be seen – and freeze-framed for detailed reading. Imagine having to include THAT as a “PRO”!

Extra Features: A wealth of goodies including:

Commentary tracks on every episode with creator Matt Groening, producer David X. Cohen, voice actors John DiMaggio and Billy West, directors, writers, and animators.

Deleted scenes where available.

A “Making Of” featurette.

Lots of concept art, showing the visual development of the characters and setting at many different stages.

Anamatics, Script, and Storyboards for the Pilot Episode.

The Episodes:

Space Pilot 3000”: Fry emerges in the year 3000, and meets Leela, Bender, and Professor Farnsworth.

The Series has Landed”: On a delivery to the schlocky amusement park of the Moon, “Luna Park” (a nice joke that older New Yorkers might get), Fry, Leela, and Bender get lost out on the “real” Moon.

I, Roommate”: Fry and Bender become roommates. At one point, there’s actually an “Odd Couple” visual and musical parody tailored for the pair.

Love’s Labours Lost In Space”: We meet FUTURAMA’s most obnoxious character, “Zapp Brannigan”, and his long-suffering aide Kif Kroker. Also introduces Leela’s pet, the cute and surprisingly savage “Nibbler” (with alien noises supplied by Frank Welker).

Fear of a Bot Planet”: Fry, Leela, and Bender find themselves on a planet of human-hating robots. Guess who defects, and becomes a huge celebrity.

A Fishful of Dollars”: Fry comes into lots of money, via the year 3000’s interest on his very meager 1999 savings account, and indulges himself in every 20th Century remnant he can find – including the very last unopened can of anchovies on Earth. This episode introduces “Mom”, a wonderfully evil old lady industrialist played by Tress MacNielle, and her three stooge sons. Mom wants the fish as badly as Fry and battles him for it.
My Three Suns”: On a planet with three blazing suns, Fry accidentally DRINKS the planet’s emperor. The emperor is a bottleful of cool water. By the planet’s quirky laws, Fry becomes the new emperor – until the next “water being” in line for the throne can assassinate him. Great gag: A succession of Emperors’ portraits ends with “Fry”, a blank frame titled “Fry’s Assassin”, followed by “Fry’s Assassin’s Assassin”! Upon seeing this last one, Fry remarks: “At least my assassin will get what’s coming to him!”

Oh, and they DON’T retrieve the Old Emperor in the way you’re expecting! So there!

A Big Piece of Garbage”: A particular favorite of mine, during the original run. An asteroid-size ball of trash is on a collision course with New New York. It is all the garbage the city had once rocketed off into space, come home to roost. Believe it or not, Fry and Professor Farnsworth save the day. An absurdly cynical ending that I just love!

Hell is Other Robots”: Bender goes to Robot-Hell! The “Robot-Devil” is wonderfully overplayed by Dan (Homer Simpson) Castellaneta.

A Flight to Remember”: The Planet Express crew takes a vacation cruise… on the Space Titanic – and Zapp Brannigan is the captain! Bender romances a robot passenger. What else do you need to know? Great spoof of a mega-successful film of the time! Maybe you remember it? This was bumped back to become the Season Two premiere.

Mars University”: Fry, Bender, and a super intelligent monkey enhanced by Professor Farnsworth go collegiate – at Mars University. This is mostly an excuse to spoof “Animal House”, “Revenge of the Nerds”, and films of that ilk. On that level, it succeeds.

When Aliens Attack”: Perhaps the only one to supersede “A Big Piece of Garbage”! Back in 1999, Fry’s bumbling, while delivering a pizza and drinks to the actual New York FOX affiliate WNYW TV, knocks FOX off the air during the season finale of “Single Female Lawyer” (read “Ally McBeal”).

Ten centuries later, the warlord ruler of Omicron Peresi 8 and his wife (who have been faithfully receiving “Single Female Lawyer” from Earth’s broadcast signals on a thousand-year delay) are horrified to have lost the ending to the season finale.

Enraged, their armies of saucers attack Earth, demanding satisfaction. All seems doomed until Fry (who actually remembers the show) and company ineptly reenact the final scene in clumsy sets and makeshift costumes, finally delivering the closure the alien audience craves. Wonderful in that same absurdly cynical way!

Fry and the Slurm Factory”: A well-crafted send-up of “Willy Wonka / Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” – only with the disgusting and addictive soft drink SLURM. Dated now, but very funny then, is “Slurms MacKensie”, the drink’s “party-slug” mascot. Trust me, you DON’T want to know where Slurm comes from! Yuck!


FUTURAMA delivers far more laughs and a greater sense of the absurd than I recall from 1999. And the Second Season only gets BETTER!

I must not be alone in my admiration for FUTURAMA for, just as with FAMILY GUY, successful DVD sales and syndicated reruns have prompted its return! The revived series premiered June 24, 2010 on Comedy Central. I can’t wait for the DVD!

If you enjoy any of the FOX Sunday evening animated series – or shows like Warner Bros.’ severely underrated FREAKAZOID! and the ‘80s version of MIGHTY MOUSE – you will enjoy FUTURAMA! Bender says “Buy it!”… and he’s a very smart robot! Just ask Matt Groening!


Kneon Transitt said...

Futurama rocks.

Like Enterprise, I was nonplussed by the first few episodes and didn't tune in regularly. Only after catching it in reruns did I come to appreciate how good it actually was.

And like Enterprise, it was cancelled just when it was coming into its own.

But hey... it's back now! And while I haven't seen much of the new series, "The Beast With a Billion Backs" was pretty darn funny.

The whole series is being streamed on Netflix right now. If you have he means, you may wanna save some cash and watch that way before buying. (But hey -- it's so good that it's no waste of money to get the DVDs!)

Joe Torcivia said...

I must say, I’m enjoying FUTURAMA much more this time around!

And the second season gets better still! Many of those are new to me. And, I’m really enjoying the new (2010) ones as well!

I’ll have a review of "The Beast with a Billion Backs" comic soon! Already written.

Though “Bender’s Big Score” was the best of the “Direct to DVDs”, “Beast” was a clear second. “Score” even leads into “Beast” continuity-wise.

Also coming “Enterprise” Season Two! WHAT an end to that season!