Sunday, December 5, 2010
DVD Review: Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs
Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs
(Released: 2008 by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)
Another Looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia
After a period of irregular (and outright poor) broadcast scheduling, Matt Groening’s second animated series for the FOX TV Network was cancelled. The final FOX-cast occurring on August 10, 2003.
Within four years, however, FUTURAMA was revived (Ironically, by the Home Entertainment division of FOX!) as a series of “Made-for-DVD Features”, prompted by healthy DVD sales and a strong showing in syndication.
The success of the first such release, “Bender’s Big Score” (2007) led to Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs, and two subsequent titles – finally culminating with the RETURN of new FUTURAMA episodes on cable’s Comedy Central, beginning on June 24, 2010. These new episodes will be released to DVD at the end of December, 2010!
As you might expect, Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs plays like an episode of FUTURAMA expanded to an hour and twenty-eight minutes. In other words, it comprises the “air time” of about FOUR standard episodes.
Curiously, buried in the end credits – for the “End Credits Geeks” among us – there are four separate PRODUCTION NUMBERS, indicating that they were to be episodes 5-7 of the theoretical “Production Season Five”. From this, we might infer that “Bender’s Big Score” comprised the first four episodes of that production season. …Okay, enough credits-geekiness for now!
To the story: In the skies, over Earth of 3008, a rift-like anomaly has appeared – bringing with it the requisite panic among the populace.
This is, until enough time has passed with nothing happening as a result. The masses go from alternately frightened and bored… to ultimately just bored with the once scary scar in the sky. A superb parody of the way WE jaded and weary Americans seem to go from great initial concern to taking everything in-stride (from questionable wars to catastrophic oil spills) unless manipulated into additional fear and/or panic by politicians and biased media outlets. Then, we just ignore it again, and go about our business.
Eventually, Professor Farnsworth gets around to sending the Planet Express ship to investigate (…As Hermes so wonderfully said in one of the new 2010 episodes: “Weren’t we once a DELIVERY COMPANY?!”). In the great tradition of LOST IN SPACE, they send “the robot” to investigate, and contact between Bender and the anomaly allows a vast many-tentacled creature to break through – and take over all life on Earth by inserting its tentacles into the backs of everyone’s necks. What does it want? Believe me, you don’t wanna find out!
We have many twists and lots of side plots, the most prominent of which are: Fry and his new girlfriend (who shares him in a 31st Century living arrangement with four other guys), Bender joining “The League of Robots” (a decidedly unimpressive group of mecha-dandies, save for the omnipresent “Calculon”), and Amy’s “joining” with Kif Kroker. The latter is referenced in a 2010 episode.
The humor and dialogue are as sharp as ever, and clearly FUTURAMA lost nothing during its FOX-forced hiatus.
As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.
The Packaging: While not anywhere near as bad as the packaging for concurrent releases of THE SIMPSONS (as detailed in THIS POST), the single disc is still not as well-protected as I would have liked. There is an inside cardboard sleeve that opens like a book.
On what would be “Page Three” of the book, is a POUCH that contains the disc. Nearly HALF the disc is exposed, but it is securely positioned within the pouch. Still, one must either handle both sides of the disc, or slide it out over the cardboard back of the pouch, in order to remove it. Neither is a “best” option. Still, better than it COULD have been!
The Price: Every SIMPSONS and FUTURAMA set is worth getting, given both the material and the wealth of Extra Features included. But, the price for this (and other FUTURAMA “Direct-to-DVDs”) is more or less the equivalent of an entire season set – for about the running time of four episodes. A minor CON, in view of what you’re getting (vs. other contemporary animation collections), but a CON nevertheless.
It’s FUTURAMA: Just as we remembered it. Everything that was great is back. Nothing new-and-unfortunate has been added.
Continuity: In a very nice touch, The Beast with a Billion Backs immediately follows Bender’s Big Score, in that the latter ends with the creation of the rift in the sky. However, there is no requirement to have seen Bender’s Big Score before The Beast with a Billion Backs. In fact, I DID see them in reverse order, to no ill effect. You could just as easily assume the rift appears at the start of The Beast with a Billion Backs and move forward from there. That’s the BEST kind of continuity!
The Cast: The original voicing triumvirate of Billy West (contemporary voice of Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, and Bugs Bunny as Fry and Prof. 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, Dave Herman – and David Cross as the tentacled, tough-loving, takeover-minded alien “Yivo”.
The Packaging: Attractively decorated in a pseudo-1950s sci-fi movie trailer style. Characters do wild scared takes and there are prominently featured phrases in the mold of “SEE a Monster of Questionable Morality!” and “THRILL to the Gentle Probe of the Love Tentacle!” Naturally, it is presented “…in Glorious Grope-O-Scope”!
Menu Navigation: Menus are easy to navigate, play melodramatically tense sci-fi / monster movie music, and also reflect the retro/ ‘50s horror style of the packaging.
Extra Features: A wealth of goodies including:
Commentary track on the film with creator Matt Groening, producer David X. Cohen, voice actors John DiMaggio, Billy West, Maurice LaMarche, directors, writers, and animators.
Short features on various aspects of the film.
Anamatics and Storyboards.
A Preview of the next film in the series, “Bender’s Game”.
A collectable Post Card in each package, illustrating “The Beast with a Billion Backs”
And the best for last:
“FUTURAMA the Lost Adventure (in 3D, sort of)”. The story animation for an out-of-print FUTURAMA video game, circa 2003. All animation is in 3D, and it is fully voiced by the original cast. In fact, if it didn’t occasionally cut away for the “game play” sequences, you’d think you were watching a lost episode of FUTURAMA!
It holds up almost as well as an average episode, running for 30 minutes – longer than the usual 22 minutes of a TV show. These are the occurrences that SET UP the “game play” and that continue to advance the narrative of the game each time you master another level, without getting your character killed. In fact, there’s even an ingenious device (nicely set up as part of the “show”) that is there to “bring your character back to life”, in the likely event he or she is killed.
Yes, it is jarring to have the story move in arbitrary directions that will send Fry, Bender, Leela, and Zoidberg on QUESTS for certain objects – where they get to run, jump, dodge, kick, and shoot their way to their game-mandated goal – but, somehow the story still works! Perhaps, that’s why it was only a marginally successful video game – and should have been a regular episode instead.
The “game play” sequences, short bits of which are edited into place to maintain the story flow, look as you would expect video game graphics of the time to look (mostly, out-of-place), but are necessary to the production as a whole. The DVD producers are commended for even attempting to deliver this “Lost Episode” to the fans!
There is also an optional commentary track to this feature (!) with Groening, Cohen, DiMaggio, West, LaMarche, and company. How do you not love the effort involved!
Despite the CONS, this is a great package for FUTURAMA fans, and devotees of the FOX Sunday evening animated series in general!
…And no probing, mind-controlling, tentacled space monster made me say that!