Futurama is one of my all-time favorite shows. It’s one of the first things my now-husband and I bonded over when we met. So I was excited to hear that creator Matt Groening was moving from sci-fi to fantasy with Disenchantment. After watching the whole season, which debuted last Friday on Netflix, I can safely say it’s a fine show. Not great, but not bad either. And the final couple of episodes may blow you away.
Disenchantment is Netflix’s latest animated series, helmed by co-executive producers Groening and Josh Weinstein. It’s about a reluctant princess named Bean (Abbi Jacobson), who drinks, gambles, and misbehaves her way through Dreamland with the help of her two friends, a happy-go-lucky elf named Elfo (Nat Faxon) and Luci (Eric Andre), a mischievous demon who’s been sent to Bean’s side by dark, mysterious forces.
The show’s gotten a pretty wide response, all over the board. Some have praised Groening’s return to form, others say it’s too similar to his other shows, The Simpsons and Futurama. Honestly, both of those things are true. There are some things that make it stand out from the crowd, as well as others that fall flat. Here are some of the things we liked the most about the debut season of Disenchantment, as well as what we’d like to see improve.
...The Unique Yet Familiar World
Disenchantment is a show that’s going to mean one thing to Groening animation fans, and something different to everyone else. If you’re someone who’s watched The Simpsons casually, and maybe never really picked up on Futurama, it’s a cute, silly show to watch. However, for those who’ve grown up with Groening’s work, it feels a little different. It’s almost like a security blanket, giving us many of the tropes, jokes, and themes we’ve grown up with in his previous shows, along with his distinct animation style. Granted, it’s not always good to stay in your comfort zone—and I have some issues with it I’ll get to at the end of this post—but as a major Futurama fan, I did enjoy seeing elements of the show I loved in this new one.
Of course, there are some things that help Disenchantment stand apart, the narrative structure being the main one. The season was full of standalone episodes and side plots that didn’t really go anywhere, as Groening is wont to do, but you could feel it was always moving toward something. And move toward something it did (again, more on that in a bit). There’s also a lot more violence in this show, like a lot, a lot, a lot. The Hansel and Gretel episode gets particularly icky near the end, though I didn’t really mind.
...Abbi Jacobson as Bean
Broad City’s Jacobson has stepped into the role of Princess Bean, a rebellious 19-year-old girl who drinks a lot, enjoys sex, and is constantly frustrated with how her father is treating her. It’s sort of a mix of Leela and Lisa, with a healthy dose of Bender Bending Rodriguez thrown in there. And I really, really like her. She’s a rebelling princess character who’s searching for who she is—a very Disney Princess story—but she does so in a way that works for her. Because, in the end, Bean does know who she is. Really, she’s just waiting for everyone else to understand her too. Plus, Jacobson is great in the role, bringing a healthy mix of energy and ease.
...The Animation Backgrounds
The character animation in the show is kind of mixed. It’s worse in the earlier episodes, which sometimes looked wonky, jumbled, or even kind of lazy. They’ve improved as the series has gone on, but they’re still not the finest work Groening and his team have done. The backgrounds, on the other hand, are breathtaking. I can’t tell you how much I love the scenery in many of the scenes, especially the kingdom of Dreamland. The backgrounds look like a mix of Disney’s Robin Hood and the Fractured Fairy Tales shorts from Rocky & Bullwinkle, giving the show a sense of timelessness while paying tribute to some of the greats in classic animation. A side note: I also like how the opening credits for each episode are tailor-made to match scenes from that episode.
...That One ‘Rock Band’ Scene
There is one scene that was so uproariously laugh-out-loud funny it’s worth a watch, even if you don’t plan on streaming the entire season. It’s comedy gold. During episode three “The Princess of Darkness,” we see Bean, Elfo, and Luci taste-testing a little teenage rebellion—which inevitably results in an actual taste test of her stepmother’s drugs. What results is a hilarious two-minute monologue where Bean goes through all the stages of forming a band with her best friends Elfo and Luci. She rambles on from the very first practice, where they promise to be together forever, to the time she inevitably says “Screw you all!” and goes solo, ultimately culminating in their heartfelt reunion tour where love will truly keep them together. It’s an incredibly random scene that comes out of nowhere, has no effect on the plot, and doesn’t get brought up again. But it works so amazingly well, and Jacobson delivered it with impeccable comedic timing.
...Bean’s Choice (and the Whole Season Finale)
Netflix only made the first seven episodes of Disenchantment available to critics, meaning a lot of them didn’t get a chance to see the final few episodes. This led some to question whether the promise of a narrative arc was actually going to be followed through on. It paid off, big time.
In the second-to-last episode, “To Thine Own Elf Be True,” Bean learns the shocking truth about what happened to her mother—she was turned to stone thanks to a poison, and her father’s season-long search for the Elixir of Life was to bring her back. Bean procures a single drop of elf’s blood and has to decide whether she’ll use it to revive her dead friend Elfo, or save her mother. In a move that surprised even me, Bean chooses her mother.
The final episode deals with the ramifications of that choice for better, but mostly for worse. Bean gets closer to her mother, eager to connect with someone after her father had emotionally abandoned her, while everyone else (including her father) slowly discovers that the queen’s revival may not actually be the best thing for the kingdom. Then, it culminates in a solid cliffhanger ending that makes me hungry for the next 10 episodes.
What really impressed me was how, upon watching “Dreamland Falls,” you understand how Disenchantment left us all the breadcrumbs to get us to that point. Some of the episodes might have been standalone stories, but they all connected—for example, Bean not having time to find her mother’s body in the crypt back in episode three. I’m tempted to go back and see how much I missed.
We Didn’t Love
...How Elfo’s Story Changed
Elfo was one of my favorite characters early on. The show introduced him as the Hermey the Misfit Elf of his secret elven community. Only it wasn’t toys he didn’t want to make, it was candy—and instead of wanting to be a dentist, Elfo wanted the freedom to be depressed. Lo and behold, Elfo leaves the grove and finds himself in a world where everyone is depressed. And when compared to those folks, he isn’t miserable at all—he’s a cheery optimist who’s never heard of war, offers an overabundance of gratitude to everyone he meets, and jumps in a raging river without knowing how to swim. Because it’s fun!
If this character sounds familiar, it’s because it’s basically Fry from Futurama, the cheerful outsider who doesn’t understand the world he’s in but dammit he wants to try. And know what? I was fine with that. Because he was cute and funny, and he was the angel to Luci’s devil on Bean’s shoulder. I liked Elfo. That is, until they went full Fry and turned him into a lovesick puppy over Bean.
By episode four, Disenchantment decided that Elfo’s main story arc was being in love with Bean and wanting a relationship, much like how Fry pined over Leela for most of the series. This took the sails right out of what could have been a fun and quirky side character, making him boring and repetitive. “Love’s Tender Rampage” was one of the worst episodes of the season for that very reason. I don’t care if Elfo is in love with Bean, because it’s not his story, it’s hers. I’d rather we focus on Bean’s personal journey, with the help (and malice) of her two friends. On that note, Luci is fine but kind of all over the place. He’s supposed to be a demon at the whim of these evil wizards, but they only pop up, like, a couple times throughout the season. Luci’s just there to be Bender.
...(Some of the) Pop Culture Stuff
In The Simpsons, it makes sense to have pop culture references, because the show literally reflects the popular culture of our time. Futurama had a different justification because it took place in the future, so it was able to draw back on our own “ancient history” in ways that kept our pop culture relevant. However, Disenchantment doesn’t have any of those excuses. And yet, we have scenes where police carriages and donkeys conduct high-speed chases, a creepy guy re-enacts The Exorcist, and the Constable Line: Do Not Cross tape.
I have no problem with pop culture references in shows like this...when they work, or serve a purpose. And there were times they did. For example, I loved when, after the Vikings “invaded” Bean’s party, that one guy pointed out the inconsistency of rules in their magical world after asking if the Viking’s arrow could talk. That was not only funny, it was a fun quip on an existing problem in lots of fantasy lore, that sometimes shit changes for no reason. But the overt pop culture nods, without any reason being there other than “LOL this exists,” felt less like clever commentary and more like something from Shrek or Family Guy.
...Its Preventable Growing Pains
Earlier in the post I mentioned how Disenchantment’s “unique yet familiar world” can be comforting for fans of The Simpsons and Futurama. However, it also can be a problem. The final couple of episodes may have been on a whole other level of quality, but that doesn’t excuse some of the mistakes made earlier in the season. Groening’s shows have a tendency to feel underwhelming early on, giving us episodes and storylines that are more boring than engaging, and this show was no exception.
I was especially unimpressed by the two-parter series premiere, where Bean had to escape marrying the admittedly hilarious Matt Berry as Prince Merkimer. It felt like the same joke repeated several times—Bean doesn’t want to get married, does a thing to avoid getting married, drinks booze. And the early animation was so poor at times, I couldn’t help but wonder if part of it was from the pilot that got pitched to Netflix before the series pick-up. This would be fine, except it feels like Groening should have learned from his mistakes by now. There’s no excuse for wonky and inconsistent animation from a big-name creator who’s given us so much great work.
The final couple of episodes showed a narrative maturity that we haven’t seen from Groening’s work in a long time, and I’m sure that’s in no small part thanks to Weinstein, who worked on Gravity Falls. But there are some potholes Disenchantment keeps stumbling into that I would like to see the team learn to hop over in the next 10 episodes, and possibly beyond.