Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/16/08 11:55:29

"Still a moderate amount of fun on the bun."
3 stars (Just Average)

Good news, everyone! The “Futurama” movies are still a geek treat!

Yes, fans, the direct-to-video line of sequel movies continuing the comic adventures of the once-cancelled Fox cartoon remains a delight for anyone who thrilled to Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s brilliantly twisted blend of sci-fi parody, nerd-friendly science humor, and unexpectedly touching character drama. The second of these four films, “Futurama: The Best with a Billion Backs”, maintains everything we’ve come to love about the series, and at times, the laughs are as big as they’ve ever been for this franchise. (Who can deny the comedy gold of Stephen Hawking playing a superpowered future version of himself?)

And Yet. Oh, yes, there is an And Yet. I’m reluctant to deliver the bad news about a movie as charming and as funny as “Beast,” because when it’s good, it’s very, very good. Ah, but there it is: And Yet. I wrote in my review of the first movie, “Bender’s Big Score!”, that it worked as a complete movie and not merely as a string of three episodes lamely pasted together, and I suppose you can already see where this is going. “Beast” is very funny, very warm, very intelligent, and yet it’s nothing more than four episodes lamely pasted together. As such, arriving at the end leaves you thinking you just sat through a Comedy Central midweek mini-marathon of the show.

Which may be the point. The cable channel picked up reruns of the series a while back, which they used to lead in to the premiere of “Big Score” in its broadcast form, broken into four episodes; the same treatment is planned for “Beast” (and the next two films), thus creating something of a makeshift fifth season of the series.

But is that good enough? Not really. After getting shoved aside by Fox for far too long, “Futurama” deserves to celebrate its resurrection with over-sized movie-worthy adventures, not funny-but-average early screenings of what’ll be on basic cable in a couple of months. And that’s all “Beast” is - funny, but, when taken at feature length, just average.

The movie opens strongly enough, with a few big personal developments and a nice continuation of the cliffhanger ending of the previous film. Amy (voiced by Lauren Tom) and Kif (Maurice LaMarche) announce their engagement (or Kif’s species’ goopy version of it), while Fry (Billy West) introduces the Planet Express gang to his new girlfriend, Colleen (Brittany Murphy). Meanwhile, Professor Farnsworth (West) teams up with archenemy Dr. Wernstrom (David Herman) in an effort to uncover the mysteries of a massive tear in the fabric of space-time itself.

All of this unfolds in a rapid, joke-heavy pace, and the strange places the story takes us are precisely the examples of witty, inventive comedy that made the series so memorable. Just watch, for example, as the characters battle in “Deathball” - it's a brilliant piece of throwaway humor that showcases the playful attitude, strong animation, and out-of-the-box thinking behind the franchise.

But then the screenplay (from Cohen and Eric Kaplan) sputters its way into the main story, introducing a giant, multi-tentacled being from another universe (voiced by David Cross). It’s entertaining enough, but the drama that follows (essentially, the creature becomes a focus point for Fry’s failed romances - don't ask) can’t quite match the emotional punch of the series’ most endearing episodes or the bittersweet Fry storyline from “Big Score”. A middling subplot in which Bender (John Di Maggio) joins the League of Robots only clutters up the story; instead of providing a powerful ending once the two storylines finally cross, Bender’s plot thread merely winds up dragging out an already weak third act.

Of course, this being “Futurama,” even the weakest of story points are smart and enjoyable, and they only fail to satisfy when compared to the rest of the franchise. For all its missteps, “Beast” remains funny and clever throughout (a visual metaphor for heaven that appears at the film’s climax may not work on a story level, but it’s still wildly fascinating), and the animation has never been sharper, which is a nice gift to the fans. And hey, any new “Futurama” is good “Futurama,” and that’s good news after all.

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