Monday, December 31, 2007

Welcome Back to the World of Tomorrow!

So, Christmas has been and gone, the turkey has been eaten with potatoes and in increasingly suspect sandwiches, and we all look at the pile of material possessions we have been given by our nearest and dearest. I had a pretty good haul this year, primarily because I have now gotten into the habit of telling my family what to get me or to give me money since, outside of my immediate family, no one I'm related to really knows anything about me. Of the many great things I received, the one I was second happiest about (I was happiest about getting The Muppet Christmas Carol, which came as a total surprise) was a straight-to-DVD release of a long-cancelled TV series. Not usually the cause for celebration, but this one represented the return of a much-loved television programme which, even as little as a year ago, didn't look like it would ever actually return.

I speak, of course, of Futurama and its first feature-length outing entitled ''Bender's Big Score''.

It's probably worth pointing out at this point that I am in no way unbiased in my opinion of Futurama; I love it. I love it more than I love tea, Tunnock's tea cakes and the films of P.T. Anderson. That's a whole lot of love. The series had the right mix of science fiction references, dumb characters spouting smart jokes (where else would you find jokes about The Heisenberg Effect?) and genuine emotional content and I loved every minute of it. Of course, some episodes weren't great, ''The Sting'' is probably the absolute nadir of the series as far as I'm concerned, but the wheat practically crushed the chaff, such was the overall quality of the writing and the animation, I can't think of a better looking mainstream animated series is recent memory, that it's foibles could be overlooked.

So I came to Bender's Big Score with a lot of expectations and I'm happy to say that it very nearly matched those expectations. That's not to say I was disappointed, just that the film would have had to go quite some way to exceed or even equal my expectations for it, that it doesn't do so is no indication that the film is of a poor quality. In fact, it's really quite good.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the crew of the Planet Express, as well as the entire population of Earth, being conned by nudist aliens using spam e-mails. They also manage to infect Bender with a computer virus and take over him. Then, using a tattoo of Bender found on Fry's, ahem, hind-quarters which contains a mystic code offering the secret of paradox-free time travel, the scammers send Bender back in time to steal Earth's precious artifacts, then, well, then things get complicated...

In all honesty, the plot isn't all that important to the film; it's more like a framework from which the jokes and characters can hang. It's actually something of a misnomer to refer to it as a movie since it is more of a fairly long episode. It also doesn't help that it's only half a story, with the second film, The Beast With A Billion Backs, picking things up. But what's more important is that the film is a celebration of the mere fact of its existence, it's a big pat on the back for the cast and crew who love the show so much and who get another chance to make the show that they love. It's also a big thank you to the fans who bought the DVDs, watched the repeats and kept harping on about the show and who help make its future possible. As such, there are plenty of references to the old series for fans to spot, veering from the obvious, such as a sequence showing how Fry's dog Seymour dies, to the oblique, such as a man drunkenly talking on the phone who turns out to be an incidental character from the episode 'Jurassic Bark'. And if you love the better-known characters as much as I, rather sadly, do, then you'll be set since it features appearances from pretty much every character to appear in the series' original run.These constant references can get a bit tiring, and non-fans will have no idea what the significance of some of them are, but there's always a funny line of dialogue or a well-crafted action sequence to break things up.

Bender's Big Score is by no means perfect; the story is a bit bewildering, though it does make sense after a few viewings; the songs spattered throughout are pretty dire, something of a disappointment since they were written by Ken Keeler, writer of many of the series' great musical moments; and some of the jokes don't work, though there are such a large number of them in the film that on average it evens out. However, these failings are negligible compared to the quality of the animation, even on a significantly smaller budget than the series had, the jokes that do work and the humour that arises from the characters. Probably the best thing about the film is just the fact that it got made and that the creators, as well as we, the fans, can continue on a journey with these characters and to see where the series will go. The series might fly to new heights or it might sink into a hole and never resurface, but at least we'll finally know.

Whatever its flaws, it's just great to have Fry, Leela and Bender back.

The DVD comes with plenty of extras for the fans, including a 22-minute long episode of 'Everybody Loves Hypnotoad', the ComicCon live reading from last summer, complete with cleaned up speech that makes it much preferable to the YouTube videos currently circulating, and the extended trailer from that same event. If you like comedy AND maths (and who doesn't love a combination of those two?) then you'll be drawn to the 'Bite My Shiny Metal X' lesson about the math jokes contained in the Futurama universe. The highlight of the extras is the audio commentary which, like those on the episodes, are witty, full of little insights and even feature a Sopranos-off in the middle.

Good news everyone!

Trailer for Bender's Big Score:

Sneak Peek at The Beast With A Billion Backs: