The Beast with a Billion Backs
I guess it’s impossible to review The Beast with a Billion Backs, Futurama’s second DVD feature, without taking stock of what came before it: Bender’s Big Score. For me, BBS was a triumph. It showed all the invention, attention to detail, humour, characterisation or emotion of any top grade episodes you care to pick from the original series.
Ignoring for a moment my opinion that BBS succeeded almost completely in what it needed to do, it was also in quite a fortunate position of actually having lots of large things to do. This wasn’t just the first feature length Futurama, this was the first episode for a number of years for a show that has an almost spotless reputation of quality. It was almost ridiculous to think that any new episode would live up to that reputation, but BBS introduced the show to a new audience, delivered truck loads of fan pleasing cameos and gags without being tiresome, expanded on long held continuity, packed almost every single frame with beautiful detail and every second with great gags. Frankly, it brought the show back to us with a massive fucking bang. It had a lot to do, but that’s why it was such a success, as when a group of highly talented people have such weight on their shoulders, you usually get something brilliant.
So, now to BwaBB. This had less to do. Sure, it has to continue on the success and it still has the pressure of being the only new material in a large space of time, so it still had to be good. It didn’t have to be exceptional, it just had to keep the wheels turning. And it isn’t exceptional. It’s not even close. But it keeps the wheels turning nicely.
BBS, at times, felt like a number of episodes laid out end on end. It may be distracting as you’re watching them as part of the feature, but it does mean that every act of the feature has plenty to keep you interested and allow them to stand up on their own merits. However, BwaBB is groaning under the weight of sub-plots and while they mostly exist to serve the main event of Yivo’s arrival in our Universe they feel tacked on and in the way. Fry’s new relationship with the polyamourous Colleen is probably the best of them, by virtue of it having a relevance to the main plot that is more than just loosely thematic or providing a clumsy ending to a story that is clearly badly thought out and constructed (hello Bender and The League of Robots.) By the time we actually get some movement on the main issue of the dimensional tear we’re already half way through the film and by the time that story actually gets its arse into gear and properly develops there’s barely twenty minutes left! Most of this film drags like hell and the rest of the film is left to deal with quite a good main plot idea in about half the time it should be and with about a quarter of the decent ideas that should be surrounding it.
But what about the funny? I think it’s fair to say all of my above problems would be greatly reduced by a consistent supply of great gags, but unfortunately the jokes aren’t nearly as forthcoming as we’ve become accustomed to. Don’t get me wrong, the frequency is there, it’s just the hit-rate just isn’t. There are a good few stand alone jokes (and, to be fair, the comic timing in the deliveries, direction and sound effects are all still present and correct - simple joys like the sound of a koala hitting a pavement) but seeing bad plot organising along with some rubbish sub-plots having a direct effect on the quality of the gags really makes you realise the balance usually on display in Futurama that is painfully lacking here.
When Futurama is truly firing on all cylinders; when I watch episodes like Hell is Other Robots, The Sting, Jurrassic Bark, Time Keeps on Slipping, The Why of Fry - all episodes whose deeply ingrained quality smacks you around the face - there’s one word I think of when considering just why they’re so brilliant: care. Jokes are carefully setup and executed, visual gags (both overt and covert) are carefully thought up and placed, plots are carefully laid and paid off satisfyingly… nothing feels truly slapdash. BwaBB, however, does, and in a way that I don’t think I’ve experienced with even the most mediocre of episodes from the series.
As usual, this Futurama DVD is characterised by a good amount of extras with the feature commentary taking special centre stage. The only extra that really sticks out is Futurama: The Lost Adventure which comprises all the cut-scenes from the not-so-good 2003 Futurama game. It’s great to have these scenes for posterity, and the writing is very sharp but the mix of really dodgy 3D modeling (no one really looks right when you see them from the front or talking. Or just standing there) and the plot jumping from one cut-scene to a brief montage of clips of gameplay to another cut-scene can be quite jarring as some of the finer details of the plot are missed entirely.
Other than that, the rest of the extras are as you’d expect. A small cluster of deleted scenes are presented in their animatic form - the best of which is a moment that really should’ve stayed, as Bender crashes in to take issue with the announcer for having such a short ‘Previously’ segment. Without this scene the joke of the overly short recap is almost completely lost and it seems really odd.
The short features on the 3D models and the early design work for the Deathball sequence are interesting (as features like this always are) but they are too brief and left me with a desire for a more complete, in-depth documentary on every aspect of the production as these features always leave me wanting more, especially on the interview side. A big chunk of the feature is also presented in its animatic storyboard which, while it’s always interesting to see these early drawings and appreciate the amount of animating work goes into the show, seems like something of an easy space filler.
As it turns out, the small segments of fluff - David Cross eating popcorn and the bloopers - end up being my favourites. It’s lovely seeing everyone sat in a circle in the same room recording the episodes and David Cross is always excellent when you point a camera at him and just tell him to be funny. In fact, seeing a third of the film edited together purely from the recording session footage would’ve been an excellent alternative the animatics.
I’ve definitely been very critical of the whole set in this review, and if I’m honest it’s a reaction to just how much I love BBS as much as how disappointed I am with BwaBB. Nothing about this film or this DVD set lives up to the first feature (save for the commentaries, but I can’t imagine them ever being anything less than wonderful) and that can be hard to get past. But I feel I’m being fair. In a situation where we’re getting new material in 6 month installments, we have every right to expect those installments to be as close to the best this team can do, rather than closer to the worst. However, I’ve very recently seen the third feature - Bender’s Game - and its excellence has done a bit of good to my perception of BwaBB. It’s no longer a worrying sign that the features are taking a quality nosedive and it is more of an understandable mis-step in the same way the odd episode in the original show fell short of the normal high quality. This, of course, leaves little room for the final feature to be anything even approaching disappointing.
Despite all that, this is still Futurama as we know it. It still feels right, it’s still a joy to watch, it still contains one of the best comedy casts around, it’s still beautifully detailed… it’s just that this time, they fell about as short of the mark as I’ve ever seen.
By Phil Reed
Giving it some thought, I think my difficuly in enjoying this film boils down to its problem of balance. Bender’s League of Robots subplot isn’t just less funny than the main plot…it’s also less interesting. In Bender’s Big Score there were plenty of scenes in which the comedy was not forthcoming…but there was always something interesting happening on-screen. The plot was either being furthered or compounded; there was a reason for every scene. I find it hard to believe there is a reason for every scene in this film in which a handful of robots sit around a fire and don’t do or say anything amusing or relevant.
So while the League of Robots are given too much weight, the really great plot stuff was given far too little. Yivo is an inspired creation…so why don’t we spend more time with him? The first section of his plot is science fiction to explain what he is. The next section is horror-spoof. Then it’s romantic comedy. And finally it’s religious satire. Any of that stuff could have been (and should have been) expanded upon at the expense of some tedious robot gossip. It’s a bad, bad sign when the movie gets interesting just as it should, structurally, be winding down.
I should say that when The Beast With a Billion Backs is funny, it’s very funny (Hermes gave me one of my all-time favorite lines with his pants around his ankles), but a few isolated moments of brilliance? That’s not enough to make it Futurama. It has its priorities scrambled to the point that we always seem to be focusing on the least interesting of all possible scenes, and it doesn’t do enough with its 90 minutes to keep me interested.
Bender’s Big Score was brilliant, and made full use of its longer runtime to tell a more complicated and engaging story. Bender’s Game justifies its length simply by remaining consistently entertaining and funny with a strong sense of forward momentum. But The Beast With a Billion Backs feels like it’s running in place. I’d rewatch the other two films based on their own merits, but with Beast, I might as well watch any three given episodes of Futurama in a row…and that’d almost always be more rewarding.