Netflix's Disenchantment, the first new series from creator Matt Groening since 1999, presents the opportunity for critics to remind viewers that The Simpsons and Futurama were not birthed fully formed as the paragons of grown-up animation they eventually became.
It also forces the acknowledgment that although The Simpsons and Futurama launched with evolving characters, world design and comedic voice, both shows had tremendous episodes in their early batches, classics that illustrated their boundless potential.
While Disenchantment boasts a distinctively fresh environment, a splendid vocal cast and some eye-popping visuals, the first seven episodes offer frequent chuckle-inducing diversions but no one installment that clearly shouts, "Here. This is the special show Disenchantment wants to become."
Developed by Groening with Simpsons veteran Josh Weinstein, Disenchantment takes us to the medieval kingdom of Dreamland. Our heroine is Princess Bean (Abbi Jacobson), daughter of gruff and uncouth King Zog (John DiMaggio). It's Bean's destiny to be married to one of a series of local princes (David Herman and Matt Berry lend their pipes to Prince Guysbert and Prince Merkimer, respectively) and become a submissive figurehead. This doesn't sit well with the white-haired, buck-toothed Bean, who loves drinking, playing cards and generally being rambunctious in a way that doesn't conform to her station. Her behavior is aided and abetted by the arrival of Elfo (Nat Faxon), a well-meaning and dimwitted elf fleeing the nonstop happiness of his native realm, and Luci (Eric Andre), an ill-intentioned demon presented to Bean as a wedding gift.
Unlike the generally unserialized Simpsons and Futurama, Disenchantment is intended as an unfolding and connected story, complete with cheeky chapter headings like "For Whom the Pig Oinks," though it isn't immediately evident why. The episodic plotlines follow a loose "Bean gets in trouble with King Zog, causes more trouble with her two friends and ultimately ends up in the same place despite occasional literal cliff-hangers" structure. There are an assortment of magical creatures, familiar Brothers Grimm backdrops and variations on real-life figures like the Land Vikings, who roll up in a boat with wheels.
Ongoing narratives as minor as the fate of Bean's suitors and as reasonably major as the relationship notes between Bean and Elfo — meant to mirror Fry and Leela from Futurama — inch forward, without necessarily getting richer. The series also answers the "What would a Matt Groening show feel like without any running time restrictions?" question, and the answer is "Like a Matt Groening show that could use more tightening." The pilot in particular, with a running time of over 35 minutes, feels padded.
Groening's trademark style is evident in most of the characters, especially the Bart-esque Elfo, and their overbites and bulging eyes. The humor also works in a similar vein of micro jokes — pay close attention to the nonstop barrage of storefront signs and banners — and a self-awareness so pervasive that when a supporting character dares to quibble with the internal logic of the show's blend of history, fairy tale and fantasy, he's promptly shot with a flaming arrow. The welcome variation is a Monty Python-esque vein of absurdity, complemented by the layered, pastel-heavy chaos of the animation, evoking Flying Circus at times, and the occasional goofy excess of violence. Bean, in fact, piles up a way higher body count than one would expect from an animated heroine, pointing either to the more permissive Netflix standards or a Black Knight version of gore and mortality. It's all accompanied by Mark Mothersbaugh's rather glorious klezmer-meets-zydeco-meets-renaissance-faire scoring.
Other British comedy antecedents flavoring the Disenchantment tone are hinted at in the remarkable supporting vocal cast featuring Berry (The IT Crowd), Noel Fielding (The Mighty Boosh) and, perhaps best of all, Lucy Montgomery, whose work as Bean's scatter-brained servant Bunty made me regularly giggle. The characters around the periphery, including those voiced by titans of the craft like Maurice LaMarche and Billy West, often upstage the main trio. Faxon, nicely exaggerating both Elfo's innocence and idiocy, gets the only consistent laughs from the core cast. Andre's Luci is oddly understated and the plotline involving how the little demon came to be a wedding present at all is unengaging. Broad City star Jacobson is doing her own voice as Bean and she has a couple decent moments, but suffers from the show's uncommitted approach to an empowerment message that ought to be its teeth.
In place of the family sitcom satire of The Simpsons and the mockery of consumerism run interstellar and rampant in Futurama, Disenchantment raises questions about feminism and history-bending gender roles that it's barely prepared to engage with. Then again, it's only been seven episodes, and perhaps all of the undercooked elements will coalesce into another Groening favorite as opposed to the light corset-and-pantaloon-festooned amusement it is thus far.
Cast: Abbi Jacobson, Eric Andre, Nat Faxon, John DiMaggio, Billy West, Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille, David Herman, Matt Berry, Jeny Batten, Rich Fulcher, Noel Fielding, and Lucy Montgomery
Creator: Matt Groening
Premieres: Friday, Aug. 17 (Netflix)