Lower the drawbridge: Matt Groening is back.
The creator of The Simpsons and Futurama is behind animated comedy Disenchantment, streaming on Netflix now. The 10-episode series stars Abbi Jacobson as Princess Bean, with help from Eric Andre and various voices you might recognise from comedies such as Futurama and The Mighty Boosh.
Groening's new cartoon is a fantasy genre parody centering on Bean, princess of a magical fantasy realm who finds her hard-partying lifestyle curtailed when the king marries her off in a political alliance with another fiefdom. So she sets out to rebel with the help of her smooth-talking personal demon called Luci and a cheery green elf called Elfo, in the process leaving no sword'n'sorcery genre trope unskewered.
The opening premise sets up a road trip across the varying reaches of assorted fantasy realms. But after the opening episode, Bean lands back in the castle to stay. The road trip and impending marriage, the two most interesting story strands, fall by the wayside. Instead, for the first few episodes at least, we stay within the confines of Bean's world following homebound plots like her attempts to cover up a wicked ragin' party in the palace. Sure, these stories are fun, but they leave the show -- and the lead character -- feeling kind of static.
Still, Disenchantment amusingly takes aim at a throne room-full of fantasy tropes. It's got damsels in a dress, brave knights, scheming sorcerors. And there's the inexplicable melange of accents that fantasy fans know all too well: American, British, American having a go at sounding British. One highlight of the opening episode is a wonderfully absurd battle scene that doesn't exactly put Game of Thrones to shame in terms of epic scale but does bring some epic laughs.
The first episode hinges on the impracticality of a throne made of swords, but the show doesn't lean too heavily on GoT gags. Instead it sketches a more generic, olde-schoole fantasy landscape. Fantasy parodies are nothing new -- from Bored of the Rings to Terry Pratchett's Discworld -- and Disenchantment's cod-medieval setting doesn't distinguish itself much from other spoofs.
The real enchantment of the show comes from Bean herself, brought to life by Broad City star Jacobson. The headstrong teen living in a realm that isn't ready for her makes a compelling and funny lead, and we can't help her root for her in her all-consuming quest... to make out with someone who hasn't been beheaded by her father.
The relationship between father and daughter is at the heart of the show, and the glimpses of other female characters and their proscribed roles in life provide a timely subtext. Mostly though it's jokes about ill-defined magic, rampaging vikings and drawbridges.
Disenchantment can't help but invite comparison to Groening's previous hit, sci-fi comedy Futurama. There's Groening's involvement, the animation style, the genre spoof setup, a crackpot alchemist character who's basically Futurama's Professor, a blow-hard knight who's basically Zapp Brannigan, the fact that half the cast of Futurama are in it -- y'know, little things like that.
The Emmy-winning and much-loved Futurama has more than a hundred episodes over Disenchantment, so it's too soon to say which is the better show. But while Bean is as winning as Futurama's Fry in the first few episodes, the supporting cast aren't as engaging as their sci-fi siblings. And the static setup doesn't have the freedom of Futurama's planet-hopping premise, which took the crew to strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations and boldly going where no animated sitcom had gone before.
While we're talking about other shows, the secret ingredient in Disenchantment's magic potion is a pinch of Boosh. The writing and voice credits are rounded out by various alumni of cult comedy The Mighty Boosh, including Noel Fielding, Rich Fulcher and the hilariously bombastic Matt Berry. There's a touch of Booshian whimsy -- look out for the racist antelope and the island of walruses -- but the first few episodes of Disenchantment don't reach the The Mighty Boosh's surreal lunacy. Nor does it match the inventiveness of Jacobson's signature show Broad City, or Netflix's other jaw-droppingly affecting animation Bojack Horseman.
Which is a shame. Because while it's entertaining enough, with plenty of laughs and an engaging lead, a touch of lunacy could be the magic that breaks Disenchantment out of its fantasy spoof template.
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