Matt Groening's successor to his legendary baby, The Simpsons, was the animated science fiction comedy, Futurama. Premiering shortly before the turn of the millennium, the show was set in the year 3000 and featured the motley crew of a delivery ship whose adventures cleverly riffed on classic sci-fi themes. You didn't need to be a geek to appreciate the humor, but it certainly helped, which might be why it ran on Fox for a relatively short five years (versus The Simpsons' 20 and counting), but the show's syndication as part of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block renewed viewer interest in the über-intelligent sitcom. Whereas a similar Adult Swim boost put Family Guy back into weekly production, the Futurama team committed instead to a series of direct-to-video movies. The latest, Bender's Game, is the first to be released on Blu-ray in addition to DVD.
All of the familiar characters are back, as self-centered, human-hating robot Bender decides to develop his imagination after missing the point of a Dungeons & Dragons game. Meanwhile, the price of dark matter, the organic fuel of the era, is skyrocketing, and slacker Frye, angry mutant babe Leela and brainy/senile Professor Farnsworth hatch a plan to end the galaxy's dependence upon the powerful wonderpoop, crushing the monopoly held by the evil "Mom." Then, through a freak mishap, everyone is transported to an alternate fantasy dimension that's actually more like Lord of the Rings than D&D, although a twelve-sided die figures prominently, Bender is a king and there's a lot of slaying going on.
(Trivia Alert: The title is a pun on Orson Scott Card's Hugo/Nebula award-winning book, Ender's Game.)
The familiar opening animation is our first chance to judge this new high-definition Futurama, a high-speed aerial tour of the New York City of tomorrow. This extensively layered sequence is clearer than ever, ripe with sight gags if you know where to look. Framed at 1.78:1, the movie features frequent long shots wherein even the smallest figure is discernible. Although reminiscent of ink-and-paint cel animation, it's 100% digital, and that total control and those potentially high technical standards are a fantastic fit for Blu-ray. While some fine lines are a slight challenge, even at 1080p, I noted absolutely no artifacting or other serious imperfections on this 50GB disc, while colors are far stronger and more varied than on the weekly TV series. Bender's Game looks every bit as good as we could expect for this HD premiere.
At the same time, fans have heard the theme song at the top of countless reruns, but never before in DTS HD Master Audio 5.1. The music is mixed big and full throughout Bender's Game, in appropriate cartoon fashion, with some meaty bass thumps at times. We hear dark matter particles swirling in three dimensions, spaceships, owls and arrows whiz by us, and the rears are well-utilized in the frequent crowd scenes, most notably the overlapping wisecracks during the attack of the "Morks." We can also hear the aforementioned die bouncing and rolling from the front soundstage and around the back, as well as delicate resonance effects in this well-crafted track.
We're given the option to enjoy the jam commentary--creator/developers Matt Groening and David X. Cohen, actors Billy West, John DiMaggio and Tress MacNeille, co-writer Michael Rowe, producer Claudia Katz and director Dwayne Carey-Hill--as audio-only or with Bonus View video windows, really just assorted shots of people wearing headphones, although this feature is at times very funny. In "Dungeons & Dragons & Futurama" (seven minutes), the writers discuss their passion for the game, while the animators provide an eight-minute drawing lesson and a five-minute look at the 3D virtual wire models utilized, all in HD. The storyboards for the first portion of the movie (22 minutes) and two minutes of the actors' bloopers are also included, in standard definition. The simple "Genetics Lab" game, which allows us to combine two different characters into one, was more fun than I expected, while the brief deleted scene is inconsequential. Lastly we're given a one-minute preview of the next release, Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder. The clip doesn't really tell us much, but could the plot have something to do with the environment (again)…?
An amusing fusion of fantasy and science fiction, Bender's Game is another terrific continuation of the original series, on a pristine Blu-ray chock full of fun bonuses.
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