When “The Simpsons” first earned a regular gig on network television in 1989, no one could have imagined it would still be kicking nineteen years later in 2008… much less that it would spawn a sister series tasked with transplanting creator Matt Groening’s quirky madness and biting pop satire into the 31st century. That series, of course, was “Futurama,” a short-lived fan-favorite birthed in 1999 and canceled in 2003 after Fox failed to find the struggling show a stable home. But even though the studio initially closed the doors on the show’s loveable miscreants, a resurgence in the series’ popularity (thanks to a successful stint on Cartoon Network) persuaded Fox to greenlight four direct-to-video films. ‘Bender’s Game’ is the third and latest flick to hit the market.
When a widespread dark matter shortage causes fuel prices across the universe to skyrocket, Professor Farnsworth (voiced by Billy West) grounds Fry (also voiced by West), Leela (Katey Segal), Bender (John DiMaggio), and company and prohibits them from flying anywhere that isn’t entirely necessary. As the excessive downtime leaves the Planet Express crew with plenty of opportunities to get in trouble -- Bender nearly loses his mind trying to play Dungeons & Dragons, Leela is outfitted with a shock collar that leads to some unpredictable developments, Farnsworth investigates a corporate honcho named Mom (Tress MacNeille), and Fry once again is thrust into the role of the universe’s unwitting hero -- a clever parody of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, Dungeons & Dragons, and Big Oil (of all things) emerges and earns more than a few solid laughs.
Is ‘Bender’s Game’ as funny as the best “Futurama” episodes? Sometimes. A few subplots (Bender’s “quest,” Mom’s interests, and Leela’s mishaps among them) offer more reliable humor than others, but, for the most part, the film feels like a collection of episodes instead of a standalone feature. Unlike ‘The Simpsons Movie,’ the various storylines don’t fit together as well as I would have liked, occasionally making ‘Bender’s Game’ feel more like a politically poignant episode of “Family Guy” than “Futurama.” Granted, there are plenty of punchlines and gags that made me laugh out loud -- I would even go so far as to say the film has fun with its established characters, expands its fictional universe, and stays true to its roots. However, it grew old fast as I tired of the plot and the tangential distractions sprinkled throughout. Perhaps 87 minutes is too long for this casual fan to spend in the 31st century in one sitting, but it seemed to drag on for a bit too much time.
I’m fairly confident ‘Bender’s Game’ will appeal to “Futurama” regulars and newcomers alike, just to varying degrees. I wish I had watched it in three chunks to keep the material feeling more fresh, but I suppose I’ll just have to remember that when the next film comes around. In the end, the more you enjoy the series, the more you’ll enjoy this straight-to-video production.
Offering fans a vibrant 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer and inserting itself onto a growing list of animated releases that look absolutely stunning in high definition, ‘Futurama: Bender’s Game’ is a colorful treat for the eyes that easily outclasses its standard DVD counterpart. In fact, skip to any scene and pause any shot… you’ll find the same high quality picture at every turn. The palette is bold and lush, color fills are solid and stable, and black levels are inky and perfectly resolved. More importantly, the film’s line art is crisp and each shot boasts surprisingly sharp fine detail. Aside from a few frame rate inconsistencies that should be attributed to the animators rather than the technical transfer, this digital production delivers a particularly clean image that doesn’t suffer from artifacting, source noise, edge enhancement, or any other significant issue.
There is a bit of minor banding here and there, but it never becomes a prominent or obtrusive issue. All in all, ‘Futurama: Bender’s Game’ looks fantastic and should easily please Groening junkies scouring for any scrap of high-def goodness they can find.
’Futurama: Bender’s Game’ features a robust DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that may strike some as overkill, but proves itself to be almost as impressive as the film’s video transfer. Don’t make the mistake of thinking a lossless presentation of a direct-to-video animated TV project couldn’t possibly sound much different than a standard audio track -- by comparison, the BD mix boasts broader dynamics, more powerful low-end LFE presence, and noticeably increased dialogue and soundscape clarity. The film’s voicework is crystal clear, the rear speakers are full of tiny environmental details, and the soundfield is immersive and involving (especially considering the otherwise flat nature of the animation).
If anything, dialogue takes center stage too often, pulling the entire soundfield forward and leaving characters in a relatively bland and vacant soundscape. Ambience disappears for minutes at a time and interior acoustics are forgotten in all but the most obvious cases. Still, we are talking about a cartoon here and one that manages to pepper its soundfield with standout sonics and showcase sequences. Ultimately, fans approaching this lossless track with reasonable expectations will be blown away, but anyone looking to be slapped across the face with a reference quality track will be a bit apathetic about the results.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Futurama: Bender’s Game’ includes all of the special features that appear on the standard DVD (most of which are presented in high definition) and even offers BD owners a nice exclusive Bonus View surprise.
’Futurama: Bender’s Game’ will make a laugh-inducing addition to any series fan’s collection. The Blu-ray edition is even better than the film itself. A top notch video transfer, an excellent DTS HD Master Audio track, a decent collection of supplements, and an exclusive Bonus View video commentary. If Bender and his Planet Express pals have already won your heart, picking up this release is a foregone conclusion, but if you’ve never watched “Futurama,” this isn’t the best place to start.