"Simpsons" creator Matt Groening's "Futurama" started its run overshadowed by its creator's immensely more popular creation, but after a while, a funny thing happen: "Futurama" got funny - really funny. The characters developed and the writing became more inspired, turning "Futurama" into a cult hit. However, there was a problem - the series was often interrupted by football on Sundays, and the gaps between airings resulted in declining ratings. Not given enough support by the network, the series was eventually cancelled.
For those unfamiliar, "Futurama" focused on the adventures of Fry (Billy West), a former Pizza Boy accidentially frozen in time on December 31, 1999. In the pilot episode, Fry falls into a suspended animation machine, waking up a thousand years later. After he realizes where he's gone, he finds out that his new "life assignment" is to ... be a delivery boy, which he's too happy about. Fry escapes from Leela (Katey Sagal), to look for his great (times about 50) nephew Professor Farnsworth. Once he meets Farnsworth and gets things worked out, he and new friends robot Bender and Leela are hired for the intergalactic delivery service. Also working at the service are squid-like Dr. Zoidberg (Billy West), bureaucrat Hermes (Phil LaMarr), and Amy Wong (Lauren Tom).
However (yes, there's another however), much like "Family Guy", "Futurama" surprised executives by selling well on DVD, making it seem like another show cancelled too early. Unfortunately, the solution wasn't bringing "Futurama" back on TV, but we do get the next best thing: this direct-to-DVD movie, "Bender's Big Score". The movie opens with a not-so-subtle dig at the network that cancelled the series, as Professor Farnsworth informs the group that they were fired two years ago when the Box Network (parts of the B in the sign flicker) cancelled their delivery license. A phone call a short time later informs the group that not only have the executives that cancelled their license been fired, but that they have been made into a product called "Fresh Ground Executive", which has a surprising amount of uses.
The film has the group conned by a group of nudist aliens who gather email addresses by passing around a petition for various "causes". When they send a series of spam emails to Bender, he downloads an "obey" virus and Farnsworth accidentally signs over the company. The aliens take over the company (with the assistance of Bender) and find an even bigger score when they uncover a secret code on Fry's butt that unlocks the ability to time travel.
Rather than steal things from the past themselves, they send Bender back to do the work for them - including an order to terminate Fry when he uses the time travel code in order to escape back to his old time. The scammers eventually take over Earth one scam at a time, forcing humanity to evacuate Earth to head to Neptune, where they mount a mission to get back their home, with the help of Al Gore and the evil Robot Santa. We also get to find out what happened to a duplicate of Fry who stayed behind in 2000.
"Bender's Big Score" is an absolutely wonderful return for the series, as not only does the film deliver a clever (a late twist is not only unexpected, but rather sweet) and often hysterical time travel tale, but a film that will both please fans (who get some references to episodes, as well as the return of supporting players Nibbler, Zapp Branigan and Kiff) and hook in newcomers. Additionally, the fairly common practice of Groening taking shots at fellow animated series "Family Guy" (which has fired a few shots back at Groening's "The Simpsons") continues here, as there is a brief and rather harsh sight gag later in the movie involving a "Family Guy" calendar.
As much as I liked "Futurama" (although especially later seasons, as the show continued to get funnier in later years as it developed characters and built further upon the concept), I found "Bender's Big Score" exceeded my expectations, as despite the direct-to-DVD nature of the flick, it really feels like a full feature film and not an extended episode with a lot of filler. I'm looking forward to the next film (which will apparently come out early in 2008), and hopefully if these direct-to-DVD films are successful, Fox will consider bringing back the series.
Note - the film does end with a cliffhanger, and the commentary notes that there will be three more "Futurama" features.
VIDEO: "Bender's Big Score" is presented by 20th Century Fox in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The screening copy of the film that was provided offered perfectly fine image quality, with the only concern being some slight shimmering. However, this is still not the final copy and unfortunately, I cannot make any final comments on it, as the final copy will likely offer differing (and hopefully better) image quality.
SOUND: The film is presented by Fox in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's soundtrack is generally a straightforward effort, with some surround usage here-and-there for laser fire and other effects. However, the majority of the audio is spread across the front speakers. Audio quality was fine, with crisp dialogue and effects.
EXTRAS: Matt Groening, David X. Cohen, actor Billy West, director Dwayne Carey-Hill, Claudia Katz, actor John DiMaggio, actor Phil LaMarr and writer Ken Keeler offer a commentary for the movie. The whole gang is happy to be back, and this commentary sees them all having a lot of fun chatting about bringing these characters back for the first of four films.
"Everybody Loves Hypnotoad" is a full 20+ minutes of the "Hypnotoad" bit from the movie. Three deleted scenes are presented without commentary and in storyboard form. The cast returns again for "Futurama Returns!", which is a live reading of the new "Futurama" comic. The "Futurama" promo for "An Inconvenient Truth" is offered, along with video commentary from Al Gore, Matt Groening and David X. Cohen.
"Bite My Shiny Metal X" proves that "Futurama" can be educational and entertaining, as this featurette actually has the creators listing to (and participating in) a math lecture. We also get the original draft of the screenplay, 3-D models/turnarounds, new character sketches and the 5-minute Comic Con promo.
Final Thoughts: I really enjoyed "Futurama" and was eagerly looking forward to its return here. However, as much as I was looking forward to "Bender's Big Score", I'm pleased to say it was actually better than I'd expected, with a clever plot and a lot of big laughs. I have to say, I really missed these characters, and it's great to have them back. Recommended.