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Futurama: Into The Wild Green Yonder
It wasn't the first Fox series to be canceled too early (and it certainly won't be the last), but the demise of Matt Groening's Futurama proved to be slow and steady. Not in quality, of course: this tale of a man frozen for a millennium only got funnier as the series progressed, though network support dwindled during its four-year lifespan. As the Simpsons machine rolled on, Futurama's timeslot was shuffled around; for a time, the series' broadcast directly followed Groening's most famous creation, but it didn't last long. The series was eventually cancelled in August of 2003, though subsequent DVD releases (broken into four "volumes", due to the erratic broadcast schedule) reinforced Futurama's rabid fanbase.
As creations like Fox's own Family Guy would prove, strong DVD sales make executives take notice. Groening approached the studio in 2006 with a proposal to create a new direct-to-DVD Futurama adventure, paving the way for rumors about a proper weekly revival for the series. These negotiations led to the announcement of four direct-to-DVD movies, which would eventually be divided into sixteen episodes airing on the Comedy Central network. The first three movies (Bender's Big Score, The Beast With A Billion Backs and Bender's Game) marked a slight decline in overall entertainment value; not surprising, since most TV series don't always translate well to a larger format. Bender's Big Score was the most engaging of the three: this ambitious (albeit slightly convoluted) time-travel love story had a lot going for it, even though it didn't always fire on all cylinders. The Beast With A Billion Backs was a truly disappointing follow-up: not only did it fail to correct the minor weaknesses of the first film, it just wasn't all that funny. Bender's Game brought plenty of gags to the table---and despite an awkward shift about 2/3 of the way through, it proved to be an enjoyable outing.
So, how does Into The Wild Green Yonder---the fourth, and possibly final, Futurama adventure---stack up? Continuing the environmentally-driven themes of Bender's Game, our story revolves around Leo Wong (Amy's rich dad, who owns Mars) and his eco-unfriendly developmental habits. Not content with the size of his miniature golf course, Leo plans to destroy a large arm of the Milky Way for expansion purposes. A curious incident at Wong's construction facility injures Fry (and several members of a group of female protesters, who we'll hear from again), which gives the lovable goofbag mind-reading abilities. Deciding to use his powers to win at poker---and with the help of a tin-foil hat, to block out the voices when needed---Fry competes against Bender and a gaggle of greedy gamblers. Meanwhile, Leela departs to join the feminist protesters, we're introduced to "The League of Mad Fellows" and the story of a mysterious dark enemy unfolds. Long story short: the fate of the universe depends on Fry and company, even if they aren't completely aware of it.
Featuring plenty of familiar faces, clever sight gags and several surprises along the way, Into The Wild Green Yonder is the most satisfying Futurama adventure since Bender's Big Score---and in some ways, it's even more successful. Many of the jokes are right on target, the story flows smoothly (considering the circumstances) and a few loose ends are neatly tied up. Those disappointed with the weak climax of The Beast With A Billion Backs will be happy to see a more definitive conclusion---and even if this proves to be the last Futurama adventure, the ending doesn't attempt to close the book entirely. We're also given more Fry/Leela relationship development, though it's not quite as meaningful this time around: unlike the emotional momentum of Bender's Big Score, Fry's feelings for Leela seem to turn on and off like a light switch. It seems more conveniently calculated than genuine, but this stems from the lack of development during the last two films than anything else.
On a similar note, the "four-episode formula" is still a hindrance: a few tangents wear out their welcome, which manages to stall our story's momentum on a number of occasions. Even so, many fans will undoubtedly find Into The Wild Green Yonder to be the best of the bunch---and not just because of "final adventure" syndrome. Even during the slower spots, this is still a fiercely entertaining production. Featuring guest vocal appearances by Seth McFarlane (who sings the Rat Pack-inspired opening song), Snoop Dogg, Penn Jillette and more, Into The Wild Green Yonder feels a bit more like the Futurama of old...and not a moment too soon.
Fox's DVD presentation of Into The Wild Green Yonder is roughly on par with the first three feature-length installments. Unfortunately, reviewers nationwide have once again been cursed with the dreaded Fox "promotional screener copy", preventing a proper visual rating from being awarded. Even so, the bonus features are entertaining and well-rounded, creating a solid one-disc release that Futurama fans can't help but enjoy. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Like the three previous Futurama films, Into The Wild Green Yonder is presented in 1.78:1 format and enhanced for widescreen displays. The film's vivid color palette looks bold and bright, image detail is strong and black levels are rock solid. Despite Futurama's relatively simple style of animation, there's plenty of detail on display here and it all comes through quite nicely; only the separate Blu-Ray offers an improvement, and it's not as dramatic as you'd think. Overall, a strong effort that fans should appreciate.
The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is lively and active, though not much more so than the original series. In any case, dialogue is clean and clear, music cues are typically strong and a few clever directional effects can be heard along the way. English, Spanish and French subtitles (and Closed Captions) have all been included during the main feature...but not for the bonus material. It's disappointing that some studios continue to overlook this portion of DVD presentation.
Next up is another Storyboard Animatic for Part 1 of the film (read: the first 22:25); it's not terribly interesting on first glance, but the alternate audio tracks and rough sketches are interesting to see in the proper sequence. On a related note is "Docudramarama: How We Make Futurama So Good" (5:10, below left), a brief but amusing tour of the production facility. Apparently, voice actress Lauren Tom keeps quite busy. Rounding out this section of miscellany is "Louder, Louder: The Acting Technique of Penn Jillette" (2:08), in which the guest star works his magic behind the microphone.
Next up is a collection of Deleted & Alternate Scenes ("Dolomite Hill", "Matcluck", "Paint?!", "Morbo Solo" and "Mind Reading", 2:52 total), which don't really add much but are interesting to look through. Presented in various stages of completion, these nuggets are bookended by scenes where they would've normally fit in. Shifting gears a bit, we're also treated to "Matt & David In Space" (4:24, below right), in which the co-creators document their trip on Peter Diamandis' "Zero G Weightless Experience". This privately-owned corporation allows paying customers the chance to experience various levels of gravity by flying in a parabolic arc---and though this little souvenir video has little to do with Futurama, it's still worth a look.
Also here is "How To Draw Futurama In 10 Very Difficult Steps" (11:10), in which hosts Dwayne Carey-Hill, Crystal Chesney-Thompson, Derek Thompson and Steven Wall teach us to draw Professor Farnsworth, Nibbler, Hypno-Toad and Fry (respectively). This is obviously geared towards more visually-minded fans, but even the artistically challenged will want to have a look. Another gallery of 3-D Models (4:20) is up next, complete with commentary by members of the creative team. It's interesting to see the visual process from start to finish, even though the more technical end of things isn't necessarily my cup of tea.
Winding things down is "Bender's Movie-Theater Etiquette" (1:17), a brief public service announcement in which Bender shows you what not to do at your local multiplex. The off-color PSAs conclude with "Zapp Brannigan's Guide to Making Love At A Woman" (2:49), a clip-heavy collection of 10 tips from the master of love. Sharp-eyed viewers should also be able to find at least one Easter Egg on one of the sub-menus, so happy hunting!
All bonus features are presented in 1.33:1 and anamorphic widescreen format. Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese subtitles are included during these extras...though English captions are nowhere to be found, unfortunately. It's odd that a major studio continues to overlook this aspect of a DVD release, but at least there's been some effort.
Though it's not a fully seamless effort from beginning to end, there's no doubt that Futurama: Into The Wild Green Yonder ends the series on a high note...unless this isn't the end, of course. Featuring a slew of terrific jokes, creative plots twists and colorful characters, this fourth film combines the improved comedy of Bender's Game with the more distinct structure and and heart of Bender's Big Score. From top to bottom, Fox's DVD effort appears to be on par with past installments. Relatively new fans are encouraged to pick an earlier starting point, but die-hard Futurama disciples should have no trouble finishing (?) their collection. Highly Recommended.