Uneven as Futurama’s first two forays into feature-length episodes were, they at least gave the sense that the people working on them were legitimately trying to tell a good story. Bender’s Big Score had a legitimate (if overly familiar) emotional core, and The Beast With A Billion Backs had a plot which more or less made sense by the end. Bender’s Game has little to no interest in any of that nonsense. The closest we come to an emotional core is Professor Farnsworth learning that Inger, the dumbest (and nicest) of Mom’s idiot offspring, is his son. The story repeatedly draws attention to its own failings, and then shrugs off the sloppiness as though it was all part of the joke. And it drags. My god does it drag.

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A palpable sense of exhaustion pervades the running time, and that exhaustion doesn’t just lead to haphazard plotting; the show also gets mean, and while a certain amount of meanness is an essential part of the show’s DNA, here it curdles into something perilously close to open contempt. It’s not pervasive—there are probably only a handful of really nasty moments, or at least moments that were nasty enough for me to take notice. Yet they have a cumulative effect of eroding our investment in this particular world. A good dark joke is a wonderful thing, but it’s not something you can just throw out when you can’t think of anything better to say. Some craft is required.

Take, for instance, a quick one note bit: while trapped in the fantasy world in Bender’s brain (yeah, it makes about that much sense in context), Fry, Farnsworth, Leela, and the others go on a great quest to rip off the Lord Of The Rings. They use various means of travel, including getting a ride on the back of, well, it’s an Ent. There’s really no pretending otherwise, it’s an Ent. (It looks a little like Treebeard from the Ralph Bakshi adaptation.) At the end of their journey together, the Ent asks Fry and friends if he can do anything more to help them. In the next shot, we see his head and various body parts chopping up for kindling, and Leela wearing his feet as boots.

Admittedly, none of this matters because it’s all imaginary anyway, and it’s not like the now-dead Ent had a rich interior life or anything. But it’s a nasty piece of business, and one that isn’t funny enough, or unexpected enough to warrant its inclusion. Once our heroes end up in Cornwood, everything is kind of like that, including Bender’s obsession with murdering and eating halflings and dwarves. These jokes provide a certain transgressive thrill—ooo, look at our supposed heroes behaving like monsters, look at the friendly fantasy creatures being exploited and killed—but the thrill can’t hide the sourness, and the way this reflect so poorly on characters we’re actually supposed to care about. It’s unpleasant, and that unpleasantness serves no other end than immediate shock value.

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What’s annoying is that it’s entirely possible to do this kind of gag well; the show has managed it in the past repeatedly, and it’s only now as everyone’s clearly struggling to stay engaged that the cruelty is overwhelming the comedy. For a good example, you don’t even need to look past this episode: earlier, while Bender is in a mental institution, he’s stuck in a group therapy session with, among others, a robot who looks an awful lot like the Jetsons’ maid, Rosie. When things go haywire, Rosie obsessively cleans, muttering to herself about how she had to kill the dog because it made a mess—and she had to kill the boy, too.

Yeah, that is definitely a gag riffing on the potential darker side of a squeaky clean family-friendly franchise. It certainly isn’t going to make a hall of fame for this show’s all time greatest jokes, and if we’re going to be really critical, we might even say it would fit right in on an episode of Family Guy. But it made me laugh (to be fair, so has Family Guy), and it didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth. It was more effective in being a one off (we’ll never see this maid robot again, and we’re not supposed to root for her or like her, even if that damn dog and that cockadoodie brat were so, so messy), and we didn’t see the outcome of the murders we were laughing at. We just heard about them.

Really, though, it’s the laziness that gets to me, falling back on the most obvious bullshit just because you know it’ll inspire a few snickers. The same approach is what did such damage to The Simpsons’s internal integrity in the show’s later seasons. There’s tremendous value in dark-minded satire, in scratching at the squeaky clean surface of people’s assumptions to show the ugliness underneath, but it requires just as much craft as more optimistic material. You might get a laugh out of skinning Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (maybe imply he had a drinking problem beforehand?) but it’s a laugh in isolation. It builds off of nothing, and it adds to nothing.

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This would probably be less of an issue if there was anything else in Bender’s Game worth discussing, but there really isn’t. Oh sure, the Dungeons & Dragons nods are cute: the title comes from Bender’s attempts to get involved with Dwight and Cubert’s D&D game. Robots have a hard time imagining things, so Bender works extra hard, and eventually has a psychotic break. Which, because of something to do with dark matter and a dodecahedron which looks conveniently like a 20-sided die (wait, all dodecahedron look like 20-sided die), is how everybody winds up in fantasy land.

It takes forever to get there, though; in a perverse way, it’s impressive just how much the time seems to stretch in this one, like the writers somehow found a way to Zeno’s paradox their way into an infinitely tedious form of narrative. There’s a lot of business about Leela getting a shock collar, which could’ve maybe served as a premise for a twenty-minute episode, although even then, it’s not all that thrilling. The idea has no build to it, no development beyond the fact that Leela eventually comes around to enjoy the shock. The collar doesn’t pay off in the episode’s climax, which makes it even more obvious that its introduction was solely meant to fill time.

How much that bothers you is probably dependent on what you’re looking for when you watch these movies. I find it inherently aggravating, but I can also recognize that not everyone is looking for something with an inherently sound structure and compelling narrative. But even viewing this as just a collection of loosely connected shorter pieces doesn’t do it many favors. There are moments of inspiration—we get another classic animation riff, this time shoving the Planet Express crew into a variation on Yellow Submarine—but there’s also a fair amount of material that barely rates a shrug.

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Really, if you’re going to make a movie like this, you’ve got two choices: either you cram it full of so much off-the-wall craziness that no one has time to notice how little the story makes sense; or you put in the effort to tell a story that makes good use of the running time. Without either of these options, the results are going to be mixed at best.

“At best” is not what this is. The efforts to undo dark matter’s utility as ship fuel is a potentially bold twist, and the fact that Farnsworth actually succeeds (the one moment where Inger’s newfound paternity is actually, briefly, relevant) could theoretically generate new story material. But for such a big gambit, it feels oddly flat—it’s difficult to work up much emotion about the outcome either way. Mom’s presence is basically a shrug in cartoon form; a one note villain doing the same damn thing she always does. If they can’t even be bothered to come up with something new (Oh look, Nibbler’s doing shit again! Literally!), why bother caring?

Ultimately, that’s why I found the meanness so off-putting. I can appreciate well-crafted joke that uses unsettling violence as a punchline (I love Rick And Mory, and that’s a show that kills whole planets), but a cheap shot is a cheap shot no matter how supposedly subversive it might be. And if you’re going to waste my time, you can at least do so in a way that doesn’t make me despise the characters I’d come to love.

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Stray observations

  • Opening caption: The Flames In Your TV Are Not Part Of The Show
  • ‘“It’d be cheaper to fill the tank with Nobel Prize winner’s sperm.” -Leela
  • Planet Express has coed naked showers. Impressive that the animators manage to include Leela and Amy’s buttcracks, but not Fry’s. (This is a weird job sometimes, by the way.)
  • The Dixie Chicks were merged together in a horrible transporter accident. This is a dark joke which isn’t off-putting enough to be worth mentioning; it’s nearly funny, and that’s better than it could’ve been.
  • Bender’s “I think I’m a real knight!” breakdown is fun.
  • A legitimately great joke: Fry ends up doing a riff on Gollum (which escalates very quickly), and at one point, he starts talking to himself to try and decide if he should kill his friends. Instead of the back-and-forth Gollum did in Two Towers, Fry sees versions of himself reflected in a river doing an ad for a really good knife. This is one of the few jokes where the added running time legitimately adds to the humor; the longer it goes on, the creepier and funnier it is.
  • “Is that a hobbit over there?” “No, it’s a hobo and a rabbit. But they’re making a hobbit!” (This was also a great joke.)
  • Nibbler asks Fry and the others why they aren’t surprised that he’s talking. I appreciated this because I’d asked the same question a few seconds before he did.

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