What do you do after running two of the most acclaimed animated comedy series of all time, in spite of network troubles and criticism of creative stagnation? If you’re The Simpsons and Futurama’s Matt Groening, you slap a fresh coat of genre on the hugely successful houses you’ve built, then sell it to the streaming yuppies moving into the neighborhood. Netflix’s Disenchantment, a.k.a. Fantasyrama, takes the aesthetic and the pop culture-heavy comedy of its creator to the magical, Dungeons and Dragons-lite medieval kingdom of Dreamland. Like the later seasons of its famous brethren, Disenchantment contains all the elements fans have come to expect while never quite living up to the unlimited possibilities opened up by the shift in universe.
Some of that comes from the leads. There’s Princess Bean (Abbi Jacobson), defined in the bar-brawling, beer-swilling “baby’s first feminism” scene, and her two companions: naive Elfo (Nat Faxon, doing his best Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock), whose species you can probably guess, and cat-like demon Luci (Eric Andre), who’s somewhere between haunting and possessing Bean. They’re mostly just hanging around her because, well, the series needs three characters.
Jacobson’s the weakest voice actor of the bunch, waylaying the wild child Bean with stilted, too-formal delivery. Andre’s gruffness as the chain-smoking Bender replacement hits the sweet spot of evil silliness, and Faxon injects all possible optimism and lightness into the upbeat Elfo. Disenchantment may have a few running plot points (like Bean’s relationship with her father, impending marriage, and observation by a shadowy cabal), but it’s mostly a vehicle to get these three wrapped up with all sorts of fairy tale weirdos.
Voice acting favorites pop up here and there, like John DiMaggio (playing Bean’s scene-stealing dad), Billy West, and Tress MacNeille, while Matt Berry, Rich Fulcher (who also acts as a writer), and Noel Fielding bring some of the dry absurdity of The Mighty Boosh to their appearances. These tend to overpower the main three (except Elfo, who ends up being a very funny elf out of water)—especially Bean, who lacks any real personality besides general discontent. This trait (or lack thereof) doesn’t seem to stem from her role as Groening’s first female protagonist, though there are some unfunny feminist name-checks scattered through the episodes made available to critics. Rather, Bean’s dullness is one common to fantasy heroes: They’re what happens when writers are more excited by the world than the characters in it.
That also helps explain why Disenchantment has fewer jokes than its comic kin (especially in the background) and why they’re farther between. The move to Netflix is the other culprit. The relaxed episode lengths and lack of commercial breaks give the show a much looser feel compared to the comic snappiness of Groening’s previous work, though this newfound freedom injects an undeniably impressive bump in artistic detail and action direction into his new project. Chase scenes now span a deeply-layered parallax of moving parts, as background elven assembly lines whisk candy by the fleeing Elfo in the foreground and carriage-drawn police chases escalate their low-tech jokiness to epic scale—all in front of a gorgeous animated landscape with so many brushstrokes intact that Disney would be jealous.
While the comedy is not as zany as the series’ rambunctious theme song or predecessors might imply, then, the worldbuilding that Groening and former Futurama showrunner David X. Cohen undertake does attempt to match that energy—at least, after a few T-crossing, I-dotting hurdles that should’ve been left in the executive’s office after the pitch. The first episode, for instance, spends far too much time introducing its characters with tired, unfunny set-ups, although there are very few comedy series that don’t come with the disclaimer, “The pilot’s not funny, but keep watching.” Some even make you wait until Season Two before getting good. Thankfully, Disenchantment ramps up after all the throat-clearing, making fine use of its serialization and its ability to get as dark and as violent as it wants. Plenty of hilariously over-the-top injuries accompany the obvious gags surrounding medieval medicine, magic, and marriage to achieve a small yet tantalizing glimmer of Disenchantment’s enchanted potential.
Disenchantment premieres Friday, August 17 on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.