Fantasy: ‘Disenchantment’ fails to cast a spell

By JIM SABATASO
Correspondent

It’s unfair to compare “Disenchantment” to “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.” Unfair, but inevitable. The series, which premiered on Netflix last month, is the latest from Matt Groening, the creative force behind those two iconic series, both of which cast long shadows on the animated-comedy landscape.

When “Futurama” premiered in 1999, it seemed unlikely Groening would be able to replicate the enduring success of “The Simpsons.” And while “Futurama” never reached those great heights, it was nonetheless a great show that attained cult status among those who appreciated its clever writing and heady sci-fi conceits.

“Disenchantment” is a similarly ambitious attempt to bring “The Simpsons” sensibilities into the distant past. Set in the fantastical realm of Dreamland, Groening and showrunner Josh Weinstein reach deep into their bag of holding to create a universe that wears its sword-and-sorcery influences right on its billowy wizard’s sleeve — riffs on Tolkien, Martin and “Dungeons & Dragons” abound.

Visually, the show looks fantastic. A muted color palette gives the show an aged feel, like it was painted on parchment. And Groening’s comically grotesque animation style fits the nontraditional character designs, which includes elves, orcs, demons and lizard people.

Weinstein, who, along with writing partner Bill Oakley, presided as showrunners over some of the best seasons of “The Simpsons,” returns to the Groening-verse after nearly two decades serving as writer and producer on a number of other animated series, including the cult hit “Mission Hill,” the 2015 revival of “Danger Mouse” and the endearing “Gravity Falls.”

Groening has also assembled an impressive roster of voice actors to give life to his characters.

Abbie Jacobson (“Broad City”) plays Princess Bean, a hard-drinking slacker who would rather be fighting dragons than holding court. She’s joined on her adventures by Lucy, a demon played by Eric André (“Man Seeking Woman”), and Elfo, a naïve elf played by Nat Faxon (“Married”).

Several “Futurama” alums return to lend their unmistakable voices. John DiMaggio plays Bean’s boorish father King Zøg. Tress MacNeille, Billy West and Maurice LaMarche also take on a number of recurring characters.

But, despite the series’ impressive pedigree, “Disenchantment” fails to live up to expectations. The writing is weak, lacks sharpness and gives the game voice cast little to work with. While pitched as an adult comedy, the humor is flat and toothless. Younger audiences might find it funny, but there is little for grownups to laugh at.

“Disenchanted” also calls to mind the truly excellent Cartoon Network series “Adventure Time,” another fantasy-tinged story about a gang of unlikely heroes. Where that series thrived in its milieu turning fantasy tropes on their sides and inflecting them with great pathos, “Disenchanted” shows a lack of imagination and heart; instead, it simply meanders through its rich universe without doing anything new or interesting.

Animated comedies have come a long way since Groening revolutionized and defined the form nearly three decades ago with “The Simpsons.” Viewers’ comedy literacy and expectations have evolved. “Disenchanted” is a pleasant enough series; however, it lacks the wit and edge viewers have come to expect in animated adult comedies.

CHECK IT OUT
“Disenchanted” is now streaming on Netflix.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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