The Buzz: ‘Disenchantment’ Fails To Break Out Of The Shadow Of Groening’s Past Works
Disenchantment is the latest series from animation legend Matt Groening. Taking place in the Kingdom of Dreamland, the series follows Princess Tiabeanie, or Bean as she is referred to; as she drinks heavily and gets in trouble with her two new best friends Luci, her personal demon and a misfit elf named Elfo. Being from the same creator who brought us The Simpsons and Futurama, Disenchantment never manages to break free from the shadow of its predecessors. This comparison is made even more blatant as Disenchantment shares many of the same staff and voice actors as Futurama, leaving it feeling very Futurama-esque, but lacking the wit or creativity which made the latter series so good. Disenchantment is a mixed bag with great voice acting and hints of fun ideas, but with lackluster humor, an underdeveloped world and a forgettable cast of characters the show never reaches its full potential.
While there are some very funny jokes and gags sprinkled throughout the mostly mildly amusing series, at best Disenchantment never comes close to reaching the heights of Futurama or The Simpsons at their prime. The series jokes about not having an established world or set of rules but does nothing to try and fix this issue. With the fantasy genre so overdone in film and TV, it’s essential to be able to distinguish yourself from the countless other fantasy stories that have come before, but nothing about Disenchantment is all that unique or different. The world is the epitome of a basic fantasy world and not even the humor is unique. Instead, just a watered-down version of The Simpsons’ and Futurama’s style. The main setting of Dreamland isn’t very interesting either and we explore very little of it, despite spending most of the series there. Dreamland has no personality, unlike The Simpsons’ Springfield. Springfield is teaming with dozens of memorable locations and characters. The city feels alive and teaming with life. Dreamland on the other hand is made up of nameless extras and only one or two locations of any note making it feel like a ghost. The one aspect that does help separate the series from its predecessors is its fun and folky soundtrack. The theme song, in particular, is very catchy and fits the series excellently. Additionally, there is a great original song during episode eight The Limits of Immortality that plays during Bean and her knight’s quest to find Elfo.
One of the biggest problems with the series are the characters, as hardly any of the main cast are well fleshed out or all that compelling. Luci is the typical jerk with a heart of gold, while Elfo is the seemingly nice guy, who’s actually kind of a jerk. It’s a dynamic done before, and main character Bean comes off as far too one-note. While losing her mother at such a young age certainly did a number on Bean’s emotional state, her rebellion outside of the first two episode feels unwarranted. Outside of her arranged marriage, Bean is just about free to do whatever she pleases. Of course, Zøg tries to stop her from staying out late and getting constantly drunk, but this is only in her best interest. In the fifth episode Faster, Princess! Kill! Kill!, Zøg is tired of Bean constantly acting out and banishes her from the kingdom forcing her to find a real job. Bean finds out this is no easy task and soon comes to realize she’s not fit for much. You’d think this realization would humble her a bit, but she continues to act like a spoiled brat throughout the rest of the season. While Bean does have a good heart and a lot of her irresponsibly comes from her age, her actions still serve to make her character unlikable.
Unlike The Simpsons or Futurama who are known for their vast roster of memorable side characters, Disenchantment has very few supporting characters that stand out. The only two characters that really stuck with me were Chazz the Dankmirian with a thousand jobs and King Zøg. I enjoyed Chazz due to his amusing smooth talking and the way he managed to crawl underneath the other characters skins. On the other hand, King Zøg was made interesting with his shades of Robert Baratheon combined with the raw charisma of the very talented John DiMaggio. One of the reasons some characters failed to stick with me was because they reminded me too much of better Futurama characters. Characters like Odval and Sorcerio sound and act extremely similar to that of Kip and Dr. Farnsworth respectively and I couldn’t help but wish I was following those characters instead. Voice actors who weren’t present in Futurama like Abbi Jacobson, Eric Andre, and Nat Faxon all do great jobs and help to distinguish the show from its predecessor, but the show could have benefited from not relying so heavily on Futurama alumni talent. That’s not to say, that Disenchantment shouldn’t include these voice actors and actresses as John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille, Billy West and Maurice LaMarche are some of the best voice talent out there, but that maybe the series should have been a little more strategic in using them.
Another missing feature is the strong satire and social commentary that was a driving factor found in both The Simpsons and Futurama. Disenchantment wants to be a subversive piece on an unlikely group of heroes that breaks fantasy conventions while saying something profound, but the series never breaks past the surface level with its commentary. The princess who wants nothing more than to be in charge of her own destiny is almost literally the characterization of every Disney princess there is. Disenchantment tries to subvert this overdone characterization by making Bean a drunk and troublemaker but say very little in doing so. Another example of Disenchantment’s attempt at a subversion is Tess; a well-spoken and thoughtful giant who is only seen by everyone else as an angry monster because of her race as a giant. What is the point of this subversion, what’s the commentary? Don’t judge a book by its cover? While not every series needs to say something profound, if you are going to try and subvert expectations you need to do so in a way people aren’t going to predict, and that is done for a good reason. Just because a show subverted your expectations doesn’t automatically make it funny, the subversion needs to make sense in context too. The reason Disenchantment falls so hard with its commentary is that it plays things far too safe. With a strong female protagonist living in a world dominated by men, and a literal demon that’s nicer than most of the good guys, you’d think the series wouldn’t be struggling as hard as it does to come up with subjects to comment on.
The characters feel more driven by the plot than the plot driven by the consequences of their actions. Now in an episodic show that would be fine. Characters aren’t meant to grow and instead the fun comes from seeing their defined personalities react to wacky and new situations. In a serialized series though, characters need to grow and the story should come from the actions they take to either seize a goal or due to mistakes they make coming back at them. Disenchantment tries to take both paths without committing to either. The characters stay almost completely static throughout the season never learning anything from their adventures, but the episodes are generally serialized with plot elements slowly building upon each other and coming to a head at the end of the season. Despite this, Bean most notably never manages to become more responsible or gain any appreciation for her cushy life. Even worse though, is how passive Bean is as a protagonist. Generally speaking, Zøg is responsible for starting off more plots than Bean is. Instead, Bean spends most of her time getting drunk and getting into trouble, but that’s hardly all that fun or interesting to watch, considering Homer Simpson has already been doing this and more for nearly thirty years.
Despite a lackluster first season, I still hold out hope for Disenchantment’s already confirmed next batch of ten episodes. The series did get slightly better as it went on and there were quite a few hints of quality entertainment that managed to break through the mediocrity. The voice cast is very solid and the score of the series is fun and lively. On of this, there are a few episodes that do hold up quite well and are pretty enjoyable like Faster Princess! Kill!! Kill! and The Limits of Immortality. The last episode Dreamland Falls, also sets up some interesting new plot threads for the next season and with so many talented people working on this show, they could easily turn the show around. Sometimes shows just go through some growing pains as they try to figure out what they want to be, especially when they’re trying to live up to the reputation of shows before it.