REVIEW - Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs

SPOILER WARNING: The following contains some spoilers for "Futurama: The Best With a Billion Backs," on sale now.

When "Futurama: Bender's Big Score" was released last November, there was a vocal contingent of fans who felt the direct-to-DVD feature hadn't lived up to the original television series. Those fans missed the mark. "Bender's Big Score" was a pitch-perfect construction that adeptly managed the challenges of converting a half-hour formatted show into an hour and a half movie. Tightly structured, the film kept the lively satire and galactic locales of "Futurama" as fresh as ever. The latest direct-to-DVD release, "The Beast with a Billion Backs," however, is a less successful foray into feature-length stories for "Futurama."

"The Beast with a Billion Backs" is a bit of a mess, thematically. The jokes don't come as fast, and the A-Plot is weighed down by a tiresome and distracting B-Plot. Nevertheless, the film is possibly the most ambitious work we've seen the "Futurama" crew yet attempt. There's a lot of intelligent commentary in the film, it's just not focused into the laser satire at which "Futurama" usually excels. "The Beast with a Billion Backs" is an imperfect work but instantly charming, heart-felt and enjoyable.

The second of four DVD releases that when split into episodic segments will eventually make up "Futurama's" fifth season, the film's story follows the events of "Bender's Big Score," opening on a rift in space and time that allows a planet-sized monster from another universe to come to Earth. The monster takes control of Fry, making him Pope of a tentacle religion. Soon, the monster proposes to the universe, causing humanity to evacuate Earth to live in his dimension and leaving the world's robots to their own ends.

Environmental and social themes are standard fare for "Futurama." Indeed, it's worth noting that the new "season" is entirely carbon neutral in its production. However, in its original run, "Futurama" frequently tackled other subject matters as well: love and sex. These episodes were some of the most memorable and surprising of the original series, but also the most risky, prone to breaking format and dealing with less easily satirized subjects. "The Beast with a Billion Backs" is undoubtedly in the latter category.

The first act parallels the rip in space with the introduction of Fry's new girlfriend, Colleen (voiced by Brittany Murphy), whom Fry soon discovers has four **other** boyfriends. This serves as a thematic lead-in to the plot that tackles notions of polygamous love head-on. The film's second act is easily its weakest. Leela, Zap and Amy struggle to avoid bonding with the tentacle monster (who we later learn is named "Yevo") and the story becomes a tired rehashing of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." It's in the third act, where humanity moves in with Yeevo, that the film really becomes something special.

There is a host of cameos in "The Beast with a Billion Backs": Richard Nixon, Hedonism-Bot, and Professor Ogden Wernstom. Unfortunately, Dan Castellaneta reprising his role as the Robot Devil is particularly out of place and his one scene feels very much like it was shunted in. On the other hand, Zap Brannigan fans will be very pleased with this production.

In addition to Brittany Murphy as Fry's new polyamorous girlfriend, there's also a cameo from Stephen Hawking, reprising himself. But the standout is David Cross, who delivers an inspired performance as Yevo. We're also treated to scores of visual cameos as well as our first glimpse of the Globetrotter home-world.

"The Beast with a Billion Backs" has some of the same problems as the previous movie, "Bender's Big Score." The flaws are most noticeable where the change of format makes classic "Futurama"-tropes slightly tiresome. As with the first film, some of the callbacks wear out their welcome quickly. One particular recurring joke regarding gender pronouns wasn't even funny to begin with.

It's the surprising turns on familiar situations that make the film successful. Scientists settle academic disagreements in a game called "Death Ball",;" a giant tentacle-planet leaves messages on the universe's answering machine;. And iIn one memorable scene, after being exposed as a randy bachelor, Yevo confesses: "Granted, at first I wished only to bang out a cheap one with your universe. But it's your own fault. Your universe dresses provocatively."

"The Beast with a Billion Backs" has unsurprisingly garnered criticism from fans who've managed to see early releases. However, it bears mentioning how unbelievably good a series has to be that anyone could claim either of these installments "suck." While not a perfect release, "The Beast with a Billion Backs" more than delivers as at least an interesting experiment. Of course, as with the best stories of Shakespeare, in the end it is the fool (or in this case the cigar-smoking, jackass robot) who delivers the lesson: "Love doesn't share itself with the world. Love is suspicious. Love is needy. Love is fearful. Love is greedy."

Bender, being a selfish jerk, would know best.

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