WARNING: The following review contains minor spoilers for the first season of Matt Groening's Disenchantment, debuting August 17 on Netflix.
Matt Groening aims to do for fantasy in Disenchantment what he did for science fiction in Futurama, with mixed results. The creator of The Simpsons will likely never quite live up to his most famous work, but he managed to build quite a cult following with Futurama, and Disenchantment (premiering August 17 on Netflix) clearly aims for the same kind of audience. It’s a bit too slow to start in its first seven episodes, with jokes that are hit-or-miss and characters that often feel like variations on better Groening creations. Still, for fans who miss Futurama, Disenchantment might just be the next best thing.
The show’s world certainly has as much potential to be populated with weird and hilarious characters as Futurama eventually was. For now, though, it’s focused on three main characters, misfits who live in the mythical kingdom of Dreamland. The protagonist is Princess Tiabeanie, known as Bean (voiced by Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson), who is definitely not a Disney-style princess. She spends most of her time getting wasted and arguing with her perpetually angry dad, King Zøg (John DiMaggio), who just wants her to keep quiet and marry a prince so he can secure an alliance with a neighboring kingdom.
The show is more heavily serialized in its first few episodes, which revolve around Bean’s impending marriage to vain Prince Merkimer (Matt Berry), but later installments are more self-contained, with some minor ongoing storylines in the background. One of those concerns the presence of Luci (Eric Andre), a demon sent by some mysterious figures to corrupt Bean, although she seems plenty corrupt on her own. Luci (a small black creature whom other characters frequently mistake for a cat) joins Bean and a naïve, diminutive elf named Elfo (Nat Faxon) on various misadventures, and the trio have a relaxed, watchable chemistry with the potential to sustain the show over the long haul (although the first season only lasts 10 episodes).
The plotting is not as appealing, though, as Groening and the other writers run through various familiar fantasy elements with a slight comedic twist, evoking only mild chuckles. Too much of the action is confined to the village surrounding the royal palace, which looks like a low-rent medieval-themed tourist attraction. There are as many creative possibilities in fantasy as there are in science fiction, and Futurama eventually sent its characters all around the universe to various weird planets, encountering a range of strange, funny creatures. Disenchantment squanders Elfo’s Keebler-like homeland with just a few minutes in the first episode, seemingly never to return again, and introduces odd realms and races only to drop them after a scene or two.
That doesn’t mean that any of those elements might not return later on, and with Futurama and his years on The Simpsons, Groening clearly demonstrated a talent for long-term world-building. Probably the best episode of the seven available for review finds Bean leading a delegation to Dankmire, a swamp-like nearby kingdom that’s also the birthplace of her amphibious stepmother, Queen Oona (Tress MacNeille). Dankmire isn’t just a carbon copy of a setting from a famous fantasy work, and it shows how Groening and his collaborators can build out the show’s setting beyond the overly familiar Dreamland.