When Benderís Big Score, the first of the new direct-to-DVD Futurama movies, was released earlier this year, itís fair to say that reaction was decidedly mixed. For every forum post hailing it as a classic there was one expressing mild disappointment, with the split appearing to come depending on how fanatical the viewer was about the show in the first place. The more hardcore you were the more you were likely to give it a thumbs-up, whereas people more like myself, who happily tune in but arenít able to necessarily name Momís three sons or translate the alien language without a handy guide, were left a little nonplussed by a somewhat complicated timey-wimey plot and what appeared to be an excessive number of back references. Depending on one's perspective then, The Beast with a Billion Backs arrives carrying the hope of either more of the same or a return to form. Sadly, I suspect that both camps will be rather disappointed.
The story picks up directly from the end of BBS. Itís been over a month since an inter-dimensional anomaly appeared in the skies over the Earth, but even though it continues to loom menacingly in the sky, nothing more has happened to indicate that it poses a threat. After the initial shock of its appearance, life on the planet is returning to normal, at least for the employees of Planet Express. Fry has got involved in a new, somewhat unorthodox relationship with a sexy police captain (played by guest star Brittany Murphy), much to Bender's chagrin, while Amy and Kif are finally getting married (or the Amphibiosan equivalent, which involves less speeches and more slime than the human version). Things are going far too well to last so unsurprisingly it's not long before the Professor utters the fateful words "Good news everybody!" and they're off on a potentially suicidal mission to investigate the anomaly. Given the title it's probably not giving too much away to reveal that a beast, called Yivo (with the voice of David Cross), lurks on the other side and that soon its tentacles begin to emerge through the anomaly and head towards the EarthÖ
Whereas Benderís Big Score had an involved, topsy-turvy kind of plotline, The Beast with a Billion Backs is far more straightforward. There are just two main plot lines, that involving the titular monster and the other featuring a disgruntled Bender joining a secret society. Unfortunately the two diverge early on, leading to a somewhat disjointed narrative which has to force the two disparate strands together again during the climax. The pacing between the two is off too - whereas the alien menace moves swiftly Bender spends much of the middle part of the film standing round chatting to his fellow club members which means that momentum is intermittently lost. Added to the fact the story grinds to a halt at the end of what will essentially be the third episode when the movie is split up, leading to a lethargic last twenty minutes, the screenplay as a whole has some structural problems.
Not that such things are fatal if the stories are sufficiently engaging. The Bender plot is the stronger of the two (even though considerably less time is devoted to it) simply because it provides more of the big laughs of the film, including my favourite line, which I have no intention of spoiling - suffice to say, it has the word ďlegĒ in it and is said in a loud voice. Iím not sure how much screen time the various club members have had in past episodes, but theyíre all good value here and one wishes that they, rather than Yivo, had been given the bulk of the action. This is especially so considering that the Yivo strand ends up being a very generic, and as such largely uninteresting, riff on alien invasion movies, coupled with some half-heartedly satirical swipes at organised religion. As the title suggests there is a theme running throughout about sex and love, with Fry's romance early on providing an ironic contrast to what eventually happens to him, but the ideas are somehow muddled and it's not entirely clear what is being said. It doesn't help that Yivo as a character is a bit of a dud - compared to those with whom Bender spends his time Cross's character is lifeless.
Nevertheless Avanzino directs with vigour, providing some excellent battle sequences and the pacey middle section manages to disguise the fact that for lengthy periods the jokes are not especially strong. Throughout the whole there are some great conceptual moments - the fairground ride, the apartment block - but the meat and potato gags are much of the time lacking inspiration. Zapp Brannigan, who has a major role this time around, is the same old Brannigan, Nixon is the same old Nixon and so on, with nothing especially new to add. As ever the cast throw themselves into the thing with gusto, rescuing some of the less convincing moments, although the guest stars are, like much else in the film, unmemorable - itís telling that Stephen Hawkingís cameo, his second in the series, is far funnier in a few short moments than anything either Murphy or Cross get to do over the whole course of the movie.
Which is not to say the whole is a complete waste of time, as it isnít - even mediocre Futurama can't help be less than entertaining. Itís obvious that a concerted effort has been made to make the film more accessible than BBS, which is both a blessing and a curse; whereas the first film was stuffed to the gills, this is a leaner effort, making it easier to absorb in one go but with the result of producing a less fulfilling whole.Thereís been some discussion over the past few weeks whether Futurama necessarily adapts well to the eighty minute format; I donít see why it shouldnít but this movie doesnít help the cause as it does feel at times as though there isn't quite enough story to sustain its length. Ironically, given its subject matter, there's a lack of passion to it, with only the opening sequence seeming to show creators having real fun with their subject. In BBS one could sense genuine excitement of being back at work in this universe, which spilled over onto the screen in an ambitious, slightly messy but none the less admirable jumble. Aside from the aforementioned opening The Beast with a Billion Backs, has none of that and, despite regular flashes of the old wit, feels underdeveloped and too reminiscent of past episodes. It's not terrible by any means, but they can do a whole lot better.
The film and all extras are presented on one dual-layered DVD. The design of the menus is virtually identical to that on Benderís Big Score, with the Main Menu featuring a running clip of one of the battle sequences and the submenus cartoon spoofs of schlock 50s film posters (SEE! A Monster of Questionable Morality!) Itís also worth noting one of the menus has an alternative version of Christopher Tyngís score which was ultimately not used for the film. The anamorphic digital Video is a couple of steps up from the original R2 releases of the TV episodes, clear and vivid, while the Audio has fun with multi-layered tracks and decent effects during the battle scenes.
It wouldnít be a Futurama disc without an anarchic group Commentary and this one is no exception. As ever David X Cohen is the only one who actually talks about the making of the cartoon in any detail while everyone else goofs off, although this particular yak track suffers a little from the absence of writer Eric Kaplan. Thereís also an optional commentary on the most substantial extra offered on the disc, Futurama: The Lost Adventure (30:11), a collection of cutscenes from Sierraís tie-in platform game from 2003 edited together to form an episode of sorts. The game itself looks like it was pretty rubbish but the dialogue is just as witty as a normal episode making this undoubtedly the highlight of the extras.
The rest are far shorter. There are two featurettes looking at the design work, A Brief History of Deathball (2:02) being the more interesting having as it does director Avanzino discussing the choices made for the look of that particular sequence. The other, 3D Models with Animator Discussion (4:11), is self-explanatory but not very illuminating, consisting many of images of the models on their own, overlaid with the animatorís comments. Thereís also a Storyboard Animatic(21:44) for the first part of the film, complete with an early version of the voice track and hardly any sound effects. Five of the six Deleted Scenes (3:51) are also in animatic form only, including an alternative opening which was wisely dropped, but none have great jokes and the movie is none the weaker for having lost them.
Finally there are two featurettes which basically show cast members larking about: the David Cross (2:02) piece is irritating rather than funny but Blooperama, (2:12) in which we see the regulars in studio, is fun especially if, like me, youíve not seen what some of the actors look like before. Thereís also a trailer for the next DVD movie, Benderís Game (2:00) which appears to be Futurama meets a Dungeons and Dragons version of Lord of the Rings and as such instantly looks more promising.
The film itself, and all extras (including the two commentaries) are subtitled.