The second newly-produced direct-to-DVD Futurama movies, The Beast with a Billion Backs, isn’t the 90 minutes of non-stop hilarity one would hope for. Is it funny? Yes. Is it awesome? Well, duh. It’s Futurama after all. But it’s far from perfect. Even so, we can take solace that even a half-strength Futurama with both hands tied behind its back can kick sand in the face of a full 90 percent of the comedy, science fiction and animation releases available today. Combined.
The premise of the film is straighforward enough: There’s a rip in the universe, allowing a tentacled, extradimensional being -- Yivo -- to invade and possess the population of Earth, Puppet Masters-style. Yivo isn’t your garden-variety extra-galactic menace, however. Instead of death and destruction, he wants love and copulation -- and lots of it. Throw in Amy’s long-delayed marriage to long-suffering Kif, Fry’s whirlwind romance with polyandrous Colleen and Bender’s induction into a secret society of human-hating robots, and there’s more chaotic plot twists than even billion-tentacled Yivo can shake sticks at.
And therein lies the problem. The Beast with a Billion Backs feels less like a movie than it does three episodes mashed together in a somewhat haphazard fashion. Each individual plot thread, given a little modification, could support its own 22 minute episode, but taken together they trip up against the other, never quite living up to potential. That’s not to say there’s not greatness here. There is. Fry’s struggles with Colleen’s polyamourous lifestyle is well-played. Bender has some choice moments in his interactions with Calculon and every moment Zap Branigan in on screen is golden (which is as it should be).
The piece de resistance, however, are the glorious Deathball matches between Professor Hubert Farnsworth and his arch-nemesis, Dr. Ogden Wernstrom. Played out on an arena-sized labyrinth with human (Planet Express employees) targets, Deathball turns out to be a horribly funny glimpse at the future of sport.
The spectacle of Deathball notwithstanding, The Beast with a Billion Backs limps across the finish line, losing steam in its third act across all plotlines. Instead of building up, it peters out . . . not entirely unlike drunk teenagers on prom night. The movie still delivers 90 minutes of good laughs, the trouble comes from the series that conditioned us to expect greatness.
Rare is the DVD that is worth getting for the special features alone. This is one of those. Even if the feature presentation The Beast with a Billion Backs were somehow deleted from the disc, it would still be a must-have for Futurama fans.
Why? Because the disc contains the 73rd “Lost Episode” of the TV series, which quick-witted fans will protest only ran for 72 episodes. Well, yeah, that’s why it’s listed on the disc as the “Lost Adventure.” This episode comes from the 2003 XBox and PS2 game produced by Unique Development Studios of Sweden.
Written by the show’s creators as an actual episode, the computer-animated cut scenes set up each progressive level of game play and advance the plot to the point where a complete story is told. The plot is classic Futurama: Professor Farnsworth foolishly sells Planet Express to Mom, giving her ownership of over 50 percent of the Earth. She seizes power as tyrannical dictators are wont to do, and its up to Leela, Bender and Fry to travel back in time to stop this from happening. Zoidberg makes a hilarious cameo and all involved die numerous horrible deaths which tie in cleverly with game play.
The game itself received lukewarm reviews, and the gameplay sequences which bridge the cut scenes are a little erratic. The rendered animation isn’t as seamless as what you get with the regular show, but as Unique Development Studios went bust some years ago, the producers of the disc couldn’t get their hands on the original, uncompressed renderings and literally had to download the various snippets from the game itself.
Taken on its own, “The Lost Adventure” it’s a good Futurama episode that holds together quite well. Considering the limitations of the source material, though, it’s an amazing addition to the Futurama canon.
What? That’s not enough? There are commentary tracks for both The Beast with a Billion Backs and “The Lost Adventure.” After that the special features become somewhat less special. For the nuts and bolts crowd, there are a handful of brief, sketched-out deleted scenes which are more like throwaway bits than complete scenes, storyboard animatics and 3D models with animator discussions.
For those interested more in the voice talent, there’s a short, goofy featurette with David Cross, the voice of Yivo, in which he attempts to explain his character and motivations. There’s also a Blooperama segment, which consists of the various voice actors giggling at their lines and having to start over. As far as bloopers go, it’s almost as exciting as a tour of the Springfield box factory.
“A Brief History of Deathball” held the promise of a bizarre, Troy McClure-style mock-documentary, but alas, it’s just a short description of the design process that went into the team uniforms and stadium. It’s interesting as far as it goes, but it’s too brief and they don’t have enough fun with the potential. And there’s a trailer for the upcoming third Futurama movie, Bender's Game.
A quick run-through of the DVD turned up one easy to find Easter Egg, a static screen rendering of “Old Farmer’s Wikipedia.” That’s a clever enough sight gag on its own, but I wish they’d have done a little more with it, considering the interactivity of the DVD medium and all.
Reservations aside, Planet Express delivers. The Beast with a Billion Backs may not be the prettiest, smartest or funniest Futurama, but it does no worse than middle of the pack. Considering the ringers it has stocking the special features, it’s a must-have for even the casual fans. And in all honesty, when something this funny is considered something of a letdown, you know the standards are set pretty high.
The Movie Itself: 7 out of 10
The DVD Features: 8 out of 10