The Beast with a Billion Backs is the second in a series of four planned Futurama movies which, according to some reports, will eventually be chopped up into a 12-episode “Season 5”. The first release, Bender’s Big Score, was a fairly disappointing outing for the Futurama crew, artificially lifted in everyone’s opinions because it was the first new material after years of unfulfilled promise. The sophomore outing doesn’t have that luxury.
While it was good to have Futurama back, Bender’s Big Score suffered from the same structuring problems as the Family Guy movie, with very definite seams where it was clear the breaks would be when it was chopped into normal-sized episodes – indeed, the plot of each third of the film barely even carried over to the next.
Luckily, The Beast with a Billion Backs is unashamedly a full-length movie. The plot builds nicely and there’s one, final-act denouement, as opposed to three smaller endings and no major payoff – it’ll be much harder to slice up neatly, but it’s all the more satisfying for it. As a result of the big action ending, the humour does sag a little in the last third as the emphasis shifts to action over comedy, but unlike The Simpsons, Futurama can get away with that because it already has a much more diverse tradition of action, comedy and romance compared to its predecessor.
While there are plenty of recurring characters back in Beast, it never goes to the excesses of the previous film, which was quite clearly attempting to fit in an appearance by every supporting character ever conceived. In fact, this time there are appearances by several NEW supporting characters, destined to join the ranks as fan-favourites. David Cross’ spotlight as the guest star Yevo fits into Futurama’s insane universe brilliantly, and Cross’ mildly sardonic yet sincere delivery makes you genuinely empathise for the planet-sized tentacle beast that just wants to be loved.
A major subplot for Kif and Amy is a welcome addition, if only because it means the Fry/Leela romance (or lack thereof) doesn’t hog the spotlight. Calculon turns up in perhaps the best ever “All My Circuits” short yet, and later as part of the fantastic League of Robots, who easily steal the movie. Where Bender’s Big Score showed Futurama as a pale imitation former self, The Beast with a Billion Backs has it shining brightly again.
Not quite as brilliant are the extras on the disc – the main addition to this package is a cut-together version of the Futurama game, which admittedly comes from impressive pedigree, being written by the regular scripting team and featuring all the voice actors. Billed as a “lost episode” it is an interesting curio, interleaving scripted cut-scenes with game footage to try and present a completely watchable experience. It doesn’t succeed, of course – there are too few jokes and the quality of the animation is exceedingly poor – Groening’s character designs were never designed to work in 3-D, and especially not this rubbish, Playstation 2-realised 3-D. It’s a nice experiment in completism, and one that Futurama fans who never got to play the game will appreciate, but ultimately it’s not something that anyone besides the most blindly loyal viewers will return to.
Much more impressive is the feature commentary. Futurama’s commentaries are consistently the best in the industry (those for the TV show are at least as funny as the episodes themselves) and this one maintains the high standard, effectively doubling the entertainment value of the movie. You could quite easily listen to this commentary more than once, which is a feature almost unique to Futurama.
The rest of the extras are standard stuff for any animated release – table reads and animatics that you wouldn’t remotely miss if they weren’t included. Seriously, is anyone watching these? There’s a voice actor blooper reel which is fairly unique, but as you can imagine, it’s about as funny as watching people in a recording studio fluff their lines could possibly be. Which is to say, not at all.
Even so, it’s been years since we all cottoned on to the fact that most DVD extras are pointless. What matters is that the main feature is great, that the disc is nicely put together and that some of the extras do actually add value to the package. If you were disappointed by Bender’s Big Score, you should find yourself much more satisfied by this sequel. A definite return to form.