The latest cartoon show from The Simpsons and Futurama creator Matt Groening premiered this last Friday as a Netflix original series. Disenchantment is a picaresque, medieval/fantasy adventure story that has us following the misadventures of Tiabeanie (Abbi Jacobson, Broad City), Princess of the Kingdom of Dreamland.
Princess Tiabeanie, or “Bean” for short, is the antithesis of the Disney princesses we’ve all grown up with. She’s a rude, often drunk, rebellious teenager who seems to get into trouble every time she turns around. She has difficulties dealing with her own destiny, free will, and her responsibilities of being a royal. Bean also has modern ideals and philosophies which makes her an outcast in her world but relatable and endearing to us. She is accompanied by two diminutive misfits, Elfo and Luci.
Elfo (Nat Faxon, Ben and Kate) is a green hued Elf from a magically protected Smurf-like utopia where elves work in trees making candy whilst singing songs all day long. Elfo is a true optimist who echoes Voltaire’s Candide and in a fit of empiricism chooses to leave the perfect, happy world of the elves to experience all of life’s offerings. He yearns to know more than happiness; he wants to feel misery, pain, and even (gasp!) taste bland, bitter, and sour foods. He gets his wish almost immediately after he leaves the safety of the Elf Kingdom as a hawk swoops him up, starting him on his first of many adventures.
Opposite Elfo is Luci (Eric Andre, Man Seeking Woman), a shadowy demon from Hell who is often mistaken for a talking cat (because really, what’s the difference?). He is a glib and sarcastic antihero sent to curse Bean for eternity by a couple of mysterious enchanters. Their motives for this seem nefarious but are so far unclear, however Luci’s desires are fairly simple; evil, pleasure, and pressuring Bean into making poor decisions “Like a bad friend”.
Voice actors John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille, Maurice LaMarche, David Herman, and Billy West all add a sense of comforting familiarity for those fans of Groening’s second show, Futurama; while Lucy Montgomery, Rich Fulcher, Matt Berry, and Noel Fielding (all of whom have worked on The Mighty Boosh) round out the regular cast for a treasure trove of talented comedic actors. The animation is more realized than a lot of first season cartoon shows too. Dynamic camera angles, tracking establishing shots, and a fine attention to detail give an experienced feel to the look of the show. Of course Groening’s style is very apparent, the classic overbite is still present but one thing is distinctly different in the character design, all the humans have five fingers! Only magical creatures like Elfo have the classic four fingered hands that we’ve all come to know and love.
There are a lot of fun easter eggs for fans of Groening’s previous works; Elfo kind of resembles Bart Simpson (even down to the orange shirt and blue shorts), King Zog of Dreamland has what looks like an antenna on top of his crown (harkening fond remembrances to Bender B. Rodriguez, both of whom are voiced by John DiMaggio), and at one point Fry’s hair style can be seen in a wig shop. But Disenchantment does not rely on pandering to the fan base. Far from it.
This show could have a lot of problems but it avoids them very well. It could be nothing but rehashed jokes we’ve seen before, also, being on Netflix it does not have to be as “clean” as a network television show. While they are allowed to push the boundaries of acceptable language and innuendo, they do so sparingly and choose not to rely on shock value and crass language to get laughs (I’m lookin’ at you, Big Mouth). Instead, the writing feels genuine and the humor is smart and well thought out. There is satire, gallows humor, swashbuckling action, and while Futurama gave us a chance to experience theoretical concepts of Science, Math, and Technology; Disenchantment lets us have fun with the ideas of Theology, Myth, and Fantasy.
Beneath the shallow exterior of an adult cartoon show lies an even deeper layer of character development, strong story elements, and relatable motivations. We’ve already seen reflections of some philosophical dilemmas the characters have had to deal with like the ideas of free will, identity, and the difference between good and evil that we can only hope will continue to be seen in coming episodes because these things bring about a dynamic missing from many animated shows and their characters. When a character starts to feel very one dimensional we learn something new from their past that makes us understand their motivations all the better, and we feel for them.
Netflix ordered 20 episodes of Disenchantment and the first 10 were released, ending in a cliffhanger episode forcing us to wait with bated breath for the second half of season one. It feels as if the show has a lot more to give us but unfortunately there has not yet been a release date for the next 10 episodes.