Review: Disenchantment, more than a fairly stale fairy tale?
Warning: This review will contain spoilers, read at your own risk
Matt Groening’s latest series tends more Futurama than The Simpsons, more “fine” than “awesome!!” The ten episode Netflix series follows Bean, a princess disenchanted with royal life. She has a penchant for spending her time drinking and fighting, much to the consternation of her overbearing, perpetually shouting father, King Zøg. She soon befriends Luci, a personal demon sent to her as a wedding gift from a pair of shadowy, nefarious mages. Elfo rounds out the band of misfits, an exile from the elf world who struggled to conform to the elf lifestyle of endless merrymaking.
The series is replete with fun jokes and visual gags, and fans of Futurama will likely let it fill the void the beloved series left behind. The characters are fun to hang around with, and a clear effort was made to ensure that supporting cast members would also be memorable. While the series had its fair share of stumbles, I still found myself enjoying every episode and would gladly watch season 2 — sorry, I mean part 2. The show is best enjoyed before bed, while your brain is already shutting off and less inclined to nitpick the various rough edges.
While Bean, Luci, and Elf are fun and have a charming art design, they suffer from a case of poor writing. Bean is the most focused, with her desire to live a “normal life” and rebel against her father’s stifling, yet simultaneously absent, parenting. Despite some added grace notes to show us Bean’s roughhousing world, the writers couldn’t get me on board. The show seems to want to paint her as a belligerent and disgruntled princess, always looking for a fight. Sure, she’s drunk a lot and gets in some scraps, but she is fundamentally soft and compassionate. It’s an odd struggle as the writing portrays her as a misunderstood teen, yet it has to contend with the idea of Bean the show tries to advertise.
Luci and Elfo struggle with weak character motivations. Luci is ostensibly working on behalf of the mages to ruin Bean’s life. Maybe? They mention a plan a lot, but aside from a few minor extracurriculars, it doesn’t seem like Luci is actively trying to push Bean to a dastardly demise. Elfo is in worse shape. After leaving the cheery elf world in search of a place where people can be miserable, he settles in with Bean and Luci. His goal of “being miserable” is revealed to solely be a punchline for the pilot, as he becomes directionless. He refocuses to having some romantic interest in Bean, but too often it seems like he’s just along for the ride. While he’s a fun character I like having around, I wish the show could give him more purpose. Maybe they could fashion him after a superior elf character that breaks away from elf culture with more intent?
The poor writing extends beyond the characters with multiple episodes concluding conveniently and lazily. In one episode, swamp hillbillies capture Bean and company. They tie the heroes up with the intent of feeding them to a swamp monster. Bean starts working out of her restraints just as the swamp monster strikes… and eats the hillbillies. Then, Bean punches the swamp monster and everyone escapes. In another episode, when cornered by bad guys, they jump off a cliff and unsurprisingly, everything turns out fine. It lowers the stakes and feeling of peril, as the show conditions the audience into thinking obstacles are inconsequential. In the end, the heroes will prevail, not because of lessons they have learned or because of their skills and abilities (because none of the heroes have any) but because the protagonists have no choice but to win somehow.
However, in the last three episodes, all this starts to change. Elfo learns that he is half-elf, half-something else, the show teasing the audience by keeping his true identity secret. Then, Elfo dies. For real. But a post-credit scene hints he might be pulling his best Jon Snow impersonation soon. Bean’s mother is reincarnated, but is quickly revealed to have a dark side. She has plans for Bean, and the season ends with ominous mentions to Bean’s destiny.
When serialized, a throughline starts to emerge. We finally get hints that these characters are more than they appear (something this fantasy series was missing for its first half). There’s intrigue, suspense, and we finally get weightier drama and conflict. Elfo died, and Bean chose saving her mother over him. And don’t forget that Bean’s mother petrified all of Dreamland’s residents. These are big decisions and moments that will have serious ramifications. Even as the series hits its stride, it still has some less-than-ideal moments. Disenchantment tries to hit some of the emotional beats that Futurama deftly incorporated, but in Disenchantment they fall a bit flat. Abbi Jacobson (Bean) and John DiMaggio’s (King Zøg) performances aren’t strong enough in these moments. Bean and her mother’s first conversation is hindered by clunky dialogue. To be fair, the writer was given a tough task, as Bean longing for her mother was never something the show planted effectively. These mishaps aside, Disenchantment does enough in its final three episodes to encourage viewers to tune in for the second installment. Hopefully, this time around, the show can avoid some of the writing mishaps and focus on the characters’ mishaps instead.
For Fans Of: Surprise, Futurama!
Pros: Fun characters, light, bingeable fare
Cons: Takes too long for the show to hint at character depth, lazy writing takes the easy way out too often