Asking me to review a brand-new Futurama movie is like asking a junkie to write an article about crack cocaine: It'll be enthusiastic and perhaps slightly amusing, but it might not be all that articulate. Having said that, I just got done watching a movie that shouldn't even exist. But Family Guy taught us that the fans CAN bring you back to life, and Firefly / Serenity proved that a "network casualty" CAN turn into a fantastic film ... so I guess all bets are off these days. (Especially when you're dealing with the Fox network, canceler of all three series.)

But let's be fair: Thanks to the endlessly profitable Simpsons revenue stream, Fox did allow Futurama to run for four stellar production seasons, but the fans were left to mope and complain as the last remaining episodes were tossed onto the airwaves with casual disdain -- which sucked extra-hard because the final episodes were all pretty great! And then Futurama was dead. Boo! I took solace in the fact that I owned all 72 episodes on DVD AND the fact opinion that Futurama is one of the most eminently "re-watchable" TV comedies ever produced. So it could have been worse: Fox still owes me another four or five seasons of Arrested Development, and I'm still waiting.

So imagine my slack-jawed geek-face when I learned that, whoa, Futurama would be returning ... in some form! Turns out that Fox Home Video is once again in the resurrection business, because here come FOUR new Futurama movies! Wow! The only catch is that you can't see the Planet Express crew in a cinematic adventure (yet), but here's the good news: The first DVD flick, Bender's Big Score, is funnier than most theatrical-release comedies -- and yep, that includes The Simpsons Movie. Owing to the fact that the movie will one day be broken down into a quartet of semi-stand-alone cable episodes, Bender's Big Score is a convoluted, over-plotted, and structurally confused little movie. (Let's just say it's a lot like Back to the Future 2, only more contorted, if you can believe it.) There, that's pretty much my only gripe: There's almost too much going on! But given that Fry, Leela, The Professor, Bender, and (more importantly) their creators are clearly enjoying their first jolt of post-death resurrection, such a complaint can easily be forgiven. (By me, anyway.) What's important is this: The fans will adore this mega-packed movie, because all the major stuff is there: The smart and the silly, the characters and the craftsmanship, the eye-popping and the rib-tickling. Call me a Futurama mega-nerd if you like, but Bender's Big Score is simply one of the most WELCOME DVD releases of the year.

I'll keep the plot synopsis short, mainly because it's more fun to discover the twists for yourself ... but also because there's so much wacky stuff afoot that it'd be foolish to try and rattle it off piecemeal. But here's the gist: Nudist alien telemarketing scammers have taken over the earth, and only one delivery company can A) assist in the planet's downfall, B) survive a series of goofy-yet-paradoxical adventures, and C) return to Earth and kick some alien tail. (Plus there are subplots galore, including the humorous mutilation and subsequent humiliation of bureaucrat Hermes Conrad, a "new" love interest for Captain Leela, and more time-travel twistiness than you'll know what to do with. Plus there's space battles, nudity and narwhals.)

Having seen and enjoyed the flick thrice already (if you count the commentary track), I could ramble on about the witty dialog, the uber-geeky (and consistently amusing) sci-fi references, the wonderfully colorful animation (now in glorious widescreen!), and the typically great musical score -- but it's the character(s) that make this series (and now movie series!) work so well. The Futurama-makers toss lots of strange and silly things onto the screen, but without a core group of characters to actually care about, none of it would make much of a lasting impression. Despite all the insanity that surrounds them, there's always some heart and humanity to be found in Fry, Leela, The Professor, and even the wonderfully selfish Bender. (OK, maybe not The Professor; he's just a raving lunatic most of the time.) That's not to say that Bender's Big Score is as emotionally satisfying as the finest Futurama fare (like, say, Jurassic Bark or The Luck of the Fryrish), but it's clear that the creators have some real affection for these futuristic weirdos. And happily for all involved, that affection is a bit infectious.

And on top of a movie overstuffed with characters, concepts, and general craziness, you will (of course) receive a whole bunch of extra goodies. Anyone who owns a Futurama season set is well aware that each episode comes with producer / director / actor commentaries, and that's certainly the case here. Found on the Bender's Big Score chat track are: head honcho Matt Groening, executive producer David X. Cohen, producer Claudia Katz, director Dwayne Carey-Hill, writer Ken Keeler, and actors Billy West, John DiMaggio, and Phil LaMarr. The well-balanced commentary does a fine job of recapping the series' resurrection and covering the larger "TV to DVD-size" issues, plus there's a lot of extra laughs to be found here. For fans only, obviously.

And the treats just keep on coming:

  • Futurama Returns! -- A 6-minute cast read of a comic book from the comic-con. Fun stuff.
  • Everybody Loves Hypnotoad -- 22 minutes of a sitcom starring everybody's favorite mesmerizing amphibian. (Some may call this piece a one-joke gimmick, but I think it's a rather smart satire of the modern sitcom.)
  • Deleted Storyboard Sequences -- Three of 'em. None of 'em stellar, but still worthy of a laugh or two.
  • A Terrifying Message from Al Gore -- Here's a Futurama-fied promo for Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Available with optional audio/video commentary by Groening, Cohen, and the Gore-master himself!
  • Bite My Shiny Metal X -- You know how much the Futurama writers love using bizarre and obscure math stuff? Well, they do. And this rather amusing 22-minute lecture from professor Sarah Greenwald explains where, when and why. I freakin' hate math, and I dug this.
  • 3D Models / 3D Turnarounds -- About a minute of stuff for the FX geeks.
  • Bender's Big Score -- In screenplay form!
  • New Character / Design Sketches -- Flip through 'em!
  • Original 5-Minute Comic-Con Promo -- Yep, a long trailer.

(Also, click on Bender's head for a not-so-hidden "Futurama Time Logic Scribble.")

Bottom line: The resurrection of Futurama is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, entertainment-wise. If the first movie isn't exactly an instant classic, it represents a powerful step forward for the Planet Express crew. Packed as it is with tons of "in-jokes" from the Fox series, the movie should prove to be a real treat for loyal fans. Whether or not Bender's Big Score will bring in a whole new audience, I have no idea. But as a guy who's watched all four seasons more times than he cares to mention, and loves the show enough to criticize a little when I feel like it, I'd call Movie #1 a solid B+ project. A very solid start to a (hopefully) great news series. Now bring on the next one!!

The next one, for the record, will be Bender's Game, which will be followed by Into the Wild Green Yonder and then The Beast with a Billion Backs. Release dates have yet to be determined, but they're definitely on their way. They can't be canceled.

[ Also check out Brad Trechak's review over at TV Squad! ]