Disenchantment, Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s new animated fantasy parody for Netflix, uses the same art style that’s been the cartoonist’s trademark his entire career. Sweet, hapless Elfo (Nat Faxon) doesn’t look too far removed from Lisa and Maggie’s beloved Happy Little Elves; an obnoxious prince gets transformed into a swine form that could pass for Simpsons Movie scene-stealer Spider-Pig. But if the figures and architecture seem familiar — the castle of Dreamland, where rebellious princess Bean (Abbi Jacobson) lives, is reminiscent of Futurama‘s Planet Express building — the show’s visual style as a whole is routinely more adventurous and exciting than what we’ve come to expect even from the HD incarnation of The Simpsons.
The backgrounds are, of course, rich with jokes (Bean visits Little Seizures Poison Shop, whose slogan is “Poison! Poison!”), but the visuals go much deeper than that in a literal sense. The landscapes are more lush, the action scenes (of which there are many, as Bean and friends get into a heap of trouble involving witches, barbarian hordes, monsters and more) as well-choreographed as they are ridiculous.
It’s a visually splendid show, and a clever one, too. Groening and his collaborators (including former Simpsons showrunner Josh Weinstein, who helped develop the idea into a series) have given a lot of thought to how their strange world reflects our own (entering an enchanted forest, our heroes are greeted by a “Beware Racist Antelope” sign). And they’ve clearly sketched out how its many rules work — or don’t. (“I’m sorry, but things get confusing in a world with occasional magic and curses,” one character admits.)
But it’s in that vast expanse separating funny-clever from funny-ha-ha that Disenchantment frequently tends to get lost, largely thanks to the relative thinness of the three main characters. They fit snugly into the Futurama archetypes: Elfo (who abandons a peaceful life of song and candymaking to see the rest of the world) is the naive and hapless Fry figure; Bean (who wants to drink, fight and have adventures rather than marry) the Leela badass; and Bean’s pet demon Luci, voiced by Eric André, as the Bender-esque selfish bringer of chaos. Out of this trio, Elfo is the only one who seems more deeply thought out; not coincidentally he’s the only one who regularly generates laughs out of his innate behavior. André does well with his sly line readings, but the show very quickly loses the thread(*) of his character being there to corrupt and ruin Bean’s life. Soon, he’s just commenting on the action. And the supporting characters tend to be one-note — and not always an inherently comical note, like John DiMaggio (the voice of Bender himself) as the enraged king, who’s far more abrasive than he is amusing.
(*) As a Netflix show, Disenchantment tries to be at least loosely serialized. But its interest in those ongoing stories wanders quickly, and the emphasis on plot can make the episodes longer than they should be for comedy’s sake, with the premiere clocking in around 35 minutes.
No matter how surreal The Simpsons can get, there’s always that basic core of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie. We thoroughly understand their behavior and desires, which can generate humor in stories big and small. Futurama lacked that at first, and didn’t fully come into it own until Fry and the others found shading beyond their original outlines. Hopefully, Disenchantment can do that, too, but the episodes work better when they focus on action and spectacle (like a slasher movie climax inside the gingerbread house from the story of Hansel and Gretel) than when they’re going directly for big laughs.