Review: Disenchantment Season 1

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In the new Netflix animated series Disenchantment, Princess Tiabini of Dreamland, nicknamed “Bean,” chafes at the royal responsibilities of making appearances, conducting diplomacy, and above all marrying strategically. She’d rather sneak out of her tower bedroom and spend her nights drinking and carousing than play the dutiful daughter at court, and as a woman in a pseudo-medieval kingdom she has no more control over her own destiny than the poorest serf. She is, in short, a mess. Her father, the blustering King Zøg, doesn’t have the time or inclination to understand her, and in any case he has a new family to worry about, Bean’s stepmother Queen Oona and half-brother Prince Derek. What’s a girl to do?

Bean isn’t the only one who’s misunderstood and doesn’t feel that they fit in: Elfo lives and works in a secret woodland enclave of candy-making elves (a sort of combination of the Smurfs and the Keebler Elves), but he’s the only one who isn’t happy with a life of singing, dancing, and cooking. When he makes his inevitable break and leaves Elfwood, he finds his way to Dreamland and interrupts Princess Bean’s wedding to the moronic Prince Guysbert. The resulting fracas brings the pair together–elf’s blood is supposed to be the key to immortality, leading to Elfo being made a permanent “guest” of King Zøg and his court wizard Sorcerio–and sets the stage for their friendship. Both are, of course, trapped in the castle one way or another.

The third main character is equally supernatural: among the wedding gifts, Bean finds a box that looks a lot like one of the puzzle boxes from the Hellraiser movies; opening it, a demon appears and proclaims that she is now cursed and will never be rid of him. Luci, the demon, was sent to turn Bean to the dark side by a mysterious couple who monitor his progress through a magical fire, but since Bean was already troubled (and gifted at making trouble) Luci’s influence doesn’t make that much difference, and the two quickly become drinking buddies. Once the introductions are dispensed with and the stage is set, it becomes clear that Elfo and Luci are the angel and devil sitting on Bean’s shoulder (sometimes literally to make it clear), with the naïve, kind Elfo encouraging her to stay on the straight and narrow and Luci enabling her worst impulses.

However, Elfo’s inoffensive nature is mostly just “nice,” and as Stephen Sondheim famously pointed out, “nice” isn’t the same thing as “good.” Being a Matt Groening creation (with Josh Weinstein), the world of Disenchantment isn’t any more fair or forgiving than our own, and as Bean finds her place in it, Elfo learns to cut loose a little bit and begins to understand that standing up for himself sometimes means challenging what others perceive as “good.” For his part, Luci never seems all that bad (he’s “TV bad,” like Bender), and comes to feel loyalty toward Bean and even that annoying elf. In a world of shades of gray, the all-black Luci doesn’t stand out that much. (The business of Luci turning Bean toward the dark side is left unresolved in favor of other mysteries during this season.)

At first, Disenchantment looks familiar: it has a family resemblance to Matt Groening’s previous work, from Princess Bean’s buck teeth, reminiscent of Bongo, one of the rabbit stars of Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip, to the gleeful genre parody, the science fiction of Futurama replaced in Disenchantment by fantasy tropes. The cynical (or perhaps just clear-eyed) attitude of The Simpsons is as much part of Disenchantment‘s DNA as the characters’ ping-pong ball eyes. Similarly, anyone who has enjoyed “fractured fairy tale” spoofs like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Shrek will find themselves in familiar territory: much of the humor is driven by the incongruity of essentially modern people with modern attitudes living in a medieval world alternately full of magic and high fantasy wonders on the one hand and wretched squalor on the other, the emphasis in any given moment entirely dependent on what is funnier. Ultimately, the show Disenchantment most reminds me of is Galavant (R.I.P.): while Disenchantment is (mostly) not a musical, the sense of self-aware rule-breaking and lampshading of well-worn genre clichés (and tweaking the contrast between fantasy as fun escapism and the miserable reality of the middle ages’ actual history) is the same.

Thankfully, Disenchantment takes off on its own fairly quickly, and after a somewhat stiff first couple of episodes, I was fully on board. It helps that the ten episodes of the first season are tightly plotted: The Simpsons in its classic years famously avoided almost any serialization, resetting at the beginning of each episode, and Futurama, while more serialized, struggled with episodes aired out of order and the uncertainty of renewal and being brought back from cancellation (by my count there were at least four “final” episodes, maybe five?). Being a Netflix production with all ten episodes available at once (the series premiered August 17), Disenchantment can afford to carry multiple story threads forward without losing the audience, and its initial premise of “misfits hanging out in a fantasy realm” turns out to hide an intriguing set of mysteries.

But so what? Everybody is doing that with their programs today, especially on Netflix, right? More impressively, Disenchantment is able to do this without the cop-out of essentially cutting a three-hour movie into sections: each episode (or “chapter”) has a self-contained story and can be enjoyed on its own, just like a classic sitcom. It is only as the season comes to a head that we can look back and realize how subtly ideas and plot devices were introduced that turned out to be crucial, each episode contributing a piece of the mystery and its eventual solution one step at a time. Call it the J. K. Rowling method: like Harry Potter, Disenchantment takes place in a world made up of spare parts, but the plotting and characterization breathe new life into it, and what at first seems like a generic fantasy trope often turns out to have been introduced for a very specific reason important to the plot (the tone and general aim could not be more different, of course, but I stand by my comparison).

To examine one example (and a particularly complex one) more closely, consider Dankmire, Dreamland’s neighbor and the home of Queen Oona. Given the most attention in Chapter Six (“Swamp and Circumstance”), it is revealed that King Zøg waged war on Dankmire in order to force the Dankmirians to build a canal through their wetland kingdom for the Dreamlanders’ benefit. Zøg’s marriage to Queen Oona (his previous Queen Dagmar, Bean’s mother, being out of the picture) was the gesture that sealed the two kingdoms’ treaty afterwards. Dankmire and its people make for an odd hodgepodge of “foreign” clichés, fantasy and otherwise. The Dankmirians are amphibious, with light blue skin and forked tongues; Oona’s creepy behavior is a running gag in the series. All of the Dankmirians speak with an exaggerated Slavic accent, with Oona herself (voiced by Tress MacNeille) sounding much like Natasha Fatale. The Dankmirians are not vampiric, so far as we know, but making them sound like Bela Lugosi makes the comparison to the American-accented Dreamlanders clear: Dankmire is spooky.

But in other aspects, they embody “Oriental” stereotypes, particularly the Dankmirian respect for protocol: a scene in which Luci outsmarts some pursuing Dankmirians, repeatedly bowing to them and forcing them to bow in return, thus slowing them down so the Dreamlanders can escape, reminds me of the apocryphal story (relayed by Huston Smith, who described it as an attempt to discredit Confucianism’s reverence for rules) of a high-class Chinese lady who supposedly died because she refused to leave a burning house without a chaperone. In the case of the Chancellor of Dankmire, the resemblance to a Japanese head of state is clearer both in his visual appearance and his accent (I was reminded of the crypto-Japanese Trade Federation in The Phantom Menace), and a scene in which an inebriated Bean vomits on him recalls a similar incident between President George H. W. Bush and the Prime Minister of Japan in 1992.

(A truly bizarre twist occurs later in the episode when the Dreamlanders fall into the hands of a pair of Dankmirian hillbillies, locals displaced by the canal King Zøg forced Dankmire to build: they are stereotypes as broad as Cletus on The Simpsons, but they continue to pronounce their “w”s as “v”s, making them a bunch of blue-skinned white trash Draculas. Like I said, weird, even for a fantasy program.)

None of this is to suggest that “Swamp and Circumstance” was written with racist intent, or even that such references were inserted deliberately, but that notions of the “other” from human history inevitably inform our fantasy worlds, perhaps all the moreso when modern references are freely overlaid. In addition to its general lack of reverence for the institutions of royalty, Disenchantment is more progressive than many classic works of fantasy (a gay relationship among the King’s staff is treated as neither a joke nor a scandal, and is hardly a plot point at all: it just is), but still begins from the starting point of the European middle ages as the default for the genre. I suspect that, as with George Lucas in the previously mentioned Phantom Menace, ethnic caricatures recur as character types because of their roots in earlier film and television as literal “color,” keeping stereotypes alive for their entertainment value even if no malice is intended. Making them into aliens or supernatural creatures may lend plausible deniability, but the implications can be troubling nonetheless. (On the other hand, Groening is from a generation of humorists who don’t see anything as off-limits; considering his reaction to the criticisms of Apu on The Simpsons, he would probably just conclude that I lack a sense of humor.)

Having said all that, “Swamp and Circumstance” is one of the best episodes of Disenchantment, and Dankmire is a richly-realized setting that I wouldn’t mind revisiting in a future episode. While I love picking apart the diverse influences that may have gone into it, Dankmire’s synthesis of those elements succeeds in fleshing out what starts as a simple foil to Dreamland’s “normalcy.” Dankmire also gave us one of the series’ funniest incidental characters, Chazz, a send-up of aggressively chummy waitstaff everywhere, appearing first as a (possibly deranged) spa attendant in Chapter Four (“Castle Party Massacre”) and showing up in “Swamp and Circumstance” as a passive-aggressive waiter. “I vill bring you vat you deserve,” he tells a temporarily teetotaling Bean.

Another interesting twist on a common formula is the show’s treatment of Bean’s relationship with Elfo. Predictably, Elfo develops a crush on Bean (“I like big girls,” the diminutive elf tells her at one point), and the show even points out the cliché with the royal scribe narrating their developing relationship with the words “will they or won’t they?” This is easily the most tedious subplot in the season, but it does lead to some sublime payoffs. Even as flawed as she is, Bean is pretty clearly out of Elfo’s league: there is an echo of Futurama‘s Fry and Leela, but I was reminded even more of Dipper’s crush on the older, cooler Wendy in Gravity Falls. However, since the story is largely from Bean’s point of view a relationship never really seems that plausible, and it’s clear from early on that Elfo is just the worst: beyond being a wimp, he is self-pitying and manipulative.

In Chapter Seven,”Love’s Tender Rampage” (another high point), Elfo’s face-saving claim to already have a girlfriend results in Bean sending the kingdom’s knights on a quest to rescue her. When they bring back the seemingly monstrous Tess (presumably short for “giantess”), Elfo just digs himself deeper and deeper by piling on the lies, a recipe for farce that delivers some of the series’ biggest laughs. Still, the season ends uncertainly, with the feeling that maybe there is something to Elfo deserving of Bean’s loyalty, if not her love. Characters change throughout the course of the season, and Elfo is no different, finding resources within himself and learning that growth is possible.

On the production side, the animation finds its groove quickly; the use of 3-D computer modeling with a hand-drawn “skin,” which worked so effectively for the sleek buildings and machines of Futurama, is a little disorienting when applied to the analog lines and textures of a stone castle, but the approach allows for some exciting tracking shots through the busy walled city that surrounds King Zøg’s castle, and later in the series there are some dazzling shots of exotic locations such as a city half-buried in the desert. There are some compositions that will stick with me long after the memory of the plot has faded as well: a shot of the mysterious couple who unleashed Luci, alone in their oversized lair, reminds me of the early episodes of Adventure Time and the weirdly enticing atmosphere that show spun out of emptiness and slabs of raw color.

Many of the voices are familiar from Futurama, including regulars MacNeille, John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche, and Billy West. King Zøg, voiced by DiMaggio, sounds like a mixture of Bluto with a little of Burt Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, appropriate for a character who is basically a medieval Archie Bunker (it’s a credit to DiMaggio that for an actor with such a distinctive voice, I didn’t hear Zøg and immediately think, “Hey, that’s Bender!”). Abbi Jacobson plays Bean, and, appropriately enough for the show’s emotional center, she comes off as a normal person. Nat Faxon’s Elfo is appropriately a bit more “cartoony,” and Eric André’s Luci is chill to the point of being deadpan. Among numerous others, I should also single out Matt Berry, who is perfect as Guysbert’s younger brother Prince Merkimer, a swaggering, self-important dufus definitely in the Zapp Brannigan mold (he goes through some changes, too, but I won’t spoil that development–suffice it to say that his subplot is another example of the show’s serialization: no reset button between episodes!).

Finally, Mark Mothersbaugh provides a whirling brass band theme song that smartly captures the show’s irreverent approach to its predecessors. It’s true that many stories have deconstructed fantasy tropes before, to the point that it can be considered a genre unto itself, but the tight plotting and secret warmth that lies beneath Disenchantment’s crusty exterior prove that there are still new stories to be told within it.

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Review: Pee-wee’s Big Holiday

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Years ago, I mentioned to a new acquaintance that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was a favorite film of mine, and after I convinced him that I didn’t just think of it as a kid’s movie (it’s an all ages movie–there’s a difference), he asked me just what was Pee-Wee Herman’s deal. Like, what is he supposed to be? I suspect it’s a question that anyone who doesn’t see the appeal of Herman (the alter ego of actor/writer Paul Reubens) might ask. Pee-wee dresses like a stereotypical 1950s kid with a buzz cut and bow tie, delivers corny jokes and catch phrases in a swallowed voice, and appears to live in a candy-colored funhouse. The best answer I could come up with then, and still, is that Pee-wee is a “man child.”

There are plenty of television shows, movies, and comic strips featuring children who act like adults: hearing seemingly innocent children crack wise like Borscht Belt comedians or swear like sailors may produce cheap laughs, but they’re laughs nonetheless. On the more sophisticated end of the spectrum, Charles Schulz’s classic Peanuts and Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County, among others, featured children who made sage observations about the existential dilemmas of life or filtered the political concerns of the day through their own experiences. And of course The Simpsons has been making a case for more than twenty-five years that Lisa is more intelligent, sensitive, and mature than her father. Heck, in many episodes Bart clears that hurdle.

The comedy of adults acting like children is trickier, however (witness “jerk-ass Homer” in some of The Simpsons’ weaker episodes), easily veering into the cringe-inducingly maudlin or obnoxious. This is where Pee-wee Herman, as a character, walks a fine line, and his role has changed in the various films and television programs he’s appeared in. In his earliest incarnation as a character Reubens performed on stage, Herman was a child, albeit one with a naughty streak; much of the comedy (as I recall it; it’s been years since I saw the stage show that was broadcast on HBO) emphasized the contrast between his innocent appearance and the mildly risqué situations he found himself in. Being taken for a goody two-shoes just made it easier for him to look up girls’ skirts or deliver double entendres.

Obviously Herman became more family-friendly after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and especially the Saturday morning TV program Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but there was still a sense that Pee-wee was a naif surrounded by more worldly characters. His distrust of feminine entanglement has been a common thread through many of his vehicles. I remember one sketch from his 1985 Saturday Night Live appearance in which a friend confesses his marital problems to Pee-wee, trying to explain in a roundabout way that he might need to find someone to help relieve his “needs.” After Pee-wee offers a series of increasingly ridiculous guesses as to what kind of person his friend is talking about (“an evil mailman”), he finally gives up and says, “Gee, why don’t you just get yourself a hooker?”

As the new film Pee-wee’s Big Holiday opens, Pee-wee is a more familiar kind of man child, an adult (he has a job and a car, for example) who likes his life just the way it is and resists anything that threatens to change it. His structured existence in the idyllic community of Fairville resembles both that of Jim Carrey’s character in The Truman Show and Steve Carrell’s in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (fitting, since Virgin director Judd Apatow produced Big Holiday). The cracks begin to show, however, when he puts off a pushy travel agent (Pee-wee hasn’t left Fairville since he had a bad experience) and a flirtatious librarian (see above re: feminine entanglement). The real crisis occurs when his band, the humorously clean-cut Renegades, break the bad news that they’re splitting up because the other members’ lives are taking them in separate directions. Pee-wee is so distraught that he burns their picture and breaks his flutophone in half.

Enter a cool, mysterious stranger (Joe Manganiello) who, despite his bad boy attitude and good looks (he pulls up on a motorcycle and wears a tight tee-shirt like Marlon Brando in The Wild One) has a lot in common with Pee-wee. They both agree on the superiority of root-beer barrels as the best candy in the world, and they hit it off over Pee-wee’s milkshake, which Manganiello declares “top five, all-time.” Pee-wee gives Manganiello a tour of Fairville, including the miniature model of the town Pee-wee has built in his backyard, but Manganiello is shocked when he realizes how sheltered Pee-wee is. He encourages him to hit the open road, “break some rules and break some hearts,” and as an incentive invites Pee-wee to his upcoming birthday party in New York City.

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Manganiello is playing himself, sort of; I wasn’t familiar with him, so I was in the same boat as Pee-wee (although he played Flash Thompson way back in the 2002 Spider-Man movie, so I guess I did see him in that). Manganiello is a winning and hilarious foil to Pee-wee, “cool” in a more traditional way than Pee-wee but eccentric enough to fit into Pee-wee’s world. The best part about his character is that his friendship with Pee-wee is genuine: he really likes Pee-wee and recognizes in him a different kind of cool. Later, Manganiello’s anticipation for his birthday party and his deep disappointment when he thinks Pee-wee isn’t coming are fertile sources of comedy. Like Pee-wee Herman, “Joe Manganiello” is a childlike character, a child’s idea of a rich and famous star who rides a motorcycle around the country and throws lavish (but PG-rated) parties for himself when not acting.

With a motive to leave town, Pee-wee embarks on his journey, and from here the film is completely episodic, and like Big Adventure it consists of encounters with funny characters in a slightly off-kilter version of roadside America. Pee-wee is first carjacked by a trio of buxom bank robbers straight out of a Russ Meyer film, and after he escapes he hitches a ride with a traveling novelties salesman. Later, Diane Salinger (Simone in Big Adventure) turns up as a Katharine Hepburn-like heiress piloting a flying car. One of the running jokes and a constant for Pee-wee’s character is that while he’s good-natured, he isn’t a Pollyana, and while we trust that the world won’t be unnecessarily cruel to Pee-wee, he faces enough zany setbacks to make him (and the audience) wonder whether he’ll make it to Manganiello’s party in time.

While this version of Pee-wee is a little less trusting of the outside world, he still makes friends wherever he goes, and many of the episodes show him being encouraged by his new friends or learning to his surprise that he can handle the rough world outside Fairville. Whether he’s caught in an extended “farmer’s daughter” joke, hitching a ride with a group of sassy hairdressers, or adjusting to life in an Amish hamlet, Pee-wee sees the best in people, even when it would make sense for him not to.

Like many modern reboots and revivals of old properties, this “comeback” is packed with nostalgic callbacks and Easter eggs, remixing an older story by sprinkling in familiar themes, character types, and imagery to summon up the old magic. Instead of the dinosaur-themed truck stop in Big Adventure, there’s a touristy snake farm; the criminal supervixens recall both the movie archetypes that director Tim Burton incorporated into Big Adventure‘s world and more specifically the ex-con Mickey whom Pee-wee befriended in that film; and the famous “Breakfast Machine” from Big Adventure is homaged in an extended Rube Goldberg sequence that stretches all the way down the street from Pee-wee’s house and encompasses every aspect of his morning commute (I was waiting for a joke to reveal that Pee-wee can’t leave town because he spends so much time setting up this contraption).

I’m a big enough fan that I enjoyed those references, but I’m glad to say that the film has plenty of original gags, and that most of the material works well enough on its own, even if you’ve never seen a Pee-wee Herman movie before. And the film is fast-paced enough that jokes that don’t work are quickly left behind for something new. In addition, Pee-wee’s desperate desire to please his new friend and make it to his party is a slightly different dynamic than the search for his stolen bicycle in Big Adventure; after all, there was no risk that his bicycle might not be happy to be found. Unlike Paul Reubens, Pee-wee himself hasn’t aged a day: his voice is a little deeper in a few scenes, and there’s one scene toward the end where he looks a little like John Waters without the mustache, but in general he’s as timeless as the mash-up of time periods in which he lives.

Director John Lee (Wonder Showzen; The Heart, She Holler) captures the sincere but heightened tone of Pee-wee’s world quite well, proving his own surreal brand of humor more than compatible with Reubens’. The many comic performers in the cast are game and then some, and Dan Butts’ production design captures both the Norman Rockwell world of Fairville and the many different locations Pee-wee travels to. Musically, it’s hard to compete with Danny Elfman’s contributions to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and the circus-themed Big Top Pee-wee, but former DEVO frontman Mark Mothersbaugh (whose film credits have included scores for Rushmore and The Lego Movie) provides an enjoyably quirky score; the highlight is a slightly cracked Leonard Bernstein-style salute to New York.

To sum up, I’m probably too close to tell you whether this is a fans-only proposition, but as a fan, I liked it. It’s not quite on the level of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but since I’ve already revealed that’s one of my favorite movies of all time, that’s no great criticism. It’s streaming on Netflix Instant now, so I invite you to give it a try. What have you got to lose?