Futurama has never been afraid to delve into the big, playfully philosophical ideas endemic to brainy science fiction. So when it was announced that the beloved cult show would be returning as a series of feature-length DVD movies, fans were exhilarated that the show's geek squad would finally have the space to do justice to its big ideas and ambitious premises. But there's such a thing as too much freedom, and the direct-to-DVD features Bender's Big Score and The Beast With A Billion Backs regularly veer into winking self-indulgence. So it isn't an encouraging sign that the third Futurama DVD, Bender's Game, is an extended love letter to Dungeons & Dragons and The Lord Of The Rings. Though D&D;+Futurama is an equation sure to inspire geekgasms throughout the role-playing community, fans who've never known the joy of rolling the 20-sided die are bound to feel a little left out.
In their nerdiest adventure to date, the Planet Express gang investigates a shortage of "dark matter," a valuable, oil-like commodity controlled by sinister corporate giant Mom. Their mission leads them to a fantastical, Middle-Earth-like realm where they each assume new personas. (Sexy cyclops Leela is a centaur, while hapless everyman Fry quickly devolves into a Gollum-like ghoul.)
The biggest laughs in Bender's Game come from the random robo-absurdity of Bender's stint in the HAL Institute, a mental hospital for insane robots, and the film gets off to a strong start with a loving, gorgeously animated opening-credits homage to Yellow Submarine. Otherwise, Bender's Game feels like a super-sized version of the weak Simpsons episodes where Homer and company play characters from Bible stories or American mythology. Game has its share of big laughs, but pop-culture gags such as orc-like creatures named Morks who spout Robin Williams' early catchphrases reek of Family Guy. Bender's Game comes perilously close to suggesting unusually accomplished fan-fiction even before Leela and alien-loving babe Amy begin making out in their fantasy-world guises. Hopefully the next Futurama movie, Into The Wild Green Yonder, will mark an improvement. For acolytes who've already witnessed Futurama rise from the grave once, hope springs eternal.
Key features: The usual jokey, affectionate audio commentary and a geektastic primer on Dungeons & Dragons' influence on Futurama.