Matt Groening's first animated series, The Simpsons, has had the sort of extended (and in television terms, practically infinite) run that confounds just about everyone's expectations. His turn-of-the-millennium second series, Futurama, was an ambitious sci-fi comedy (set in the year 3000) with a far more earthbound trajectory: it lasted four erratically programmed seasons, amassing around 70 wonderful but cult-bound episodes.
Early in Bender's Big Score, a direct-to-DVD revival of the Futurama universe, Groening and his brainy writers have their revenge: Hubert Farnsworth (voice of Billy West) reveals that the "moronic" executives who briefly ran Planet Express, the interplanetary delivery service where all of the main characters work, were not only "themselves fired for incompetence," but beaten up pretty badly, and eventually killed and ground into a fine pink powder. Apparently those imaginary higher-ups (of the "Box Network," naturally) are indispensable in this form, as Torgo's Executive Powder appears throughout the film, put to a variety of uses including fish food, glue, and relieving jock itch.
Bender's Big Score is rich in this kind of tangential but delightful continuity; though novices with an ear for comedy or an eye for gorgeous animation (sort of a futuristic elevation of Groening's spare, immediate drawing style) will enjoy the film, devoted fans of Futurama will probably find themselves in pleasure overload. Just about every supporting character from the series -- think Springfield of The Simpsons stretched across galaxies and the space-time continuum -- makes an appearance throughout the movie's snaky, tricky sci-fi-farce (science-farcian?) plot.
The title is somewhat misleading -- or, anyway, no more capable than any other attempt to summarize 90 minutes of Futurama in a few short words. There is a heist of sorts carried out by Bender, the hilariously anti-social robot (I was going to refer to him as hedonistic, but the show has a separate character, Hendonism Bot, who appears briefly here and suggests that perhaps Bender lives a life of relative temperance). But Bender's nicking of historical artifacts is more of a side hustle -- he's been enslaved by spam-spewing nudist aliens who want to take over Planet Express and, eventually, earth, indulging in some time-traveling thievery on the way.
This particular time-travel portal comes from a source unlikely even by Futurama standards: a tattoo on the hind-quarters of Fry (also Billy West), the show's dim hero, who was cryogenically frozen on New Year's Eve 1999 and awoken a thousand years later at the start of the series. Fry himself gets into the time-jumping act, revisiting his pre-future life and grappling with his unrequited love for one-eyed ass-kicking mutant Leela, a poignant story thread left over from the series.
You may have guessed by this convoluted point that Bender's Big Score lacks the typical TV-to-feature trouble with cooking up 90 minutes' worth of story. If anything, there are any number of past Futurama stories that could've easily been whirled out into an absurdist, Douglas Adams-style epic; a longer version seems almost overdue. Now that it's finally here, the film suffers a little from subplot fatigue -- an excess of the show's typically frenzied invention. It doesn't exactly feel like a four-part episode (which is how it will eventually air on Comedy Central), but there are B-stories -- the decapitation of company accountant Hermes, for example -- that would probably play better at five or ten minutes. Then, after a lot of build-up and a little meandering, the film seems to end abruptly; it's as if a key emotional scene between Fry and Leela has been cut out completely, lacking the lingering, bittersweet tone the series often summoned for its conclusions.
In terms of giant laughs, Bender's Big Score isn't quite at the level of the best episodes, either; it spends a lot of time recalling great characters and less time introducing future-classic new ones (the nudist villains are more actually loathsome than hilariously evil). This is to say, though, that it's merely funnier than most theatrically released comedies, rather than being the funniest single 90-minute block of my life. Make no mistake: Bender's Big Score is a lovely gift to deprived Futurama fans, offering more joy and relief, even, than Torgo's Executive Powder.
Aka Futurama: Bender's Big Score.