Review of Disenchantment (2018)

Moving picture, 5.0 hours

Seen in 2019.

This review refers to the first two seasons.

Zøg of House Grunkwitz, once a warrior, rules the kingdom of Dreamland with more practicality than intelligence. Bean, his 19-year-old daughter from a previous marriage to a since-petrified noblewoman, likes to get drunk. Nobody likes the new queen, an amphibian whose marriage to Zøg sustains a fragile peace with the neighbours. Bean gets a personal demon around the same time she friend-zones a little green optimist. Fairies are mostly hookers.

One of Matt Groening’s animated sitcoms: The medieval-fantasy equivalent of The Simpsons (1989) and Futurama (1999). The plot is comparatively serialized.

The main problem with this series is the laziness of the comedic writing: The jokes are rarely funny. Another problem, less serious but equally consistent, is the lack of imagination. The setting is purposefully naïve. In the same way that Futurama is set in an obsolete version of the future, based on fiction like “The Velvet Glove” (1956) instead of any real futurology, Disenchantment is set in the faux-medieval Europe of US Ren Faires, an ahistorical place with plenty of drawbridges, plague carts, literal churches devoted to “dear god or gods”, Scotsmen in kilts and magical human-like species but very little internal consistency. It’s like the Discworld on a bad day for Terry Pratchett. In fact, it’s almost as thoughtless as Shrek (2001), a parody of bad fantasy, but without the star power or the animation budget. The derivative worldbuilding of Disenchantment is apparently meant to be funny, which brings us back to the main problem.

Beyond the laziness of the jokes, the writers had too much faith in the emotional weight of chance events, sheer ignorance and soap-opera cliffhangers. The climactic events of the first season are undone in the space of three episodes and the characters continue to harp on the uninformed choice Bean has to make between reviving Elfo or her mother, despite an influx of elf blood that makes the point moot. The writers make a similar mistake to cap off the second season: They spend an entire episode introducing a Vernian steampunk kingdom called Steamland, just so Bean can accidentally shoot Zøg right in the chest with a gun from that kingdom. I hope his name is from Ahmed Muhtar Zogolli, the pre-WW2 “King Zog” of Albania.

The execution improves slightly in the second season. Alas, the writing is still derivative, including both a light-hearted depiction of a brown Yahweh that is straight out of Boomer comics and a fantasy Egypt—the land of Maru to the south—where there are conversely no brown people and no local culture, or any culture. Oona’s liberation is the high point and her selkie replacement is pretty cool too, but Oona’s pirate culture is drawn from threadbare bastardizations of Treasure Island (1881).

Compare Tangled (2010), which has visual beauty, a more elegant—albeit equally derivative—setting and better jokes, despite being written for actual children. The basis of Bean as a character seems to be the archetypal Disney princess, like Rapunzel, but with added sex and heavy drinking for Netflix; not a bad move, but you can’t call it clever. Compare also Mahoujin Guru-Guru (1994), a children’s show that proved able to go the distance in very similar territory.

moving picture animation fiction series