By Michael Cavna
The Washington Post
Because it’s a Matt Groening animated comedy set in medieval times, a viewer might come upon Netflix’s newest show, Disenchantment, and expect a magical mash-up where Lord Macduff and Duff Beer could become fast tavern companions -- and where a ruff-wearing Homer Simpson might even belly up to the Bard.
Certainly, Disenchantment, which became available for streaming Friday, does have a taste for the drink, featuring as it does a carousing 19-year-old princess who binges midnight mead and ale the way an eager Netflix subscriber might binge these fresh episodes.
And in this case, viewers would be wise to indulge in some binge thinking, because Disenchantment -- like a party barge awaiting a capricious wind -- takes awhile to get up to a steady comedy clip. Clearly, Groening and collaborator/showrunner Josh Weinstein (a veteran of Groening’s The Simpsons and Futurama) start out rendering the character-development outlines more heavily than the punchlines. That tactic should prove wise in the long run, but be forewarned: It’s not till the fifth episode that you really see the show’s elements all start to jell, as the writers, unshackled from heavy exposition, get as creatively adventurous as their star princess.
And it is on the solid shoulders of Princess “Bean” Tiabeanie that much of Disenchantment’s early appeal rests. As a young royal betrothed multiple times by her alliance-seeking father, Bean (winningly voiced by Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson) has shades of many freedom-seeking princesses. As an animated royal rebel -- albeit one who likes to drop medieval Molly or doff her top on occasion in defiance -- Bean is trying to change her fate like some PG-13 Merida from Disney/Pixar’s Brave. The character also summons thoughts of rough-rolling princesses from such films as Shrek, as well as danger-hungry young warriors from comics like Nimona.
The creative choices by Groening and Weinstein also mean that Disenchantment is not aiming to play like some mere sendup of Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings or a decades-long line of Disney princesses. Bean, a freckled, bucktoothed young woman, does have the striking white hair of GoT’s Daenerys. And the 10-episode first season does spoof Disney, from Lady and the Tramp to street-wise Peter Pan-esque fairies -- more swaggering TinkerBallers than Tinkerbell -- who soar like gritty pixies over the castle of Dreamland. But Bean feels like enough of a fresh invention that Netflix’s order of 20 episodes total does not look like an act of misplaced optimism.
Rounding out Bean’s core of physical and psychological adventurers are Elfo, a Keebler-esque refugee who, as voiced by Nat Faxon, comedically plays a bit like Josh Gad’s snow-sidekick Olaf but with more heated desires on his mind; and Luci (Eric Andre), Bean’s feline-like personal demon who gives shadowy side-eye just as well as Natasha from the classic Rocky and Bullwinkle series. This trio carries much of the narrative payload early on, often delivering the wittiest payoffs.
The show, though, benefits from an increasingly sprawling roster featuring Futurama voice veterans John DiMaggio, Billy West, Tress MacNeille, Maurice LaMarche and David Herman, as well as Lucy Montgomery (Tracey Ullman’s Show) and Matt Berry (Toast of London).
Such a reunion of Groening alumni (including writer David X. Cohen and multiple producers) might encourage you to view Disenchantment with Simpsons-level expectations for universal comedy and rat-a-tat satire. Such anticipation, though, will only throw you off the scent.
Yes, there are inevitable echoes, including the punning signage (hair to the throne; live prude girls) and the flurry of pop-culture allusions that range from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Mel Brooks’ ’70s comedies (including an inspired Cloris Leachman nod) to Buster Keaton’s derring-do.
But Disenchantment is more rightly viewed as comedy-laced drama that is trying to give viewers some plucky, vice-indulging people and creatures who haven’t quite figured themselves out yet -- even as the series itself finds its own storytelling footing.
It’s unclear whether the series will steer more to fairy-tale sendups, as it does with a Hansel and Gretel-gone-bad bit; or perhaps let Bean further grow into being a personal freedom fighter (after her controlling father, King Zog, tells her that she has failed as a princess and nun -- professionally, “the only two girl things I know”).
No matter the cobblestone path forward, Disenchantment has carved out a very promising foundation for a wide array of satisfying stories that could carry the series through a healthy run.
It’s not realistic to expect a culture-shifting achievement from Disenchantment, like Netflix’s BoJack Horseman. What Groening and Weinstein are gifting us with is an engaging, occasionally shaggy, almost always highly polished series that could easily prove addictive.
For frothy enjoyment, just be prepared to kick back like a beer-swilling princess who is evolving -- to the point that hope, as a surprising new emotion, is a feeling she doesn’t “want to drink away.”
Disenchantment isn’t revolutionary. But it is winningly evolutionary.