The princess at the center of Disenchantment muses, at one point, “sometimes when you pull off your grandma’s jaw it makes you stop and wonder, am I really doing the right …” She gets cut off from finishing the thought, though, as the bandits she’s gotten involved with double-cross her and leave her to rot. So indeed, Matt Groening’s new animated Netflix series Disenchantment is about as far from Disney as princesses can go; Bean (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is hard-drinking, bar-brawling royalty who ends up being friends with her person demon Luci (Eric Andre) and an elf looking for adventure from his sheltered gum-drop life, Elfo (Nat Faxon). Hijinks thusly ensue.
John DiMaggio, who voices Bean’s grumpy father King Zøg (he’s also the voice of Jake the Dog on Adventure Time) described the series as “the offspring of The Simpsons and Game of Thrones.” There is certainly some truth to that — there is far more murder and gruesome deaths and torture in Disenchantment than you would ever get on Groening’s network series The Simpsons and Futurama. And yet, the same familiar animation style and layered jokes (where every street sign or book cover is a pun or a play on words) abound. Disenchantment features a narrative through-line, too, as Bean tries to be useful while her father — who just wants to marry her off — remains disappointed in her.
It takes the show a little while to reach that comfortable patter, after an overly-long introductory episode followed by episodes that skirt the 30 minute mark. There’s a little bit of bloat, but overall, a decent balance of story and whip-smart gags, many of which take advantage of Netflix’s ratings-free atmosphere. (An elven trip to the gallows, for instance, delivers belly-laughs in very unexpected ways). One of the issues with the setting, though, is that as fun as it is follow Disenchantment’s particular satire of medieval life for awhile, it’s not exactly breaking new ground. Some of the jokes get obvious and lazy as the series goes on (Netflix made 7 of the eventual 10 available to critics; 10 more episodes have also been ordered), especially those centered around religious life. Other careen too far into the macabre, with Bean being praised for finding the courage to murder someone (two someones, actually. “Mentally ill siblings,” to be exact).
The dynamics among the central trio of Bean, Luci, and Elfo also start off on shaky ground, though as they come to enjoy each other’s company as a wary friendship, the show gets better. But when Disenchantment expands its borders beyond Dreamland and starts to show signs of a larger, more intricate fantasy world (including Dankmire, which is where Bean’s vampiric salamander-esque step-mother hails from), it opens up more opportunities for fresh satire. That’s a great thing, because the show is loaded with talent in even its smallest roles: Mighty Boosh alumni Matt Berry and Noel Fielding voice two scene-stealing characters (Prince Merkimer and Stan the Executioner, respectively), as does Lucy Montgomery as Bean’s maid Bunty. Mark Mothersbaugh has also composed a jaunty score for the series, one that works as a great juxtaposition to the grim happenings onscreen.
It’s difficult to describe the charm of Disenchantment without ruining so many of its best jokes, because when it lands it does so impeccably well. Although like the first seasons of most comedies, especially animated ones, it has some growing pains as it establishes itself and its world. There are an array of interesting stories happening in Disenchantment, none of which the show gives quite enough time to: Bean pushing against the constraints of princess life, the manifestation of a personal demon, learning about life outside of one’s small-town bubble, and questing across fantasy lands and exploring their cultures by way of well-placed satire. But even as it quests for its own right balance, Disenchantment still offers a quickly, likable adventure.
Disenchantment premieres Friday, August 17th on Netflix.