After all these years cashing residual checks from “The Simpsons,” Matt Groening doesn’t need to produce another TV show unless he really wants to. So it’s something of a surprise that his new creation for Netflix, “Disenchantment,” doesn’t cast much of a spell. Instead, it’s a by-the-numbers affair – the equivalent of a joke that begins “A princess, an elf and a demon walk into a bar….”
The mythical setting, which does indeed center around those three characters, does allow for some big and inventive visual gags, brought to life through the wonders of animation. But the design and look is very much in keeping with the cartoon style of “The Simpsons,” while the jokes revel in a kind of dry, smart-alecky wit that’s consistently hit-miss and not particularly inspired, especially given the abundance of similarly pitched animation in venues like Fox, Adult Swim, Comedy Central and Netflix.
Princess Bean (voiced by “Broad City’s” Abbi Jacobson) is a rebellious 19-year-old princess, who resists her father’s efforts to marry her off. She joins up with a wayward elf, named Elfo (Nat Faxon), and a small black demon (Eric Andre) who resembles a slightly twisted version of Felix the Cat.
The serialized episodes take the trio on a series of misadventures, filled with fantastic creatures like giants and trolls; and obscure cinematic and cultural references. It’s not often, after all, that animated fare indulges in a vocal impersonation of Walter Brennan, who died in 1974.
Groening enlisted fellow “Simpsons” alums for the creative team, which ensures there will be clever bits sprinkled throughout – though not enough, ultimately, to make this feel essential in any way.
The overall tone, in fact, plays like little more than a slightly watered-down version of something like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” irreverently spoofing its genre, when irreverence is one of TV animation’s most abundant, bordering-on-saturated commodities.
Netflix has earned a reputation of tapping big creative names – including those associated with more traditional network fare, like Groening and “The Big Bang Theory’s” Chuck Lorre – and theoretically unleashing them, essentially offering the latitude to do whatever they want. After working under the guidelines of network TV, it’s understandable that talent would want to operate in a sphere without arbitrary rules, from the length of episodes to more restrictive content standards.
That’s certainly a marketable concept – just in terms of billing the show as being “from the creator of ‘The Simpsons’” – but as is so often the case with such exercises, the pitch for “Disenchantment” probably looked and sounded considerably more enchanting on the drawing board.
“Disenchantment” premieres Aug. 17 on Netflix.