That Time ‘Futurama’ Was Reborn as a Video Game, Anime, and More

‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.

“A wise man once said that nothing really dies, it just comes back in a new form. Then he died. So next time you see a lowly salamander, think twice before you step on it. It might be you. Stand by for reincarnation.”

One of my favorite things about Futurama is that it’s a show that has limitless possibilities. So something like a three-tiered concept episode might seem a little beneath them, and much more in the nature of their sister series, The Simpsons (who are even dipping into Bible stories at this point…), but that doesn’t mean that Futurama couldn’t get wildly inventive with this overdone format. Granted, Futurama’s initial foray with this segmented storytelling, “Anthology of Interest Parts I and II” was heavily pulling from The Simpsons’ own “Treehouse of Horror” (and would have continued as a yearly tradition had the show not been canceled so soon afterwards). The show clearly got infected with the anthology bug, but it wouldn’t be until the show’s welcome revival on Comedy Central that it would really start having fun with this structure. Non-canonical episodes like, “Futurama Holiday Spectacular,” “Naturama,” and “Saturday Morning Fun Pit” all adopt a similar structure, with these three-part detours almost becoming the traditional way to close out every half-season of the show.

“Reincarnation” goes the furthest with this concept and seems to be the most excited about what it’s doing versus any of the other episodes of this nature. The episode’s biggest draw – and its namesake – is the idea that Futurama has seen “reincarnation” via three other forms of animation: a classical Fleischer and Lantz look, an 8-bit video game rendition, and an anime facelift. This all amounts to some very impressive work, and it’s why this episode is the focus here, as opposed to “Saturday Morning Fun Pit,” which gets close with this concept, but ultimately falls short. “Fun Pit” again reimagines Futurama as three different sorts of cartoons (approximates of Scooby Doo, Strawberry Shortcake, and G.I. Joe), but the episode still retains its traditional animation style through it all. This episode goes the extra mile, with David X. Cohen outlining that they licensed existing music for the segments rather than trying to compose something sounding similar. The fact that actual tracks from jazz scores, retro video games, and anime series were in use here truly show how fully the series is trying to give into these “rebirths.”

“Reincarnation’s” first segment is in the style of a 1930s Fleischer and Walter Lantz type cartoon (think Woody Woodpecker more so than Mickey Mouse) and right from its title (“Child Labor Syndicate Presents: ‘Colorama: In Glorious Black and White’”) things are off to a pretty strong start. Countless touches of in-period ornamentation litter the episode (like the disclaimer of it being a “Groen-o-phone Pictoon”) and you really can’t escape its presentation style. Admittedly, this sort of animation transition has been done in a number of shows in the past, but Futurama hits all of the bases. Characters will break out in sing song-y dialogue, wield wild gesticulating gestures as they’re consistently bopping up and down, and employ antiquated language like, “We’ll be doing the married horizontal Charleston in no time!” Travel scenes undergo a beautiful makeover where the moon and Planet Express spaceship are whistling and dancing in time, while elsewhere product placement is subliminally peddled to the viewer (for cigarettes, no less). There’s even a too-smart beat at the end of all of this where Bender pops out of an iris to deliver, “That’s all you get, jerks!” as his in-character take on Porky Pig’s classic exit line.

Cartoons from this era so often saw love as their story engine, and so “Colorama” wisely puts Fry and Leela at the forefront. There’s a really brilliant conclusion that ends with not only a grand rainbow display (“Every color in the spectrum!”), but also the creation of a new color. Yet, the antiquated animation style of course renders all of this as various shades of grey. It’s a touching, smart joke that’s only made stronger by the structure that it’s using, which is exactly why this episode is such a successful experiment.

The episode appropriately knocks things up a notch for its following segment, “Future Challenge 3000,” which has the meticulous look of a video game from the ‘80s. This ambitious transformation has been done on something like Community, but this nerdy playground feels right at home for Futurama. Solid gags are mined from elements like seeing characters skittering and jumping around aimlessly before moving into order, or the horizontal, jagged movements that restrict everyone.  More than anything the flow and transitions of video games are nailed here, such as the use of cutscenes for extended storytelling devices. A lot of these jokes might go over the audience’s head (like swearing appearing in Q*Bert speak, for instance), but other video game iconography like sprites from Space Invaders and Tempest, piranha planet warp pipes, or screens resembling the set-ups to Donkey Kong and Punch-Out!! should register with viewers.

Much like with “Colorama,” the story compliments the structure that’s filtering everything. Farnsworth is trying to solve the questions of the universe and in doing so ends up discovering the smallest unit of matter in the universe. In perhaps the best gag of the whole segment, due to the low resolution of the video game animation, this breakthrough of a scientific discovery is seen simply as a black pixel. Characters marvel at its vastness as we literally see nothing. It’s these ways in which the new animation styles are being used against themselves which justify this whole thing. This is more than the staff just having indulgent fun with a new toy.

“Reincarnation” closes itself out with “Action Delivery Force,” an anime homage that might be one of my favorite things that the series has ever done. The sequence was supposed to originally fall second in the episode, but due to its popular reception at Comic-Con, it saw reordering as the anchor (although had they shown “Future Challenge 3000” there, it probably would have seen the same response). There’s an outrageous energy to this piece that probably does it a lot of favors by falling last, jerking you back to full attention for the final stretch. I don’t think a single moment is wasted. The title, “Medical Dance Crab With Lesson,” pokes fun at anime often having cumbersome, broken titles, but this tangent also leads to easily some of the most quotable dialogue from the episode. “Zoidberg, a diplomat? The list of things I’ve heard now includes everything,” is too perfect of a line, while, “I will slice them for my morning fish porridge,” “This is no time for jokes, Fry,” act as great takes on the lost-in-translation dialogue that can consume anime at times. All the while, actual music from series like Voltron, Robotech, and Gatchaman is in use to strengthen the parallels. Billy West even sits out from voicing Professor Farnsworth, with David Herman stepping in, to provide maximum impact with his rendition of the character.

Wordplay goes far in this segment, but its greatest asset is how much it makes you feel out of your usual comfort zone and truly watching something from another language. Huge pieces of backstory and plot are barreled through in mere seconds and relationships are intentionally made convoluted, as is often the case in anime. Obvious last-minute localization edits are also joked about, as clear Japanese locations become places like Rockefeller Center and Central Park. Every single character gets a gratuitous transformation scene, bad dubbing is brought to light, and scenes are constantly being re-used to comment upon anime’s production values. This is best seen in Zoidberg’s peace dance – the segment’s climax – where a still frame of Zoidberg is moved around to create the illusion of motion, rather than him actually dancing. Once more the very style of the animation is what limits its big moment.

When it wanted to be, Futurama could be the smartest series on television. While there is a very tongue-in-cheek intelligence to “Reincarnation,” once it’s over, it’s over. We don’t return to the God Particle that introduces the episode at all, being left with its ridiculous opening words to be the only takeaway from this: nothing really dies. This might just be meant to be an overly optimistic ending to a season that very well might have been its last (the following season renewal had yet to take place). Even if this was Futurama’s end, that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t still live on. In each of the episode’s segments, the new animation style is specifically limiting the characters within it, however, none of them realize this. They all still see the vibrant rainbow, the new molecule, or Zoidberg’s extravagant dance. Regardless of the new skin that is placed on everyone, their optimism is the constant. So if this had been the end of the show, going out with a smile on your face – even if it is an oblivious one – is the way to do it. They just happened to make this point in one of the craziest, most memorable ways possible.

That Time ‘Futurama’ Was Reborn as a Video Game, […]