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From Matt Groening, a Little Fairy Tale 'Disenchantment' – and That's Not a Bad Thing
August 17, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Many years ago, the iconic Rocky & Bullwinkle series featured an occasional segment called Fractured Fairy Tales, which put a weird and often absurd twist on the traditional yarns with which most children grew up.

Somewhere today Rocky and Bullwinkle are smiling, because their charming little segment has grown up to become Matt Groening’s Disenchantment, in which fairy tales are not fractured so much as shattered.

Disenchantment, an animated series whose first season becomes available Friday on the streaming service Netflix, doesn’t satirize any one specific fairy tale. It takes the generic premise of the beautiful young princess forced into marriage by her father, the king, and deconstructs it, sending a familiar army of royal and palace characters, plus a few oddball add-ons, careening off the road and into the woods.

Princess Bean (voiced by Abbi Jacobson, top) lives in the medieval kingdom of Dreamland. Her father King Zog (John DiMaggio) has arranged for her to marry Prince Merkimer (Matt Berry), as a way of ensuring peace and harmony with Prince Merkimer’s Bentwood kingdom.

King Zog also sees this as a way to access some of Bentwood’s money. Seems Dreamland, rich in happiness and spiritual values, is low on cash.

Princess Bean resists being asked to marry for national strategy rather than for love, which makes her sound like a hundred previous fairy tale princesses until we learn she’s also an alcoholic whose great pleasures include cheating in high-stakes poker games and triggering barroom brawls.

So she’s a little more nuanced than most princesses past.

As she tries to squirm out of the marriage, weighing options like simply killing Prince Merkimer, she falls in with Elfo (Nat Faxon, top), an elf who is tired of being happy all the time, and Luci (Eric Andre, top), a chain-smoking demon whose dreams for humanity include abolishing all current punishments so he can institute crueler ones.

And these are the good guys.

Creator Matt Groening, who is best known as the brains behind The Simpsons, has a lot of Simpsons-style fun here. He slips in pop culture references, he gives good guys serious flaws, he lets everyone be blunt and rude, and he takes full advantage of cartoon characters’ ability to get run over by a steamroller and pop right back up as if nothing happened.

For all that, though, Disenchantment is permeated by the somewhat surprising sense that Groening never takes full advantage of being on Netflix, where unlike writing The Simpsons for Fox, he faces virtually no content restrictions.  

Disenchantment inserts a couple of mild sex jokes and an occasional vulgarity. The story doesn’t need more of either. What would help would be for Groening to stretch his absurdist vision of life and his keen eye for the self-absorbed side of human nature beyond what we’ve been seeing for all these decades on The Simpsons.

Beyond its roots in traditional Grimm Brothers fairy tales, Disenchantment inevitably conjures modern reference points like Game of Thrones. That’s good because Groening uses those cultural touchstones to sharpen his satiric commentary on what we watch, what we read, and who we are.

It would be good if he would next sharpen that commentary further.

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