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‘Disenchantment’ and the anti-princess

| Monday, August 27, 2018

Joseph Han

A single prick from the spindle of a spinning wheel sent Sleeping Beauty into a coma.

In the first twenty minutes of the new Netflix original show, “Disenchantment,” Princess Bean has thrown punches on the floor of a bar, accidentally impaled her husband-to-be on a sword, fallen out of a castle window, sprinted through the muddy streets of her kingdom, Dreamland — and she’s still on the move.

Abbi Jacobson, who voices Bean, told Bustle in an interview that “Bean is a princess, but she’s a very anti-typical princess in that all her flaws are shown.” And it’s true that Princess Bean — shorthand for her real name, Princess Tiabeanie Mariabeanie De La Rochambeaux Drunkowitz, not that she would ever admit to that — is a rejection of all of the self-assured, rosy-cheeked, demure beauties that Disney has fed us since childhood.

Princess Bean is lonely, belligerent and in near-constant conflict with her father, King Zog. Born into the confines of princess-hood, Bean rejects her arranged marriage, flaunts princess decorum and dress code and aspires to pretty much any life that isn’t hers. She lives cooped up, not a little ironically, in a turret.

Dreamland, the kingdom she reluctantly helps to rule, is a decaying medieval town that blends the fantastical and the historical in equal measure. Creator Matt Groening, who produced “The Simpsons” and “Futurama,” again demonstrates his talent for creating sprawling, wacky universes composed of unique, two-dimensional characters that are jokes in and of themselves — the blustering and overbearing King Zog, the hilariously creepy prime minister Odval, the alchemist-wizard — and total hack — Sorcerio, a fairy who happens to be a prostitute. It’s a living, breathing world of foulmouthed fantasy.

Groening also brings to bear the famous flippant self-awareness that endeared “The Simpsons” to its viewers. As those who’ve seen “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” will know, the medieval era is one ripe with potential for absurd lampoonery. It’s normal to catch sight of a cart of recently deceased victims of the Plague roll into and out of the frame, often with a crooked hand twitching helplessly beneath the pile of decaying bodies for a dark, slapstick effect. In one scene, a town crier meanders the streets of Dreamland in the wee hours of the morning. “It’s 4 A.M. and all is well,” he proclaims, in a dryly sarcastic, monotonous tone. “Actually, well is a bit of an overstatement. Acceptable is more like it. If you consider death, disease and rampant poverty acceptable!”

Besides its strangely familiar setting, “Disenchantment” takes a different tack than Groening’s previous series in its treatment of its protagonist, Bean. Unlike “The Simpsons,” “Disenchantment” has a true narrative arc. In each adventure, Bean is accompanied by her sidekicks, Luci — a cat-like demon who’s been sent to curse her, but who becomes a close friend — and Elfo, an innocent elf with an untarnished moral compass and a hopeless crush on Bean. As the ten episodes of “Part 1” unfold, we see Bean grapple with her mother’s loss, attempt a few jobs and navigate a heavy drinking problem, all while developing closer relationships with the oddball companions at her side.

In its character exploration of Bean, “Disenchantment” cuts a slice deeper than “The Simpsons,” which is possibly why some critics have scoffed at the show. This show is not “The Simpsons,” nor does it really try to be. Rather, “Disenchantment” lands more in the “BoJack Horseman” animated genre — an exploration of a deeply-flawed individual. Yet instead of BoJack’s trademark nihilism, we’re greeted with Bean’s tentative, enthusiastic hope for a different and better life. As Bean journeys toward adulthood, she seeks meaning in her attempts to throw off the shackles of royalty. “I want to be control of my own destiny,” Bean says more than once, as she stumbles through a series of failed escapades toward that goal.

But what will that destiny look like? She’s not quite sure.

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