Why Adventure Time is One of TV’s Finest Cartoons
By Justin Carter
It’s been said that you should never judge a book by its cover, because while a cover can look really bad or generic, the actual text inside can be engrossing, deep, and actually really good. It’s a mentality I’ve found myself in over the past few years; I’ve already talked about how I was incredibly skeptical of Arrow and Flash and how both of those turned out to be great. This is especially true in cartoons, because since most of them are really bad, even after you’ve seen the actual thing instead of just the commercials, your bias is skewed to think that every one of them isn’t worth your time. And speaking of time, it’s Adventure…Time.
…Okay, moving on.
I’ll admit straight away that I was turned off by Adventure Time at the first commercial I saw. It just looked too wacky, too surreal, and too stupid for my tastes, which admittedly didn’t make much sense considering that I was still a huge fan of Family Guy at the time. Family Guy had an art to its wackiness before it devolved into cutaway gag after cutaway gag, and not helping Adventure Time’s case was that the first handful of episodes were kind of stupid wacky surrealism. I mean, candy zombies and becoming a lumpy floating being are pretty funny, if not worth a look based on the concept alone; but businessmen frozen in ice, Captain America style, and later trying to take over the world just leaned a bit too hard on the weird end of the spectrum. The series was definitely finding its footing in that first season in terms of its balance of tone. Now it’s a lot more evenly balanced, with episodes that are more grim in tone, and delve into the world and mythology.
The story is neatly summed up in the brief theme song: teenage boy Finn and his shape-shifting dog Jake travel distant lands in the world of Ooo. Said lands range from the Candy Kingdom, where the people are literally made of candy and run by their ruler Princess Bubblegum to the lands of Ice, which consists literally only of the Ice King and his many, many penguins. The setup may sound simple and childish, though it’s anything but. It’s clear in the opening titles for a brief moment that some sort of nuclear apocalypse occurred that leaves Finn as the only human left in the world that we know of for a good amount of time. There’s a literal, grisly looking embodiment of death and entropy, disturbing science experiments, the concept of reincarnation and past lives, parallel universes, a character meant to symbolize autism, another meant to reflect the realm of hell, and plenty of other things that make this more than just another goofy kid’s show. Tthe mythology is deep and involving in a way that feels slapdash in how it’s presented, but turns out to be carefully constructed.
At its heart, Adventure Time is about a boy growing up in a strange world and going through puberty with no one to guide him but a dog who would rather literally play bongos on his butt or make bacon pancakes (take some bacon and you put it in a pancake, bacon pancaaaaake…). The dynamic between Finn and Jake is ultimately what drives the show, and both characters are equally likable in their own ways. Finn is the embodiment of everyone who’s gone through puberty–he’s curious, confused about basically everything, goes through multiple crushes and relationships, and silly, but he also matures throughout the series run. Jake, meanwhile, is an utter goofball through and through. He’s the kind of friend who you see mixing hot sauce with ketchup and putting it on a salad, then hours later will hand-make a necklace for his long term girlfriend (she’s a Korean speaking rainbow unicorn, because of course she is). Even when he has kids of his own, they age at a much faster rate than either of their parents, and while they do make occasional appearances, Jake is still the same goofball he is before he had them.
Across the past six seasons, Finn and Jake have come across a variety of characters who occasionally pop in every now and again. Young girls may come to love how Princess Bubblegum dresses like something out of their dreams while also being a smart, capable scientist who shuts down the disturbing advances of a literal talking heart voiced by George Takei, or Marceline, a 1,000 year old guitar playing vampire. The floating valley girl Lumpy Space Princess and a talking video game console BMO provide some of the series’ best lines, particularly BMO who gets its own time to shine in the classic stylistic episode “BMO Noire.” Other characters like Cinnamon Bun and season three’s Earl of Lemongrab, who in a lot of cases represent respectively autism and heavy emotional abuse, gain depth and their own storylines as their appearances become more frequent to the point where they overshadow the titular characters. But the real breakout character for a lot of people may be the Ice King. He starts out as a funny, though sometimes grating antagonist primarily interested in kidnapping princesses, but as time goes on, his tragic backstory is revealed and he becomes more sympathetic. Trying hard not to spoil here, but let’s just say Tom Kenny and Olivia Olson’s Marceline come together for one of the best and depressing songs in the series run. Seriously, it’s like “Jessie from Toy Story 2” levels of sad.
Despite being made for kids, the show isn’t afraid to lay down some truth bombs for its younger audience and drench itself in subtext. In one of the show’s more surprising moves, Finn meets his father in the season six opener and learns what some teenagers have had to learn the hard way: that your absent parent is a complete and utter scumbag. Cartoons rarely, if ever straight up admit that the parental figure is utter scum–see Avatar and its ultimate antagonist Fire Lord Ozai. But with “Escape from the Citadel,” the mystery of Finn’s father is resolved with a cold hard “this man is a complete and utter ass.”
Marceline also had a plotline where her father, who looks like a lawyer who can also turn his face into Cthulu, shows up in her life to convince her to take over the Nightosphere. Anyone who’s had an overbearing parent that belittles their passions (music or artistically inclined children in particular) will know how truly insufferable it can be to have your dad just waltz into your life and demand you get a “real job.” Instead of reaching for a happy medium, the show falls on Marceline’s side and after he essentially brainwashes her into becoming the new ruler of the Nightosphere, she cuts him completely out of her life and he hasn’t been seen since. “Princess Cookie” explores suicide and the disappointment that comes with meeting your heroes; “Dad’s Dungeon” is about gaining the approval of a deceased father figure, and “Astral Plane” from the most recent season deals with existentialism and the meaning of life.
While the show puts me through myriad emotions, it’s also reliably funny. There’s always guaranteed to be at least two moments in each episode that will make you laugh, and it’s amazing what the team manages to fit over the span of 11 minutes. The writing does a great job, but it’s the animation that truly sells the deal. Everyone looks distinct and the show does a good job of conveying their personalities through their body language. It looks very much like like it was designed by a child–a child who probably plays too many video games and eats too much candy, but a creative child nonetheless. Seriously, any child who comes up with a cat assassin one moment and then an assassination plot rife with Shakespeare references is one talented kid. Rarely is there an episode where the storytelling is the same as the one that came before it. Case in point, one episode in the second season–“Guardians of Sunshine”– has 5 minutes spent in 3-D animation in the style of 8-bit video games, while a third season episode titled “Fionna and Cake” takes a look at the show if everyone was the opposite gender. Season six has an episode where Jake is literally just a brick in a wall narrating what happens in front of him, like an emergency news broadcast or a podcast in the vein of Serial. If any of those three descriptions don’t make you at least want to give the show a shot, then you don’t have a soul or any imagination.
To sum up, Adventure Time is a complete mess of a show that ends up not being much of a mess at all. Its wacky characters hide a deep and layered mythology that story hounds will get a kick out of deciphering, and the humor is sure to gather a ton of laughs. You may be turned by just how silly it all seems in the first few episodes, but if you stick with it, you’ll end up watching what’s undoubtedly one of the best cartoons on television.