This review contains spoilers.
In my morning kindergarten class my students hum the Adventure Time theme song; they chat about Princess Bubblegum and Lemongrab; they draw impressively accurate pictures of Finn and Jake. I’m beginning to think my six-year-olds love Adventure Time almost as much as I do. I struggle to sit through most children’s cartoons; they are too full of explosions and drawn-out sword fights, and the physical gags and moral wrap-ups are too familiar and predictable. Adventure Time, however, is different. Surprisingly, delightfully, sometimes heart-wrenchingly different.
Each eleven-minute Adventure Time episode follows Jake the body-morphing dog (voiced by John DiMaggio) and his adopted brother and best friend Finn the human (Jeremy Shada). Finn and Jake live in the Land of Ooo; a paradoxically post-apocalyptic fairytale world populated by an endless array of wonderful and odd creatures.
As writer/producer Adam Muto notes in this article from The Independent, “on its face it’s [Adventure Time] just a really simple show about a boy in blue and his yellow dog”. On the surface Adventure Time is also – of course – about the adventures Finn and Jake have and the characters they interact with. And Adventure Time is unrivalled when it comes to imaginative characters. Some of my personal favourites include: The Ice King – a lonely man who keeps penguins and kidnaps princesses for company; Tree Trunks – a tiny, gentle, apple-pie-baking elephant with a Southern drawl; Lady Rainicorn – a Korean speaking rainbow unicorn and the mother of Jake’s children; Marceline – a thousand-year-old vampire/demon/song-writer with daddy-issues; and Lemongrab – the extremely high-strung lemon-headed ruler of his own totalitarian city state, who also happens to be a cannibal.
After five seasons (the sixth is currently airing) the Adventure Time creators have developed an enormous – and enormously complex – world, with continuing storylines as well as independent stand-alone episodes. For me, one of the best things about this series is that after so many episodes I still have no idea what to expect from the next one. The fourth episode of Season Six, for example, continued a plotline about Finn’s relationship with his father, while the fifth episode was a self-contained story about Jake’s tail sneaking off to join the circus.
A couple of critics have compared the experience of watching Adventure Time to that of viewing a David Lynch production, and I can certainly see where they are coming from. Like much of Lynch’s work, Adventure Time is a visual feast; a bombardment of images that are dreamlike (laced with symbolism) and often a little dark. The flipside of Adventure Time’s Candy Kingdom is an as yet largely unexplored back story of destruction – a possible nuclear war that left much of Ooo irreparably altered.
The large team of writers and artists behind Adventure Time – with Pendleton Ward at the helm – seem to have been given the freedom to create (almost) whatever they like. It is in this spirit of freedom that truth emerges – and Adventure Time feels full of true feeling. There is no easy moral to be found at the end of an Adventure Time episode – just as at the end of a day/week/month no clear answers to life’s more complicated problems emerge. But – while it may not offer up quick-fix solutions – this series often deals with tough situations. Finn continually struggles with his fear of the ocean; young Lemonhope is forced to face the uncomfortable fact of responsibility; and Lumpy Space Princess spends much of her time nursing a broken heart. Emotions are complex in Adventure Time – “Now my heart feels yellow and green,” Finn comments; “Man, love is weird”, says Finn’s hero Billy from beyond the grave, after admitting he watches his ex-girlfriend while she sleeps. Adventure Time doesn’t talk down to kids (or adults, for that matter) by pretending to know what to do or how to feel in every situation. In Season Six Finn is angry with his father, and begins compulsively building a tower into space to seek revenge. Princess Bubblegum is against this course of action – “It’s bizarre and he could get hurt!” she says. “Feelings hurt!” replies Jake, who is in favour of Finn listening to his ‘melon-heart’. The question this episode seems to pose is can we trust our ‘melon-hearts’ to lead us in the right direction? And if we can’t, then what?
Adam Muto says of Adventure Time: “The best way to approach is just not expecting anything; just let it be what it’s going to be.” The same could be said of life. In the end, what makes this series so wonderful is its optimism; Adventure Time seems to be telling its viewers that while life may not always be easy, with the right attitude it can be a fantastic adventure. So grab your friends, and jump in.
Adventure Time began in 2010, and was created by Pendleton Ward and Cartoon Network. Other key creators behind the series include Adam Muto, Kent Osborne, and Jack Pendarvis. Click these links for more articles about Adventure Time: Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker; It’s Adventure Time by Maria Bustillos; and I heart Adventure Time forever by Stephanie Van Schilt.