In summary, Adventure Time seems to be a collection of fantastical stories that a creative young boy would tell his parents and siblings at the dinner table following an afternoon of hiking in the woods with his dog. Main characters Jake (John DiMaggio), a talking, shape-shifting canine, and Finn (Jeremy Shada; originally named “Pen” and voiced by Zack Shada in the original short), an energetic and enthusiastically virtuous 13-year-old boy, go on numerous wild adventures through the other-worldly Land of Ooo; and they encounter all manners of wondrous creatures, enthralling locations, charming characters, and frightening challenges along the way. These elements of the narrative are affectionately named and depicted. Such characters as “The Ice King”, “Princess Bubblegum”, and “Marceline the Vampire Queen”, sometimes make me wonder if the developers spent a little too much time playing Super Mario Bros. before executing this idea; and their simplistic-but-charming dot-eyed character designs do nothing to dissuade that presumption.
Against all odds of mainstream animation green light principles, Adventure Time managed to climb to the top of the ratings by simply doing what a cartoon is supposed to do: tell a story about characters. The off-the-wall slapstick humor is there, mind you, but the fantastical world that seems to be constantly expanding and the narrative being told within is the true selling point. Most other TV cartoons seem to operate their episodes by a series of obligations (the obligatory “opposite day” episode, the obligatory “swapped identity” episode, the obligatory “unrequited love” episode, etc.). Adventure Time manages to constantly do what its contemporaries rarely do, which is surprise the audience. Mystery plays an enormous role in Adventure Time, and it is an element which greatly encourages the viewers to actively explore the narrative rather than passively observe it.
Like many children’s story series, this is a narrative that is built to allow just about anything and everything to happen, but there are some recurrent lines of plot here and there. The aforementioned Ice King (Tom Kenny) is a recurring villainous character who doesn’t really fit into the villain’s archetype. His only crime is kidnapping various princesses from throughout the Land of Ooo in a desperate attempt take one of them for his wife. Finn and Jake repeatedly make quick work of the King, leaving him to his lonely state, freeing the imprisoned princess(es) and Finn receiving (usually) unwanted affectionate gratitude from the rescued maiden(s). The only princess whose affection Finn truly appreciates is that of Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch), due to his rather immature crush on the princess (who is five years his senior).
What is always of interest during these encounters is that even though the Ice King is generally categorized as “The Bad Guy”, one cannot help but feel at least some air of sympathy for the King’s repeated failures at finding successful romance. While he does keep his royal hostages behind bars, he makes several polite – albeit pathetic – attempts at being sociable. He offers meals, music, and gifts to the princesses in order to keep them happy and comfortable, but to no avail. Soon, our two heroes race in to save the day and steal away another chance for love from the King. This almost seems to present a dilemma. Sure, the princesses are being victimized and should be liberated somehow; but is Finn and Jake’s repeatedly violent approach truly the best possible method, or would some form of diplomacy be better suited to tide things over? The King, overall, really seems to be more confused than evil. In the season 2 finale, “Mortal Folly”, the Ice King even went as far as to ask for Finn and Jake’s “blessing” so that he can properly marry Princess Bubblegum. This, of course, is met with hostility.
In fact, this moral issue really gives rise to what I consider to be a great mark on Adventure Time’s performance review. While Finn and Jake – Finn more so than Jake – steadfastly maintain and emphasize their innate heroism, they frequently find their heroism challenged. I do not simply mean that they merely face several fierce enemies that are seemingly difficult to overcome (they do), but rather they oftentimes have to reevaluate the identity of their heroism and how exactly to carry it out.
In the episode “Donny”, Finn and Jake come across a community of innocent “house people” who are being thoroughly harassed by a large creature after whom the episode is named. Rather than use their typically violent approach, Finn and Jake befriend the ogre and gradually teach him that it is wrong to pester the house folk, and that he should find other venues of pleasure and entertainment (Finn’s impromptu “empathy” dance, meant to teach Donny the value thinking of others before himself, was especially delightful). The two have great success at this, and make a new friend in the process. All seems well at first, until the dynamic duo of our story soon discover that the house people are now being terrorized by a new enemy even more hostile than the first. These new fiends are why-wolves (variants of werewolves, they are “creatures possessed by the spirit of inquiry and bloodlust”), and they aim not only to give the house people a reason to complain as Donny once did, but to wipe them out completely. Finn at first attempts to fight them off, but the lycanthropic beings are simply too powerful and too numerous to defeat. The why-wolves take a moment from the fight to explain that it was their goal to feed upon the house people all along, but what had been keeping them at bay was the very scent of Donny’s now-eliminated maliciousness (called “obnoxygen”). This scent is a deadly toxin to why-wolves and thus had been allowing the house people to survive, even though its catalyst, Donny’s persecution, caused them no end of misery. Finn thus finds himself having to choose between the lesser of two evils, and decides to encourage Donny to return to his debaucheries so that the house people may at least live. Bittersweet? Yes. Even Finn and Jake subtly acknowledge that. But it would be wrong to miss the cleverness of the conflict presented.
While the stories of Adventure Time are rather farfetched and eccentric in their particulars (as they should be), they explore some of the most morally sophisticated situations I have ever witnessed on television. They almost seem to be directly drawn from a collegiate ethical philosophy class. Other moral complexities are addressed throughout the course of the series as well. The episode “Henchman” confronts the ramifications of self-sacrifice and juggling two conditionally conflicting moral duties. An early episode titled “City of Thieves”, explores the difficulty of maintaining righteousness amidst thoroughly corrupt company and the identity of guilt. Another early episode titled “What is Life?” examines the responsibilities of the creator to the creation in an almost Frankensteinian manner. The list goes on. It should be noted that, like most stories that deal with moral dilemmas, Adventure Time does not attempt to provide a universally applicable answer to these issues, but simply brings them up for consideration. Of course it shows how the characters within the narrative answer them, but the choices they make should never be taken as Gospel.
Oh, and the show is mad funny as well. Unlike most children’s cartoons that root almost all their humor in one-shot gags and slapstick comedy, the humor of Adventure Time is delivered through its clever writing and the idiosyncrasies of the characters. Jake’s shape-shifting abilities are a nice shout-out to the tendency imaginative children have to envision their pets as having super powers of some sort. He also has musical talent with the viola and the ability to speak Korean (due to the fact that his girlfriend, Lady Rainicorn (Niki Yang), only speaks that language). Finn is dominated with many interesting traits as well. Ever since he supposedly “swallowed a computer”, he’s had the ability to sing in autotune without any accompaniment. He also dons a peculiar pointy-eared white hat which he loudly declared as being “awesome” in the original short. He also has the habit of using mathematical terms as interjections despite the fact that he’s terrible at math.
What is truly fascinating about Finn, however, is how the writers dared to give him such a distinct personality, which is oftentimes frowned upon among cartoonists. Cartoon main characters, especially males, are typically formed into nearly faceless “everymen” upon whom the audience can imaginarily paste whatever personality they wish. In spite of Finn’s unique demeanor, he has managed to resonate with a very wide audience. Perhaps it’s because he handles issues that most viewers his age face in ways that almost always seem to be amazingly fruitful, if rather painful. Perhaps it’s because he is willing to say and do things that most his age can only shamefully imagine themselves saying or doing – such as telling a girl for whom he’s had feelings for the longest the he was in love with her to her face. Perhaps his hat really is just that awesome.
One thing about the narrative that should be noted is that while the Land of Ooo could superficially be associated with other fantastical worlds depicted in children’s stories, such as the 100-acre Wood or Neverland, there are elements in Ooo that seems to hint at something considerably darker than their counterparts. At the beginning of the title sequence of Adventure Time, we are shown what seems to be a pile of undetonated nuclear weapons, suggesting that Ooo is currently in a post-apocalyptic state. Many other characters and objects throughout Ooo seem to be relics of a bygone era. The fact that Finn seems to be the only complete human in Ooo can also imply this. All other beings in Ooo are most likely biological anomalies at best. Princess Bubblegum, for instance, is a mish-mash of human DNA and bubble gum. Other dark elements include the nature of the aforementioned Marceline (a captivating Olivia Olson), who’s “dark” nature is rather ambiguous. Even though she is technically a vampire, she is never depicted drinking blood or feeding on living creatures. She even goes so far as to point out that she actually only feeds on the color red rather than blood (she is sometimes shown sucking the color out of strawberries and red bowties and such), and thus will only drink blood if necessary – but again, she’s yet to be depicted doing this. Finn and Jake at first consider her an enemy after she throws them out of their house, but later she becomes an occasional friend of theirs for somewhat unclear reasons.
Many complain that cartoons of our day are just not very creative anymore. To an extent, I have to disagree. They are full of imagination, but the creative teams behind them seem ill-equipped to put that imagination to a proper, compelling, or engaging use. The creative team behind Adventure Time is not such a group people. Their thorough understanding of storytelling arcs, wonderfully surrealistic plots and art direction, brilliant methods of character development, and challenging thematic components make for what could easily be considered the work of a mad genius. To think that all this happened after a series of nay-saying from noted executives at Frederator Studios almost elevates it to the level of a miracle. I suppose this is just one more example of how one should never send a marketer to do an artist’s job.