The series finale of Adventure Time leaves its audience to meditate on a space-like world populated by “lumpy” people, sentient confectioneries and a vampire queen. What is it that has made these characters and their stories so loveable and resonant?
One of the interesting experiences of growing up is an increasing consciousness of the passage of time, a sentiment often encapsulated when my peers and I lament about how old we have grown after reminiscing on memories from childhood/teenhood. Being just over two decades old, one starts to have an acute awareness of outliving and outlasting trends, fads and eras. With its series finale airing recently on September 3, Adventure Time – a long-time favourite cartoon of many children, teenagers and even adults, joins my list of such phenomena. The first episode of Adventure Time aired in 2010 when I was 13, and I immediately fell profoundly in love with it. Since then, my love has developed into a recurring respect and admiration for Adventure Time and its creators throughout its eight-year run, and has finally culminated in a sad and reluctant goodbye as I sat on my chair and felt the immense feels of its series finale.
With its stripped-down and sincere dialogue, its hilarious characters and situations, and the construction of an animated world with a loose and dreamy yet simultaneously lucid sense of reality, Adventure Time was, and is, a standout cartoon that is iconic for the era in which it belonged. The show demonstrated the peak potential of children’s cartoon shows, with some critics considering it the pioneer of a new age of children’s animated programming following the decline of the 90s cartoons that marked the Renaissance Age of Animation (think The Simpsons, Beauty and the Beast, Dexter’s Laboratory). As it progressed, Adventure Time continued to evolve and add depth to its characters, setting and plot while holding true to its surreal and ambitious animated setpieces.
It is difficult to boil down the essence of a show that cast its net so wide over its massive ten-season, eight-year run, but in the following paragraphs I will attempt to provide and analyse four succinct ideas behind the cultural success and impact of Adventure Time, and in the process hope to justify writing an entire essay on what is supposed to be a “kid’s show”.
Firstly, what certainly anchors significant parts of the shows are the characters: colourfully drawn, superflat cartoons that betray a believable complexity and multidimensionality in their development arcs across the seasons. At its core, Adventure Time’s main cast and their motivations are what drive the show and give it the sense of story, with stakes and consequences worth investing in. We have, for instance, the Ice King, a classic kids’ show cartoon villain. More annoying than threatening, creepy with his voyeuristic and princess-kidnapping tendencies, his long nose and fluffy beard was the butt of much of the animated physical comedy of many earlier episodes. Subsequent episodes, however, revealed that the Ice King was once a kind, sensitive and exceptionally intelligent man, who unfortunately lost his sanity when he accidentally donned an antique, cursed crown.
The Ice King fulfilled his role as a comic relief-providing, rather creepy and annoying one-dimensional villain when Adventure Time first aired.
Adventure Time does an excellent job of playing these contrasting qualities against each other in each of its characters: on the surface, they express moments of archetypal goofiness and physical humour, but to fans of the show that have followed the growth of these characters, one also gets frequent nods to the darker, more complex facets of their personality. This interplay of qualities is one of the reasons Adventure Time was beloved and appreciated by both children and adults among its audiences.
This is part of the success formula of Adventure Time. While the character-heavy episodes were a standout, the showrunners never forgot that this was first and foremost a kids’ cartoon. Adventure Time certainly wasn’t gunning to be an animated Game of Thrones. Its writers used a ten-minute-episode format to create many, many serialised stories that set character development and ambitious themes in the background and simply chose to have fun and be creative. These were stories that surprised, and often delighted and rewarded its viewers.
One of my personal favourite episodes of this variety is Box Prince, which sees the series protagonist Finn, an archetypal hero and lawful-good-kind of character, jump straight into a tangential adventure where he attempts to restore the eponymous Box Prince as the rightful ruler of his kingdom: a cardboard box fortress populated by cats that wear boxes as its citizens. The entire episode is meme-worthy, adorable, hilarious, and seriously knows how to have fun. There’s plenty of hyperbolic drama, with Finn spying on the counterfeit prince who had overthrown the erstwhile ruler, a gladiatorial confrontation that had the two competing princes charging towards one another, armed with cardboard toilet paper tubes, and, of course, this:
The once orderly society of the Box Kingdom devolves into chaos as cat citizens begin a mass fight, leading Finn to ask: “Is this… is this even a kingdom?”
A third point to be made about Adventure Time is how it isn’t afraid to delve into complex themes despite how short the episodes are. Indeed, one of the benefits of having multidimensional characters is that the show is able to use their flaws and moments of weakness to express profound, meaningful ideas to its audience. As a show that had a runtime spanning the late childhood to early adulthood of its viewers, this component was especially meaningful to young adults growing up and finding their feet in a complex world.
There were episodes that dealt with emotional development, such as The Tower, in which Finn the human orphan learns how to cope with the trauma and pain of being betrayed by his father, only shortly after discovering his existence and trying to rescue him. But there were also episodes that embodied commentaries on politics, society and culture that bordered on the philosophical: You Made Me is one such episode that focuses on the minor villain Lemongrab and his relationship with his creator, Princess Bubblegum, ruler of the candy kingdom, a place that Adventure Time spends plenty of time in.
Lemongrab represents one of Bubblegum’s biggest flaws: with the intellect and technology that she possesses, she created and engineered her kingdom, from scratch, and that includes all her candy citizens. Adventure Time consistently hints at Bubblegum’s questionable moral character as she recklessly creates and destroys sentient life forms with no thought to the suffering that she inadvertently facilitates. Lemongrab, in many ways, serves as a dark parallel of his creator: a shrill, socially dysfunctional autocrat of his earldom who throws the undesirable into dungeons and is incapable of comprehending even the basic terms of social relationships. These episodes confronted serious, often intellectually complex issues, and for their viewers, was often an educational and enlightening experience on the rules that govern society and people.
Princess Bubblegum’s failed early experimentations with life resulted in the creation of Lemongrab, a personality who turns out to be one of the most twisted and dysfunctional characters on the show.
Finally, while story and character help to anchor the show, the real heart and soul of Adventure Time come in its aesthetic aspects: its creative use of songs and music, its wonderfully nuanced and excellently voice-acted dialogue, its beautifully illustrated settings and finally its smooth and dynamic animated style. These are all minor elements that come together to give Adventure Time an unforgettable sense of place.
Dialogue and design come to the fore in episodes such as Jake the Brick, where the deuteragonist Jake shapeshifts into a brick to be part of an abandoned, crumbling house, an apparent long-time childhood desire. In the process, he observes a bunny trying to build a home nearby and narrates the drama of its life for fun. His best friend Finn, who leaves a walkie-talkie near him in case he needs help, unknowingly catches his narration, and broadcasts it to the rest of Ooo using a radio tower in the candy kingdom.
Jake the Brick is one of the finest episodes of Adventure Time, was universally applauded by critics and fans, and won the show its fourth Emmy Award in 2015.
The episode features beautiful, poetic narration thanks to Jake, such as the excerpt below:
“And with a single smash from the deer’s powerful front hooves, the bunny’s home is under attack! Mr. Bunny has hopped to safety and can only watch as the deer continues its relentless rampage on the only home he knows. A couple more mighty smashes, and the dam—the dam has been breached! Water is now flooding in! The deer continues its attack! This deer’s misplaced rage, combined with its size and weight, is more than enough to bring down the weakened walls, which are now starting to give, aided by the unforgiving weight from the tree above. Even Mr. Deer, in his blind fury, seems to sense what’s about to happen as he steps to one side!”
I Remember You, on the other hand, used music to highlight the tragic and incredibly heartbreaking friendship between our erstwhile villain, the Ice King, and the vampire queen Marceline, whom Simon (pre-insanity Ice King) was companion to and cared for. Adventure Time often uses music as a literary device not only to move the plot along but also as a means to reveal new aspects of a character or a place. While this sounds cheesy on paper, in practice these methods land beautifully, thanks in no doubt to a talented and dedicated team of songwriters.
In I Remember You, the Ice King’s estranged friend Marceline momentarily breaches the insanity and amnesia of his curse by performing a song with him, a musical catharsis of unspeakable heartbreak, frustration and love.
Having seen how much thought the writers have packed into every little detail of their world and the people who inhabit it, it seems understandable why the fanbase for Adventure Time exists as such. There are fans who do shockingly good cosplays, create beautiful fanart and write fanfiction. There are fans who construct in-depth literary analyses of the symbolisms and stories of the show and upload their video essays online. There are fans who investigate the most seemingly insignificant of cameos and plot threads in an effort to speculate what the writers are going to do next (Finn’s parents had been on the table since Season One, even though we don’t get a glimpse of them until Season Six). For me, and many of these fans, Adventure Time has been a very meaningful and to some extent significant part of our lives.
I’m sure many of my peers feel a certain cringing embarrassment when they reflect on their teenage years. Nobody likes to think back to a time when we are incomplete. We’d all like to imagine that puberty arrived like a magical fingersnap. One moment we were adorable, innocent and imaginative little kids, and suddenly we are full-fledged adults, complete with aspirations, talents, passions, accomplishments, business networks, friend circles. With its recent series finale, Adventure Time has ended. Its target viewers at the start of its airing, aged between 8 to 12, are now between 16 and 20. What did it leave behind for its viewers in its memory?
It is a tendency of the human mind to travel back through its own past, retroactively rewriting its history to be more romantic than it really was. That is part of the appeal of the nostalgia factor, the sepia-tinted lenses – a free creative license to attenuate the undesirable like how we edit our social media images. To me, Adventure Time represents a panacea to that compulsive need to romanticise and glorify our stories. It is beautiful because it is so persistently complex and open-ended. We love its characters and its stories for the beauty that arises from their struggles, their failings, their baggage, their fatal flaws, because together these traits give us a deeper appreciation for the human condition.
This underlying message nestled within every character, every story that the series has had to tell in its ten-minute episodic format, I find, elevates Adventure Time and justifies its well-earned status as an icon of children’s animation of the 2010s.
About the author
Yi Feng’s enneagram tells him that he is a type 4, sensitive, dramatic and self-absorbed, but his delvings into biology and postmodern literature say screw that, and we are more than just the labels society inscribe upon us, or the chemicals that hop around in our brain. In his spare time, he hoards colourful objects like paint tubes and crayons in his drawers as a vestige of some inexplicable childhood manifestation of gay pride.
Five Princesses: https://www.newsweek.com
The Ice King: https://www.buzzfeed.com
Box Prince’s Kingdom: https://onscreensightseeing.wordpress.com
Jake the Brick: http://adventuretime.wikia.com
I Remember You: https://tv.avclub.com
Header image (Come Along With Me): http://adventuretime.wikia.com
Featured image (Box Prince): https://onscreensightseeing.wordpress.com