Review of Adventure Time (2010)

Moving picture, 5.0 hours

Seen in 2019.

Review refers to the first three seasons.

Jake the stretchy dog and Finn the 12-year-old human murderhobo do whatever they want, which is to fight evil in the happy fantasy land of Ooo.

The last four episodes of the second season pull the show decisively into post-apocalypse territory, already suggested by the atomic bombs of the opening sequence. By this time, Finn is 13.

Comedy. Adventure Time was grown in the soil of US video-game culture from the seed of first-edition D&D (see the season 3 closer) and watered with the fizzy drink of children’s cartoons. Jake resembles Porky Pig’s dog, the one that falls into a vat of rubberizing solution in “Porky’s Tire Trouble” (1939).

As traditional cartoons go, the show is decidedly board-driven. Rarely, but fruitfully, it experiments with style, as in “No One Can Hear You”, a third-season episode blending Alien (1979), 28 Days Later... (2002), insanity and high weirdness, with relatively little adventure, humour, camaraderie or romance, like Rice Boy (2006) or a children’s cartoon version of a Francis Bacon triptych.

The internal contrasts are considerable: Even the more normal episodes have the soft and simple visual style of Japanese yurui-kei but the competitive, confident and moralizing attitude of US pedagogy. They clash on the question of moral dichotomy. Adventure Time routinely posits the reality of evil, like US Christian entertainment, yet retracts its claws, like typical children’s anime where evil does not exist and everybody gets along. Placed at an ironic distance, the action scenes are never remotely scary and there are plenty of grey areas, but the impulse to fight evil and take a Platonic pleasure from the act is in the show’s DNA. It is not unlike Siegfried’s joyous detour to kill a harmless dragon he’s never met before, on his way to Worms. There are no consequences like Siegfried’s.

This delicate simplicity forms part of the escapism, which would be a severe liability in a script-driven cartoon. The very first episode demonstrates the hazard: Evil zombies break in but do no harm, simultaneously contradicting both the idea of the threat and the idea of safety. The return of the zombies in season 3 is more skillfully executed by the more experienced production crew but has the same basic problem.

The show is infectiously fast and loose even about its own obvious flaws, which may be the reason why Finn’s face will sometimes crumple up in a display of ugliness for ugliness’ sake. Even the non-dichotomous moral messages are usually so artistically warped that they don’t bother me. It’s wholesome as long as you don’t think about it.

References here: Hilda (2018), The Midnight Gospel (2020).

moving picture animation fiction series