Animation Wednesday: Adventure Time

This post is part of the Animation Wednesday series, a regular column which looks at animated TV series and movies of the past, present and future.

While I was posting about Regular Show, Adventure Time was unquestionably the elephant in the room. Adventure Time is one of the most popular cartoons on Cartoon Network, nay, on television, and has achieved probably the largest crossover appeal among adults of any children’s cartoon currently running. (The only competition I can think of would be My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, but Adventure Time has greater mainstream popularity outside of its fandom.) It’s emblematic of if not a revolution, at least a movement within children’s animation towards clever, distinctive design work, created by indie animators and zine comic artists to satisfy themselves, not their corporate bosses. Why had I jumped to Regular Show while ignoring Adventure Time?

Because the truth is, I wasn’t very fond of Adventure Time for a long while. I’ve been familiar with the series from the beginning, back when creator Pendleton Ward was shopping the pilot episode to Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. It was amusing enough, but I felt like once you got over the humor of the absurd stuff that happens (Now he’s on the moon! With Abraham Lincoln!) and the slang gags, there wasn’t any depth. But I’ve recently gone back and watched a combination of current season and older episodes, and I’m willing to admit I wrote the show off too soon. What makes Adventure Time great is the way the show uses goofy characters and premises to get to deeper, sometimes transcendent truths.

Before I delve too deeply, let’s get some basics out of the way. For those who aren’t familiar, Adventure Time is a show about a 14-year-old boy named Finn and his best friend, an anthropomorphic shapeshifting dog named Jake. Finn and Jake live in the magical land of Ooo, populated by talking animals, candies, monsters, princesses, and whatever the writers feel like adding next. Finn and Jake are at odds with the Ice King, a crazy old wizard who kidnaps princesses to marry (among them is often Princess Bubblegum, Finn’s sometime love interest). It’s a whimsical premise that allows them to tell all different kinds of stories, from straight adventure or comedy to horror or noir-styled episodes.

But beneath the goofy catchphrases and colorful characters are stories that deal with the world in a real, often moving way. This season’s episodes, especially, have touched on some darker, more mature themes in a respectful and thoughtful manner. “Burning Low” is a story about young love, jealousy, and rejection. “All the Little People” deals with everything from playing god to sexual awakening to the dangers of letting hobbies become obsessions and identities. And last season’s masterpiece “I Remember You” discusses the pain of losing someone to Alzheimer’s or dementia, as well as the shared bond of living through war. These aren’t common themes on children’s television, even with the level of craft that’s developed over the past few years. The mark of Adventure Time‘s greatness is how it uses its silly recurring gags and characters to inform, move, and inspire.

On a technical level, the show is also pretty top-notch. The art style is relatively simple and allows for lots of movement and emotion, but there’s a good deal of style to it as well. Background characters are a delight, as are establishing shots or panoramic views of the world (“Return to the Nightosphere” has a particularly great one). The vocal cast is solid, with veterans like Hynden Walch and Tom Kenny putting in good work and comedians like Kumail Nanjiani, Marc Maron, and Maria Bamford making fun cameo appearances. The show also has a surprising amount of worldbuilding developed over the seasons, with tantalizing bits of history dropped every so often.

Adventure Time may not be the easiest sell for you. It wasn’t for me. But it’s definitely worth checking out. The creators are doing some great stuff on pretty much every level, and it’s a good thing for animation in general. Adventure Time is currently in its fifth season and airs at 7:30 pm on Mondays on Cartoon Network. Since it’s a Cartoon Network series, they’re dragging their feet with complete season DVD releases, but the first season just dropped so hopefully the rest will follow.

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