A few weeks ago, I happened upon a clip from the ‘Adventure Time’ episode ‘Ketchup’ which saw the character of Marceline discovering a USB drive inside BMO containing a slideshow of her young self and her long passed mother. And this scene, which I watched before I actually watched the full episode, affected me. The following narration of an interpreted story by BMO (as Marceline pretends to not know the context of the images) over a sequence guest animated by Lindsay and Alex Small-Butera all served to remind me of what drew me into the series. Looking at this character who I absolutely loved getting nostalgic over something that the years of immortality she experiences could never get back to her and feels uncomfortable talking about to others, while she finds solace in an unreliable narration by a character who lacks the ability to understand the true context of those images brought out this unique comic yet emotionally gut wrenching experience that only the unique scenarios of ‘Adventure Time’ could bring out. I won’t try to make out like this scene was necessarily the most emotionally affecting scene in all of fiction. In addition to it not even being the most emotionally affecting moment in ‘Adventure Time’ it wasn’t even the most emotionally affecting Marceline moment, but it was a powerful example of what the series is capable of when handled well.
And it also reminded me that I seriously needed to catch up (or Ketchup haha, I’m funny I swear) on the series after taking a long break from it after a long while. The series is now officially coming to a close, something that was first announced only shortly after I myself started this blog and now after over a year and a half coming to be. Although there are plans for the adventures of Finn, Jake, and the countless other characters of the series to continue in the comics by Boom! studios, the TV series is coming to a conclusion after eight years of world and character building through the endlessly intriguing land of Ooo. It might seem odd to think now given much of the hype surrounding it has since dwindled down, but ‘Adventure Time’ towards the start of the decade was a full blown global phenomenon. A revolutionary moment in cartoon history that represented a turning point in tone and presentation for Western cartoons which also went far ahead what was previously done in the medium. All the while garnering an incredible level of public affection and acclaim that hadn’t been seen for a cartoon since the Simpsons-mania of the early 90s. And although that level of public affection has since gone down, ‘Adventure Time’ has still retained a healthy following throughout its eight years on television up until its end in 2018.
I felt it only necessary therefore to take a look back on ‘Adventure Time’ from both a personal and cultural perspective. And here, we will take an in-depth look into how it managed to achieve this, and the developments it made which allowed it to retain its charm up until now. We will go into more detail about what set it apart form other cartoons as well as the feats in world building it made and how successfully it managed to create a finely tied together narrative throughout its long run. So join me in this over long article as we talk about; ‘Adventure Time’; the cartoon of a generation.
Origins, Pendleton Ward, and Flapjack
To understand what it is that made ‘Adventure Time’ so distinct when it first aired, it should be understood first of all where it came from. That being the cartoon landscape of the 2000s, which saw a stylistic divide between a curvy and experimental design which was the remnant/progression of the style popular among series in the 90s such as ‘Ren and Stimpy’ and Golden Age ‘Simpsons’, and the more action oriented pointy style that had developed mostly within that decade that saw the influence of Genndy Tartakovsky and to some extent the DC animated universe and Shounen Anime of the time. I’ll talk about the former in more detail throughout this article, but it is worth noting that as the decade progressed, the latter was what took up most of the landscape. Series such as ‘Teen Titans’, ‘Avatar’, ‘Danny Phantom’, ‘Ben 10’ ‘Fairly Odd Parents’, and ‘The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy’ being some of the most popular cartoons of that time. And it didn’t exactly stop immediately with the decade’s end with ‘Sym-Bionic Titan’, ‘The Spectacular Spiderman’, ‘Young Justice’, and ‘Legend of Korra’ flourishing well in the first half of the 2010s, leaving the unending ‘Spongebob’ the only remnant of the rebel era which towards the end of the 2000s had mostly been marked by a series of now forgotten gross out comedies.
My purpose in illustrating this divide and it’s eventual outcome is not to try and drive a wedge between the two styles, partly because I think doing so is rather immature and mostly because it ignores that these two artistic movements, which to be clear were never in direct conflict with each other, are both relevant to the origin of ‘Adventure Time’ which found it’s start in Pendleton Ward. Ward was an animation student at the California Institute of the Arts or CalArts for short. An institution which also bolstered two other men who would go on to find success with their own series with J. G. Quintel (Regular Show) and Alex Hirsch (Gravity Falls), both of whom were also close friends with Ward and would go on to work with them.
If I might be allowed to backtrack here for a little bit, this institution’s place in shaping a generation of creators for many modern cartoons is something of a controversial topic, especially recently where the style that has become the norm for cartoons of this decade dubbed the “CalArts” style, a style which has also recently received quite a hefty amount of derision from corners of the internet among other things for “all looking the same”, “having a lazy quality to it”, and most egregiously for “ruining cartoons by replacing the cool and diverse designs of yesteryear with politically correct anatomical character designs which emphasise cuteness and..” I’m just going to stop right there. I doubt they use that many big words but that’s essentially the gist of it, and it’s a fundamentally flawed argument. For one thing because as I have laid out, the previous decade has had popular norms and trends that the media of its day tended to follow, with the 2000s being a decade of pointedness and action, and the 90s being a decade of fluid and rigid experimentation and hyperactive wackiness. I’m painting in broad strokes there as those descriptions don’t fit every cartoon of their era of course, but it does show that the criticism that this art style is taking over cartoons is absurd when such an accusation can easily be applied to the previous styles. There’s also the fact that of course not every creator of a cartoon that has used this style attended CalArts.
To get back to the main topic, I will address the other criticism that this design choice is inherently bad, this ignores the fact that this style was adopted onto some of the best cartoons of this decade, and for a reason. As mentioned before, the “gross out, rebel era” that I said faded out through the previous decade is actually what birthed this specific style. And a large factor in both its widespread implementation and longevity between eras is the fact that rounder character design and less edges around them tends to allow for a more fluid visual design which enhances the potentials and abilities of the animators to create a very real sense of movement which is more difficult to achieve from an overly detailed design. It’s generally for this reason that so many series today have such vibrant animation (which many of the people who hate this style would probably realise if they actually bothered to watch them instead of judging them based solely on a poster), that and some really passionate staff behind many of these series that give them an incredibly lovely look.
How this style and ‘Adventure Time’ ties into the “gross out” era can be found in a now forgotten remnant towards the end of this era, Cartoon Network’s ‘The Marvellous Misadventures of Flapjack’. Created by Thurop Van Orman, ‘Flapjack’ is a series that does I think deserve to at least be recognised by cartoon historians for what it represented in how the Experimental animation of ‘Ed, Edd n Eddy’ and ‘Courage the Cowardly Dog’ gave way to series like ‘Gravity Falls’, ‘Regular Show’, and ‘Adventure Time’ and its largely because Quintel, Hirsch, and Ward all worked on the series as writers and storyboard artists.
Telling the story of an inquisitive and often naïve young boy raised by a sea pirate inside a whale, and the episodic adventures of their search for the elusive Candied island, the series’ production was generally driven by its storyboard artists, which allowed the artists to write all the dialogue and action for the episodes they created. Although based on an outline handed to them, this approach in effect allowed artists a greater say in what the finished product would look like and allowed them a chance to truly prove themselves for when their experience would gain them the clout to start their own series. Ward in particular was struck by his work on the series, a fact possibly helped by the fact that it wasn’t like anything else airing on the network at that time with its unique seaside aesthetic, old school and unapologetically childlike style, and decidedly laid back and quiet atmosphere, very similar to Ward’s own artistic ambitions which he would go on to channel into his passion project once his experience on the series allowed him to adapt it into a full series.
‘Adventure Time’ was the product of Ward’s early time working at Channel Frederator, which he was employed to following his graduation from CalArts and was commissioned to pitch a title for their Random! Cartoons series. This resulted in a 7 minute short that Ward animated all by himself, only receiving help on the colouring (Neil Graf), the background designs (Julian Narino), and the prop designs (Adam Munto). The short told the quick story of a boy named Pen (short for Pendleton) and a talking bulldog named Jake going on an adventure to save Princess Bubblegum from the villainous Ice King. Frederator’s CEO Fred Seibert initially declined the pitch, finding it too much of a student film that lacked much commercial appeal, but several other staff at the studio were more supportive, allowing the short to get approved for broadcast on Nicktoons on 11 January 2007, from which it would become a viral success, amassing over 3 million online views by April the next year and pave the way for a full series to be commissioned.
Strength of the Early Episodes
My paragraph in illustrating all of this beforehand was to emphasise exactly how different from the current norm ‘Adventure Time’ was when it first went into production. In sharp contrast to the cool and cut cartoons of the time was this decidedly laid back and simple Indie cartoon created by an incredibly Indie artist whose character designs tended towards default small smiles, pin-dot eyes, and the glorious animator’s dream that is noodle arms. And it was a series that garnered a divisive reaction from the business minded types at Cartoon Network’s management. Some felt that the series was too odd and too nonsensical to be understood by young viewers, while Ward and several staff members didn’t quite know how the series should look in its completed form and submitted several rejected episode pitches. It was ultimately largely through the decision of Rob Scorcher that the series was able to be green lit, as he saw it as “really Indie, comic book-y and new”. In short, he described the appeal of ‘Adventure Time’ early on.
Indie is a word that I particularly want to highlight as an example of the direction of the series. Despite later on coming to be defined by a offbeat weirdness somewhat reminiscent of the gross out genre that it’s Flapjack predecessor laid for it (that series was also decidedly Indie to the point that Modest Mouse lead singer Isaac Brock was a noted fan of it and even did voice work for it), the series was notable from the offset for the taking the incredibly simple premise of a boy and a dog going on a series of episodic adventures and having a simple fun time in an overall toned down and eloquent manner. This is was a stark tonal shift from the louder and more action oriented series on Cartoon Network at the time. It was also a style that ruminated throughout Ward’s work and even his personality. He often displays an incredibly quiet and thoughtful personality in interviews and apparently experienced a lot of difficulty working on the series early on due to his intense fear of having to interact with other people, a trait that would cause him to leave that position later on.
It’s likely this personality that drew him into a decidedly niche background that fuelled its way into his work at Frederator, notably his sketched short film ‘Barista‘ containing a rather familiar looking main character and some rather subversive, laid back humour. This approach to simplicity is something which no doubt drew him towards the childlike ‘Flapjack’ and something that greatly influenced his approach to ‘Adventure Time’. A series like the incredibly left of the dial ‘Home Movies’ and ‘Dr Kattz, Professional Therapist’, both of which carried a folky, restrained sense of humour with a distinct animation style as well as the rebellious style of early Simpsons, and combined it with his obsession with imaginative fantasy worldbuilding in his experience with ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ and the beautiful and therapeutic fantasy styling of Miyazaki, with ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ in particular being cited as an influence by Ward.
Of course, this artistic vision being adapted into a full 26 episode television series was something that required more than just his basic outline. As such, a whole team of people were brought in to help with the tumultuous production of the first season which included a mix of both industry veterans and bright newcomers, many of whom included people who Ward discovered on the internet and were brought on despite never having worked on a television series before. This included once again Ward’s college acquaintances such as writer/storyboard artist Patrick McHale, with whom he, Ward, and Adam Munto created the episode that after several rejected scripts would finally be accepted for submission and become the first to be produced (but fifth to be aired once it was), ‘The Enchiridion’, a reworking of the original short which sought to improve upon it by adding elements such as world lore and a greater emphasis on the main character, now renamed Finn, going through a tangible character arc, all the while opening an opportunity to have it serve as an example for the series animation style by having it open up on a heavily populated party in the central setting of the Candy Kingdom ruled by Princess Bubblegum.
Of course, the exact style of the series was still to be worked out at this stage, with the crude style of Ward’s earlier work being felt to not really display the fantastical nature that he wanted for the series. This issue would end up being resolved by three animators who had previously worked on ‘SpongeBob Squarepants’, Derek Drymon, Merriweather Williams, and Nick Jennings, as well as ‘Flapjack’ creator Thurop Van Orman, whose experience managed to place the decided look of the series, a more restrained look which helped to communicate the personalities of individual characters through their decidedly goofy movements while maintaining Ward’s initial designs and vision for them, largely thanks to the work of character designer Phil Rynda, who sought to maintain Ward’s natural aesthetic however the animation turned out in order to help it keep a consistent look. This provided the series with the expressive animation that it was yearned for, with the animation adapting the storyboards matching them by providing that aforementioned dance party with incredibly wavy noodle arms on each of the two main characters which displayed a highly freeform and expressive animation style that would define the early seasons of the series and display its old school cartoonish movements.
This animation style would meet its match with veteran director Larry Leichliter, who allowed a visual style encompassing rarely moved cameras and angles which allowed the animation to be set on full display. A style maintained in his extensive catalogue of American cartoon history from ‘Charlie Brown’ to ‘Hey Arnold’. This long term experience going back to the 70s allowed Leichliter’s emphasis on character movements through minimal camera movements to function well as a visual supervision for the storyboard format that the writers for the episodes created them in. The expansive and D&D inspired Land of Ooo which the majority of the series would be set in was to be designed by another ‘Flapjack’ alumni in background designer Dan “Ghostshrimp” Bandit, who was largely allowed his own distinct vision for what the world would look like and who designed many of the mainstay locations in Ooo, including Finn and Jake’s house, the Candy Kingdom, and the Ice Kingdom.
With all of this powerhouse force behind it, the series eventually garnered some incredibly high expectations, and ones that would luckily turn out to be fruitful when the series finally made its airing debut on 5th April 2010 and turned out to be a considerable success that would only grow more successful as it went on. And there are a few reasons as to how the series got popular (the established norm growing increasingly stale for many as oft happens, and the relatively simple for children quality of it) but of particular importance to its success was its premise.
Expanding on the basic outline established in the Nickelodeon short, ‘Adventure Time’ follows the Adventures of a human boy named Finn and his talking, shape shifting bulldog, best friend and adoptive brother Jake. And the appeal of the early episodes of ‘Adventure Time’ can be found in how self contained they are. Often creating adventures out of silly and occurrences such as a sentient mountain becoming incredibly distraught by the view stuck in front of him, Finn having to overcome his fear of the ocean to complete his adventure, and a standard “find the object in a secret cave” storyline displaying the D&D influence.
Opened upon with a visually expansive opening showing off the multiple recurring characters and locations of the series before transitioning to the humble theme song sung by Ward himself in an incredibly timid singing voice, each of these stories and others displayed the offbeat and out there nature of the series, utilising many of the strengths discussed previously to give it a childlike sense of discovery. A story of discovery told from the viewpoint of Finn, a main character who would have been around the age that many young viewers, and who in essence carries a hopeful and inquisitive personality which sets him out on these adventures often to try and break from the hegemony of daily life, a feeling many 12 year olds could relate to. But what makes the adventures themselves particularly compelling, is the world that they take place in.
Distinctive Style and the Nature of Surrealism
The Land of Ooo on which the majority of the series takes place is a whole continent which is a place that allows for the imaginations of the staff behind the series to flourish, as it is a world seemingly without rules. A large plain of differing landscapes through which our two main characters walk through in search of adventure, and where there’s always the sense that it can be there due to the vast number of locations in this land, each with its own inhabitants which encompass all sorts of oddities and specimens ranging from the candy people of the candy kingdom, mythical creatures, talking animals, people made out of different elements, robots, human-animal hybrids, and living objects such as mountains, rivers, and clouds.
This all gives the series an air of unpredictability in regards to what the episodes can do with the vast variety of places we visit, similar to ‘Doctor Who’ or 2003 ‘Kino’s Journey’. A fact helped by the fact that the supporting recurring characters who are each given their own little personalities and quirks, such as Princess Bubblegum, a sentient piece of gum who rules the Candy Kingdom and the object of Finn’s youthful affection which serves as the catalyst for him to perform several off jobs for her, the often vacuous yet always fun Lumpy Space Princess, the precocious and childlike sentient gaming pad BMO, Lady Rainicorn, the Korean speaking flying unicorn with a body made out of a rainbow who serves as both the steed to Princess Bubblegum and the girlfriend of Jake, Treetrunks, an elderly yellow pygmy elephant with the mind and mannerisms of a grandmother, and the Ice King, a deluded wizard who creates Ice from his magic crown who often seeks to try and make Princesses into his brides and who served as the main antagonist of the original pilot before being made into more of a comic foil for Finn and Jake to frequently battle in the early episodes. And this is just the main selections in a vast and ever expanding list of characters who inhabit the Land of Ooo and who display the immense creativity that went into designing the surreal and otherworldly nature of the world in ‘Adventure Time’.
Describing something as being “Surreal” is something I would generally hesitate to do, mostly because of how much that term is misused to describe anything that can be considered “weird”. And it is often attributed to ‘Adventure Time’ specifically due to its perceived randomness and “trippy” nature. I do however think it is accurate to apply the term to ‘Adventure Time’ because it does in fact assert its odd imagery to some meaning. This is something later seasons would make more apparent, but the imagery in ‘Adventure Time’ ends up taking on a deeper symbolism, as is the nature of surrealism, starting out in reaction to the despair and a critique of the prevailing rational system of thought that led to World War I. This distinguishes surrealism from Dadaism, which arose from the same basis and period and describes what many often mistake surrealism for, but surrealism combines the equal union of a conscious and unconscious self, as opposed to Dadaism which derived its artistic influence from pure nonsense and an inchoate sense of oddity.
Although this element of the series becomes more apparent in the later seasons, the hints of how the surrealism of the series informs the series on a deeper thematic level are apparent even early on, especially once you rewatch the early episode with the knowledge you gain from the rest of the series. From Finn’s youthful perspective, we see imagery relating to the questioning of one’s identity and the desire for clarity and connection. Serving as the audience surrogate, although Finn as a character has grown up in the weird and colourful Land of Ooo, it is through the explorations of his adventures that he discovers and learns.
This is helped additionally through the plot structures of many of these early episodes, quite a few of which involved Finn and Jake having to overcome an obstacle through figuring out its solution. Take for example ‘His Hero’, the penultimate episode of the first season which sees Finn and Jake trying to impart the wisdom of their personal hero and influence Billy, a retired adventurer who has become jaded in his old age and who when they ask for advice from gives an incredibly basic piece of advice to not use violence to solve their solutions. So they go out on a series of adventures aiming to not use violence to resolve them, and this turns into a horrid failure to the point they ultimately have to betray Billy’s advice, something which initially leaves Finn disappointed until the old lady they saved reminds him of how he succeeded. This results in Finn’s perspective of the situation changing fundamentally, causing his idealised view of Billy to shift, seeing that the solutions to problems are not quite so clear cut, which among other things is an incredibly mature lessons for children watching while being well integrated enough into the episode so as to not feel like lecturing, and once he reveals this to Billy, it then restores his faith in his own line of duty and as such, Billy also comes out of the experience becoming bettered, showed symbolically by a hole in his body healing itself upon hearing this.
Episodes such as this give off the impression that Finn and Jake actually manage to learn a lesson from their experiences. And more importantly is how the surreal and offbeat perspective of the series prevents moments like these from coming across as lecturing. It doesn’t speak down to its young audience and says “Well children, what did we learn today?!” especially since some of the lessons Finn learns are often not so clear cut and therefore something the series seems to ward the young audience off from fully taking to heart while making for effective entertainment. Another example can be found in ‘Boom, Boom Mountain’ in which Finn resolves a large multitude of conflicts whose initial resolutions seem to then cause trouble for someone else and locks him out of managing to find a solution that can satisfy everyone involved, showing him how difficult the world around him can truly be to better, but something that he at least always seeks to fix because of this strong sense of morality.
This is further exemplified by the way that the series uses it’s villains of the week. The Ice King, as mentioned before, is usually handled as a comic foil for Finn and Jake to rescue Princesses from rather than an imposing threat to be taken seriously. This describes several other villains who often serve as more of an obstacle and often aren’t total super villains. Even Ricardio the Heart Man, one of the most openly evil characters early on is essentially a Princess stealer (though one with much darker implications as examined later on). The series as a whole commits to it’s chilled down atmosphere in handling it’s villains in this way, showing that enemies such as Magic Man aren’t pure evil so much as simply jerks. And displaying them as even having their redeemable aspects, such as having Ice King unintentionally help Finn and Jake at points.
A more concrete example however, would be one of the series’ mainstays in the aforementioned Marcline the Vampire Queen, who was actually the villain of the episode in her first appearance, being a vampire who evicts the pair from their home, repeatedly taunts them, and even drinks Jake’s blood at one point (in a rather violent moment it must be said). And yet she would turn out to become the fan favourite character following her next appearance which saw her with a newfound respect for Finn, having him join her in using her powers for fun, and even causing the two to develop a close friendship that would last the rest of the series.
Cast of Writers and coming into its own in Season 3
When Ward started the series off, he sought to create a series built upon ambivalent emotions. Feelings of being happy and scared at the same time, reflective of the laid back tone of the series. To this end, he has sometimes described the series as being a “Dark Comedy”, distinguished from its gross out predecessors by placing a greater emphasis on cuteness than most entries in that genre. Although the series still carried several elements of that subgenre, such as occasional fart jokes and some truly great, creased facial movements in the early episodes. There are even a few scenes of graphic violence, made justifiable by the fact the characters it happened to weren’t human, but a lot of these elements weren’t overplayed or made to be the main point of the series. He expressed several times that he never strove to try and push the limits of the PG rating like a lot of other creators on Cartoon Network were doing at the time.
It is likely this that in turn helped the series to appeal to teenagers and adults as well as children, especially as some teenagers at the time would have grown up with the gross out era of animation and would have been appealed to by moments such as that, but this is merely a miniscule summation of the grownup appeal for the series. A more important development in this can be found in a detail about the series that I’ve danced around so far that was first revealed early on in the episode ‘Business Time’ which sees Finn and Jake encounter zombies of businessmen. Although the episode itself is mostly a fairly simple jab at business culture as zombies have oft served as a metaphor for, it was the implication that their presence created that would become an integral part of the series and establish a lore for it. That the series takes place in our world, 1000 years after a nuclear apocalypse.
And the bizarre imagery of the series are the remnants of life following that apocalypse, with Finn being the only human we see throughout the majority of the series, leading to the conclusion that he is the last human alive, or at the very least one who has no contact with others. This is also revealed in vignettes of his backstory, where we learn that he was discovered as a baby alone in the forest and discovered then taken in by Jake’s family. This then leaves him not only as a surrogate for the children watching, but also for the older viewers who then come to learn the mature themes of the series, and it is largely in the subsequent seasons that this takes shape.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this aspect of the series to me, is that it wasn’t actually planned from the beginning. The series was indeed originally conceived as being a silly, fun adventure series with elements of dark comedy, and even the episode which started this was just Luther McLaurin and Armen Mizaian’s light hearted jab at businessmen that then came to shape an idea that the writers for the series would build upon. It is in this regard that possibly the smartest decision Ward made for the series was in allowing people he discovered on the internet to work for the series. Many of these people coming from a similarly Indie and outside the cartoon norms background as Ward, and as such brought with them several ideas described by him as being “Idiosyncratic and spiritual”, which in turn would allow the series to tackle more mature themes, experiment with less conventional plot ideas, and touch deeper onto the character’s stories to the point that they would form full on character arcs.
A lot of which would come to pass in the second and especially third season. It’s hard to tell how much of what ultimately came to screen was planned for a long time coming and which parts of the series were only thought of shortly before they were written (the post-apocalyptic angle as discussed before being one of the latter), but regardless, it surprisingly managed to congeal into a cohesive whole by the end of the series. And it could often come from unexpected small details, such as a small moment in the season 6 episode ‘Graybles 1000+’ features a scene involving a small cookie leaving a capsule, and this small moment actually leads directly to the series finale (going further is spoilers obviously), and this shows the amount of dedication to this collaborative construction between the different writers for the series put into making this development, the likes of which wasn’t something often done in long running children’s cartoons on such a scale before, but certainly became so following ‘Adventure Time’.
A format that took the mature themes of Japanese Anime, and placed them within the eclectic world of a series that like the game that inspired it, allowed it’s writers to use their imaginations to flourish and use their Indie backgrounds to give a look and feel distinctive from what was popular before it. In addition to names we’ve covered here before (Muto, McHale) this team of unafraid writers/storyboard artists included Tom Herpich, Skyler Page, Steve Wolfhard, Somvilay Xayaphone, Ako Catsuera, Cole Sanchez, Jesse Moynihan, Niki Yang, Kent Osbourne, and too many others to count. And many of them also took a much more collaborative role in the series which is a large part of what helped it to function. Not only because they often co-wrote episodes with each other in addition to writing them on their own, but even taking other active roles such as notably voicing some characters, most notably Yang providing the voice of BMO and Lady Rainicorn.
Perhaps the most significant writer for the series however, both within and outside of the series, was Rebecca Sugar. Now known mostly as the creator of ‘Steven Universe’, a series that likely wouldn’t be what it is without ‘Adventure Time’ in more ways than one, Rebecca Sugar wrote not only some of the common fan favourite episodes, but also the most transformative to the series itself. Crafting one of the more unique bodies of work among the writers for the series with stories containing a number of recurring themes including a greater emphasis on emotional depth, song writing prowess shown in her often rhythmic songs taking a shift from the more improvisational music that Ward provided, shifting focus away from the main duo to expand on side characters such as Ice King, Princess Bubblegum, and especially Marceline by handing them tragic backstories which utilised the post-apocalyptic angle to its thematic potential strengths. In doing so, establishing many storylines that would come to define them for the rest of the series, and which would go on to form whole new arcs. This would in turn lead to storylines with a more dramatic and dark flare that the series as a whole would follow through on.
All that said, another aspect that Sugar brought to the table that would transfer more famously into ‘Steven Universe’ was her nuanced and progressive portrayals of gender and sexuality. One particular episode where this aspect comes through is the fan favourite ‘Fionna and Cake’, an episode which takes us into a version of the series’ world where all of the characters are gender-swapped versions of themselves. Taking a concept devised by storyboard revisionist Natasha Allegri, the episode that could have just been a simple gimmick works by going a step beyond that and turning these gender-swapped versions of the characters we know into individual characters in their own right, with noticeable differences from their counterparts, be they minor mannerisms, fashion codes, or their different approaches to attraction. Many of these differences making sense within the context of their gender, which is handled in a somewhat performative and refined manner, making for a rather progressive narrative that could have easily just been a bottom tier list of gender based jokes, but instead conveys a thoughtful message which I think is needed for viewers, young and old, about treating people respectfully regardless of their gender, and again manages to do this without feeling like speaking down to it’s audience.
This arguably makes this episode one of the most influential in the series, defining it’s social politics in a very grounded way, and would go on to certainly produce the most fan fiction out of all episodes. While I’m not sure if the episode introduced the concept of gender-swapping in fandoms, it certainly popularised it, making the practice a common trope in fan-art circles even in other fandoms as well. All while the episode manages to establish its own world and large cast of characters in just 11 minutes. This added to a nice twist at the end that I won’t dare spoil here but did allow for further instalments in this universe to be made afterwards all make this one of the best episodes in the series and a showcase of Sugar’s abilities. Oh, and did I mention Neil Patrick-Harris and Donald Glover voice Prince Gumball (Princess Bubblegum) and Marshall Lee (Marceline) respectively.
Another Sugar-penned episode from Season 3 worth noting which displays some of the qualities I brought up earlier would be ‘What Was Missing’, which displays her penchant for in-depth character studies that would herald forth the more dramatic tone the series would take from that point. Placing the main characters; Finn, Jake, Marceline, BMO, and Princess Bubblegum together to try and reclaim personal items that were stolen by the Doormaster, who puts them through a puzzle they have to solve through song to get them back. From there, we get an episode that could very well serve as a summation of some of the most pleasant aspects of the series. The scenes where the characters all get along with each other and have fun with each other are all quite lovely, and show how well integrated into each other’s lives these characters had become at this point, and how much the audience had gotten to know them, so whenever we see them in a casual slice of life scenario like this, it becomes extremely nice to see. The more dramatic scenes where they become increasingly disorientated with the situation meanwhile have this subdued nature to them which prevents them from feeling melodramatic.
One thing I’d like to note about this episode is how much it humanises Princess Bubblegum, who was by no means an uninteresting character before this, having been established as a Princess who was also a Scientist (yay for dissolving gender norms) but this episode which has her be less formal than we had usually seen her and even giving her a change of fashion to signify this. All the characters in this episode have their own revealing moments; and it wins continuity points by having a brief scene from a previous episode where Finn got a piece of Bubblegum’s gum hair into the object he wants to try and get back. The beginning of the episode establishes this, where we see him sniffing it in….. a weirdly sexual way. The episode only vaguely hints at how creepy this can come across, but more on that in the next chapter. The moment everyone tends to remember from this episode however is the song that Marceline sings to try and open the door, which reveals that she and Bubblegum have some sort of past together that resulted in her having feelings of bitterness but also resentment towards that bitterness.
The end of the episode in which it is revealed that Bubblegum’s object was a shirt that Marceline gave her once that “means a lot” to her, and hearing this causes Marceline to blush gives more evidence to the hint that this past Marceline and Bubblegum share together was a romantic one. This is once again something that future episodes would expand on, and once again something I plan to talk on more later in the article, but it did cause a hefty mix of adoration and controversy for the same reason of implying the existence of a gay relationship between two characters in a children’s television series in 2011. Hints were the best we could hope for back then due to both society at large and network managements efforts of censorship under the guise of doing it to avoid censorship in other countries, thankfully that has changed dramatically in the last few years, even if there are still some issues in the field of representation, but this is nonetheless a great thing. Anyway, this also shows the deeper side to each of the characters, with Bubblegum showing her more emotional side, Finn showing his more confessional side when he basically admits his item to her, and Marceline having her softer side shown in both her hesitation to be truly mean to Bubblegum and the revelation that she didn’t have any items of hers stolen and just wanted to spend the day enjoying her time with her friends, a feeling the viewer is left sympathising with once the episode comes to a close and they feel more emotionally connected to each of these characters.
Character Aging and Character Development
Season 3 was indeed transformative for the series as a whole. Even the visual accompaniment to the writing compliments this. The overall colour pallet for the series is given noticeably more attention from this point on, with a greater emphasis on rich colours as opposed to the pale imagery of the first two seasons. And the direction for the series which became increasingly taken charge of by the storyboard artists at this point, resulting in those still camera angles I mentioned earlier being traded in favour of shots which focused more directly and up close to the characters.
Whether or not you like these changes (I will admit I do resent the fact that those wiggly arms from the early episodes were now gone) this does show as additional key to ‘Adventure Time’s longevity is it’s willingness to change. This has been established from the start of the series of course. Characters who appeared in early episodes became mainstays where their personalities changed and several plot threads were continued into episodes, but this was where the series really came into it’s own. And in addition to the story changes, a major change was occurring in the characters but most audibly in the main character.
I say audibly because Finn’s voice actor Jeremy Shada contributed a lot to this noticeable change by occasionally putting voice squeaks in his lines to give off the impression that his character was going through puberty (which it’s worth noting the young voice actor himself was also going through), and this provided the series with a sense of linearity by having it’s main character as well as several other characters age. As most of them aren’t human, their aging process is somewhat different which is how the series prevents them from aging too much, but the characters in ‘Adventure Time’ do still age, and this is something which set it apart from other cartoons where even when they last for a long time, the characters almost never age.
‘The Simpsons’ being the obvious example where Bart, Lisa, and Maggie have all remained the same age through a solid five different Presidential administrations. In the context of that series it was never meant to have a linear ongoing story and simply serve as a satire of ongoing issues in the modern world, but where it becomes a problem for many series is when it gets to a point where it breaks the continuity of a series to the point that it comes to disregard it’s past while sticking to that past’s formula to the point it becomes a hollow shell of it’s former self, as ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Spongebob’ have unfortunately done. This is something that by having a linear storyline, ‘Adventure Time’ manages to avoid by allowing the continuity and aging to continuously reinvent the series.
And it’s also by way of it being a long-running series (which I choose to define by a series having over 100 episodes) that ‘Adventure Time’ manages to give it’s character’s aging a sense of purpose. As mentioned before, Finn served as an audience surrogate at the start of the series, and so he aged at the same time the audience was aging. It’s not quite as close to that process as the Magical Girl series ‘Ojamajo Doremi’ did in having each of it’s episodes take place in the course of a week and be set at the same time of year that each episode was airing (fun Anime trivia there), especially given it didn’t quite get there with Finn being 12 at the start of the series and 17 at the start despite the series last eight years due in part to the inconsistent schedule Cartoon Network would give it and several other series later on, but it does provide a detailed journey into his physical development in addition to his outside character introspection in a way that would often correlate with the young audience growing into their teenage years.
This coming of age story is one which continues the more progressive element by showing even some of the parts in puberty that some of us don’t quite want to see. Yeah, that thing about the increasingly sexual nature of Finn’s affection towards Bubblegum with him sniffing a lock of her hair is now to be brought up. It gets worse than that, as there are even a few subtle hints (this is still a family show after all) that he masturbates. Going from innocent schoolboy crush exemplified in the episode where Bubblegum was even aged down and got to play with Finn in a tragic story where we truly felt sorry for him in the end, to his yearning bordering towards entitlement is a plot point that has thrown quite a few people off from the character. Although, if I may be the one to leap to it’s defence, I do think that the main theme of what puberty does to a young boy is portrayed realistically, and it does even serve his character development when he grows past that attraction and begins his official relationship with Flame Princess in season 4.
The storyline of Finn and Flame Princess’s relationship is also something that occasionally throws people off, with some decrying the series for slipping into teenage melodrama, while others ship the two character and were thus unhappy with the way the relationship ended. Having the context of where this storyline would lead to (without spoiling too much) does for me however help me to appreciate the arc on a deeper level. Myself viewing it as an arc of Finn learning from his relationship how to handle involving others in his life and the difficulties that come with finding yourself in a relationship for the first time. Once again, something I imagine the young people watching may have also been dealing with, and the mistakes that Finn makes are at least ones that he learns and grows from.
This process of development would also carry over into how he views the world around him. Particularly tangible in the way that he views his earlier antagonists. And by antagonists, I specifically mean the Ice King, whose character is given whole new meaning in the two part episode ‘Holly Jolly Secrets’, an unexpected Christmas Special set in a world where Christmas doesn’t even properly exist. The episode starts up with the standard setup of Ice King being shown to have some highly questionable social skills when approaching Finn and Jake, whom he sees as friends despite everything. As was established before, he isn’t entirely a bad person, just misguided and heavily hinted to have some sort of mental illness. But in this episode…..
Warning, the following paragraph can actually be considered a legitimate spoiler for the episode ‘Holly Jolly Secrets’ and the series as a whole. If you wish to avoid these spoilers, I suggest either skipping over to the next paragraph or preferably watching the episode. It’s only 22 minutes long and it is really good.
So, Finn and Jake end up discovering an old cassette tape and, in a scene directly inspired by the famous Faye’s Past scene from ‘Cowboy Bebop’, we discover that Ice King has lived since before the Apocalypse that created the world we know in the series. That he used to be a scientist named Simon Petrikov who discovered the magic crown the character we know wears, and visually details the process of his transformation into the Ice King who has lost his memories from this former life. Upon this realisation, Finn and Jake decide to comfort him in a truly heart warming moment, and in doing so unintentionally resurrect Christmas. This moment is a true turning point for the series. Utilising the pre-established post-apocalyptic scenario of the series to create some powerful character drama, with it’s characters who have lived through the creation of that land and who in turn, take the part of the audience viewpoint to see the tragic and emotional stories that created the world of the series.
Attention to world building would become a staple of the series’ second half. The Sugar penned ‘I remember You’ expanding on the concept introduced in that episode by tying it also into our immortal demon-vampire queen’s life; revealing that she and Ice King have a history with each other. Incredibly, the character’s voice actors share this in common with their characters, as Ice King’s voice actor Tom Kenny had worked as a comedy act at Olivia Olson’s father Martin’s comedy club when she was a child, meaning they had met before. Also, Martin Olson voices Marceline’s biological father Hunson Abadeer. This is a recurring theme we see throughout the series.
The steps towards humanising it’s antagonists aren’t the innovate part by themselves. ‘Batman the Animated Series’ often portrayed it’s villains sympathetically and as realistic human beings in the 90s and individual episodes where a protagonist would temporarily team up with their antagonist had become something of a trope in cartoons. But what separates ‘Adventure Time’ from that uvre is the lack of the word “temporary”, as the changes and developments it’s characters go through become fixed. Finn and Jake for example do end up becoming noticeably nicer to Ice King after this whole ordeal. The changes to antagonists can be even further seen with Magic Man, who through his small number of appearances scattered throughout the whole series goes from a mischievous troublemaker, to someone who’s past we come to learn, to someone who has his magic powers stripped away from him and becomes Normal Man, and then reaches the end of his personal character arc by becoming King of Mars, or King Man. Or in a more dynamic change, how the character of Betty went from being voiced by Lena Dunham, to getting a replacement voice actor you could feel less disgusted from listening to.
And while the way that the series handles it’s antagonists make for a compelling character development, I think an even more impressive feat is how it then proceeds to question the morality of it’s protagonists. I’ve spoken before about Finn’s perverted nature and how he’s a boy going through puberty in a world with a completely different set of morals than our society (does the Land of Ooo even have an age of consent? I’ll stop myself right there to avoid going into really dark subject matter). But the aspect I want to highlight is the morality of Princess Bubblegum. As the series progresses, we see more detail into how exactly she rules the Candy Kingdom, and it’s safe to say that at times the way she rules, with several secrets and surveillance operatives, that the Kingdom to end up coming across like a Police State. One that she even has difficulty maintaining and which is indeed brought to the forefront quite a few times.
Does this make her evil therefore? Well, this is certainly the position that a fair number of people in the fandom were quick to leap aboard when it first became apparent. Although to reduce this aspect to such a simple conclusion is missing the purpose of this element. Like a lot of the society in Ooo, the way that the Candy Kingdom is ruled allows for an exploration on what happens when societies after an apocalypse try to function without a past to learn from and develop a sense of morality that seems foreign to our society. One of the major themes of the series is that the passage of time is a repeating cycle. Everything stays but it still changes, ever so slightly, daily and nightly, in little ways everything stays. And this is something that feeds directly into the finale of the series being a war similar to the one that created the setting of the series. Bonnibel governs in an authoritarian manner because among other things, she subscribes to a highly utilitarian viewpoint in which she aims to try and ensure the safety and wellbeing of her people, and she mostly doesn’t know that much better than what she does because her experiences of finding difficulty other options are presented led her to this conclusion.
Does all of this necessarily justify her actions? Probably not in a moral sense if you were to apply that to rather than at the idea. Within the context of the series, this is largely done to provide the perspective of the series with a greater sense of nuance with showing a less than certain sides dynamic one would expect to see in an adult oriented political thriller than a children’s cartoon. We certainly do get an understanding of where he necessity for this comes from when we see how she and the Candy Kingdom were born and the responsibilities that spawned from it in the two opening episodes of season 7, with her breakdown in ‘Varmints’ being a particular character defining moment.
Before we talk about season 7 however, we should talk about season 5. A monumental moment in the series’ history that saw the 26 episode format of previous seasons give way to a colossal 52 episode season that aired for the entirety of the year 2013. The season which saw the series attain it’s highest viewing figures, at which point the series had already cemented itself in pop culture, becoming a mainstay in the growing realms of fanart, cosplay, and eventually the medium itself. It was at this point that Ward’s ‘Flapjack’ associates were themselves making success with their own series, JG Quintel making ‘Regular Show’ which similarly adopted a cutesier version of ‘Flapjack’s artstyle onto a new decade on Cartoon Network which began around the same time as ‘Adventure Time’ and shared time on the Network with the series until ending the same month that ‘Adventure Time’ was announced to be ending. Alex Hirsch meanwhile was starting his own series on Disney, the highly acclaimed ‘Gravity Falls’ which would also become highly acclaimed for it’s tackling of mature fantasy themes and engaging continuous storyline which appealed it to all ages. This collection of cartoons indeed signalled a noticeable change in the way that the public perceived cartoons for children.
This is something that season 5 of ‘Adventure Time’ would provide, albeit in a way that some weren’t entirely happy with, as it saw several individuals from behind the scenes leave the series. Not on any harsh terms it must be stated, most of them leaving to focus on their own work once their experience on the series gained them the rights to spearhead their own series. Larry Leichliter who had directed every episode up until that point left early into the season, resulting in episodes afterwards being directed individually by all sorts of different people, Skyler Page left the series to produce ‘Clarence’, Patrick McHale left to create the excellent miniseries ‘Over the Garden Wall’, Natasha Allegri left to produce Frederator’s ‘Bee and Puppycat’, Rebecca Sugar would of course leave to create ‘Steven Universe’, and storyboard artist Ian Jones-Quartey would go on to work with Sugar on SU before creating his own series ‘OKKO’. Perhaps most significant to the series was that Pendleton Ward stepped down rather abruptly as showrunner. As mentioned much earlier in the article, Ward’s extremely introverted personality made working on the series increasingly taxing for him, although he did still continue to work on the series as a storyboard writer until season 7. And even then he still served as an executive producer right until the very end of the series, though he did nonetheless also produce his other college pet project ‘Bravest Warriors’ for Frederator online, which saw a similar artstyle to ‘Adventure Time’ to an adventure series with a subversive but sometimes twisted sense of humour in a setting that allows for a wide variety of stories. In the meantime, Adam Muto was promoted in Ward’s place as supervising producer and creative director for the series, and held that position up until it’s end.
It should of course not even need to be clarified that none of these leavings were on any sort of harsh terms. Certainly I’ve never read or heard any evidence of behind the scenes turbulence. But it wouldn’t surprise me given the nature of fandoms if there were some people trying to insinuate this as the case to try and explain perceptions of the quality of the series. While season 5’s vast number of episodes allowed for all sorts of episodes of just about every flavour the series has to offer is present in this series, while also providing a thorough expansion of the themes and storylines established in previous seasons and some of the best episodes of the entire series. But it was also around this time that many people began to drift from the series. Which begs the question, did the series’ quality drop?
Losing it’s Way?
To understand why people felt that the series was declining in quality during this time, one need understand the changes undertaken in seasons 5 and 6 following all this that led to this belief. I have already mentioned several controversial story decisions which created some discontent in the fandom, but what I think is worth noting is that many of these criticisms came quite prematurely, with many complaining that the series seemed to be lacking any real sense of direction, before the direction it took would become apparent later. Yes, I am accusing people of judging the series prematurely, but it’s no coincidence that the people who stayed with the series ended up being comparatively impressed with it’s last few seasons, finding the catharsis of numerous arcs to be extremely satisfying in turn.
Though I also won’t ignore the tonal differences that were brought about in these two seasons. The series during this time resorted to taking a more hands on approach to developing it’s plot threads, resulting in episodes that expanded on the lore. This includes the episode ‘Evergreen’ which reveals the origin of Ice King’s crown and how the world would come to be. Though some felt that these episodes came to the detriment of the more episodic nature of the earlier seasons which allowed the series a greater degree of accessibility for newcomers, especially as the rate of these world building episodes would increase with rapid propulsion. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there weren’t any individual stand alone episodes. In fact, one notable trend which firmly established a pedigree of respectability it had in the medium of animation was in having occasional episodes done by guest animators, allowing for wildly different episodes which worked upon the series’ free form nature to their benefit.
This began with the CGI ‘A Glitch is a Glitch’ by Irish filmmaker David O’Reilly and continued with work by British Disney character animator James Baxter (responsible for work in 90s Disney films) would make an episode that proved successful enough to get a sequel, the flash animated ‘Water Park Prank’ by David Ferguson, and Kirsten Lepore’s stop-motion ‘Bad Jubies’. Easily the best example however would have to be the episode ‘Food Chain’, written and directed by none other than the excellent Masaaki Yuasa and even completely animated by Science SARU. In the span of the episode, Yuasa demonstrates his uncanny ability to grasp a true and proper understanding of the product that he works on (it’s appeal, it’s themes, it’s intended style and tone) and manage to utilise their strengths while staying true to his own artistic inhibitions which always manage to carry them through a careful combination of exaggeration and profundity. Whether it be through his understanding of the charm of Tomihiko Morimi novels in his adaptations of ‘The Tatami Galaxy’ and ‘The Night is Short, Walk on Girl’, the speed embued into ‘Ping Pong’ the Animation, or the expressive hyperviolence/hypersexuality of the more recent ‘Devilman Crybaby’ which is likely what you know him from, his style of exaggerated and playful animation always manages to fit well onto what ever work he chooses to do. And this carries well over into ‘Adventure Time’, as the episode’s contemplation on a subject of school hood knowledge makes for an appropriately philosophical episode with numerous hidden details in both visual and writing that demonstrate how Yuasa understands the series and works to it’s strengths.
This episode is one of quite a lot of strong episodes in this era, which became increasingly pondering and philosophical, much to a mix of acclaim but also concern among the fandom which led to a deeper cause of concern for the quality of the series. That being that it’s increasing attempts to be intelligent could get in the way of it’s attempts to be fun. Certainly the overall tone of the series came to reflect a sense of saudade. Saudade meaning an emotional respite of longing, melancholy, and nostalgia which in effect tangentially reflected both the character’s and young audience’s growth and increasing maturity with how the characters came to tackle the nature of the world around them which to a lot of young people can make a lot of unsense, especially in the politically turbulent times that the series was airing which the series subtly mirrored.
Melancholy became the name of the game for the more philosophical bent of the series and as stated it did come to what some saw as a detriment to the entertainment value of the series, regardless of it’s intentions in trying to connect with the audience more deeply or in trying to expand the prestige of the series to a literature aspirational device. Episodes such as ‘Friends Forever’ which sees the tragic story of Ice King’s furniture coming to life and questioning their existence much to his annoyance can indeed be seen as overly depressing more than darkly comical (though thinking about it, the episode does make for a strong meta commentary on the nature of fandoms).
Another problem for many is that while the series had manages to consistently maintain it’s 11 minute runtime for episodes before, some of the episodes of this era became so ambitious that they couldn’t be contained within a single episode. This is one criticism I can actually understand, with ‘Betty’ and ‘The Comet’ being prime examples of episodes which either suffered for this, or could have been reappropriated in the form of two-parters. And going back to that old chestnut of the series seeming to lack direction, the episode ‘Breezy’ retconned a major character change from the beginning of season 6 in a way which rubbed many as a cop out, and this is often seen as being a point of no faith in the series’ run where many discontinued watching, especially as both ‘Gravity Falls’ and ‘Steven Universe’ were starting to gain traction around that time for following in the footsteps of ‘Adventure Time’ in creating engaging adventures that were also intelligent enough for all ages to enjoy.
Of course, many people who stuck with the series after this point did find that the last few seasons restored and in some areas even surpassed the series’ previous quality, but before we talk about the last four seasons, I do actually want to state that I believe the mid point of the series to actually have more merit than a lot of people give credit for. This is especially true on rewatching many of these episodes, where knowing the direction the series would take afterwards does alleviate the issue of the storylines feeling directionless while providing a new perspective on what many of them are trying to do on a philosophical and narrative level which cause them to feel a lot less overbearing.
Particularly of note in serving as an introduction to the more involved and conclusion driven direction of the later seasons is the path of episodes linking seasons 5 & 6, with ‘Billy’s Bucket List’ followed by the two-parter ‘Wake Up’ and ‘Escape the Citadel’. These episodes begin with an episode in which Finn completes the unfinished work of his life long hero, allowing him rest but also in the process accidentally advancing himself. Most apparently, he finally overcomes his life long fear of the ocean (which would prove especially useful for a later story arc) and both he and the audience is rewarded for his arduous task with a revelation that after five seasons, he is finally given a hint into his origins and the backstory behind the series when he is told the existence and location of his biological father.
This turns out not to be the immediate hopeful reunion however as his father (who noticeably looks like Pendleton Ward) turns out to be an uncaring and unresponsive individual who takes no interest in his son. This is all in the midst of a large scale intergalactic prison break so he doesn’t get much time for reconciliation anyway, but the real meat of this episode is in how it illustrates the strengths of the series through displaying exactly how kindness is not necessarily a genetic trait, and in having Finn and Jake be displayed as being true family. This is all displayed even further by the heavy loss and suffering that Finn goes through in the episode, losing both his bad father and his arm in the course of the episode. It all builds up to a conclusion which takes him into that saudade I mentioned before, especially since the series’ most outwardly villainous character gets a surprising retcon by the end.
Oh yeah, I can’t believe I’ve come this far without even mentioning the Lich. One of the most viscerally dark antagonists that has to have been featured in a series intended for children. The character who even led the two main characters to this point by his actions in season 4, and until Uncle Gumbald towards the very end of the series was the closest thing the series had to a main antagonist. But even that was subject to change as after delivering a frightening speech in a powerfully atmospheric scene, he gets transformed and turned into a new being called Sweetpea, being allowed a whole new life by Finn and Jake who deliver what is now a child to Tree Trunks and Mr. Pig, and despite some repercussions from this later on, is even allowed a new lease on life. (There are way too many characters in this series for me to give proper introductions to them all)
Coming Along Forward
Speaking of characters, let’s jump into the seventh seasons by bringing up the fan favourite Marceline. We’ve already discussed the exploration of her relationship with Bonnibel in ‘Varmints’ but that episode was largely a set up for the first of the three miniseries that the series began in this era to provide catharsis to some of the series’ longest running questions. The first of these was ‘Stakes’ an arc which sees Marceline attempting to get rid of her vampirism only to have it manifest into a problem for which she teams up with all the regular characters on an adventure that provides for some truly solid character examination, filling in many of the holes that had been left by previous seasons and providing satisfying answers to each of them. We learn more details of Marceline’s life, the identity of her mother (voiced by Rebecca Sugar who returned to both do the voice and provide songs for the miniseries, and whose casting here I’m almost certain is a meta commentary on how Sugar advanced Marceline’s character by making them her actual mother), how she became the Vampire Queen, and most significantly a summation on the main theme of the entire series which for many gave a sense of direction to where the series had previous seemed aimless.
The miniseries serves as an answer to the complaint that the series had become too focused on her character (which if you actually look at the number of episodes focusing on her versus the number focusing even on Finn instead of other characters, it still doesn’t mathematically add up) by having her be the centre, and for fans the miniseries felt like a treat. This was especially the case for Bubbline shippers for whom the miniseries provided ample material which just barely strays from outright saying they’re a couple by throwing the fact that they’re extremely affectionate for each other at every opportunity. This does lead some to accuse the series of queerbaiting, which the details behind why the series didn’t outright confirm them as a couple do seem somewhat sketchy about given that foreign distribution is a common scapegoat but one that doesn’t hold much weight when censorship exists in those countries while homophobia certainly does exist in the West. Anyway…
The fan art that the episode would spawn generated some truly spectacular fanfare and was seen as a return to form for the series. Especially it’s ending which sees many of the series’ key ingredients being returned to their former positions, Marceline being a vampire again and Bonnibel being Princess again, immediately forgoing a story which had developed a few episodes before. Although initially seen as a cop out by some, this ending actually informs the nature of Marceline’s worldview, and establishes one of the many reasons why her character is so revered. Her perspective as someone who has lived through the apocalypse which created Ooo causes her to more deeply understand the idea that time runs in a cyclical nature, with war being a consistent throughout and people failing to learn from their mistakes, creating a wheel of slight change which feeds directly into both the beginnings and ending of the series, which this miniseries also serves to hint towards in this ever so slight thematic nudge.
The ‘Stakes’ miniseries helped to revitalise in the series by appealing to some of it’s most popular strengths (by which I mean Bubbline) and managed to gain over two million viewing figures on it’s initial broadcast. However, it would also prove to be the last episode to do so (unless the hype surrounding the finale changes that) as while seasons 5 & 6 saw ratings high points for the series, the last few seasons despite reception being positive amongst the fandom would see the all time lowest ratings for the series, with episodes being unable to even break 900’000 towards the end of it’s run. Considering how much of a high it had reached shortly before, winning multiple awards including an Emmy, getting the McDonalds toyline treatment, and being a household name across the entire world with the cute Jake bullet train in Taiwan. And yet now it was just sort of there, not really getting much notice outside of it’s still active fan base.
I’ve already spoken about how the mid point of the series threw a few people off, and coming out at the same time that both ‘Gravity Falls’ and ‘Steven Universe’ were beginning to gain traction, but the reasons for it’s viewership decline has more to attribute to. There is of course the fact that the advent of streaming services has caused television viewing in general to decline. There is more controversially the way that Cartoon Network tended to release it and many other series. ‘Steven Universe’ introduced the advent of ‘Steven Bombs’ which rather than having a series air weekly saw multiple episodes be dropped in a single week, which ‘Adventure Time’s miniseries were largely acclimated towards, and it certainly worked well for story arcs but it has had a rather unfortunate legacy in how it led to series being aired like this all the time, something which multiple viewers have agreed makes it difficult to keep up with series due to an inconsistent schedule. This poor mismanagement on the part of Cartoon Network is easily the biggest contributor to the ratings downfall, which is a real shame considering many of the series’ best episodes come from this portion for me. Though considering the series was already being planned to end at this point, it is good that it at least didn’t affect the series in any major way.
Going back to the positive side of the miniseries however, the other two ‘Islands’ and ‘Elements’ each also brought a lot to the table in terms of effective question answering, character arcs, and being enjoyable overall. The former taking a look at Finn’s origins in greater detail, finally revealing the identity of his mother, showing a new side to his father that we hadn’t seen before in flashbacks, and also finally showing what happened to humans in this world after all, continuing a story thread from ‘Stakes’ which helps give each of the miniseries a nice sense of connection between each other as well as the larger series. This carries over into ‘Elements’ which sees Finn back from his island adventure to see that the Land has been reaped in chaos as a result of each of the elemental kingdoms being affected by a curse driving each of them to their most extreme points.
It is impressive how each of these miniseries manage to stand alone by themselves, as exemplified by the fact they each have their own variations on the series opening, all while connecting to each other and the whole series, as well as each of them tying into the finale in some way, be they thematically, hopefully, or directly (Umble Gumbald coming out of the resolution to the conflict in Elements). They also did this while encapsulating all of the strengths of the series and each stand as some of the best examples of what ‘Adventure Time’ has to offer with their respective displays of Horror, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy; their penchant for lore, and importance in the series over all. The connection between them makes the homage to all three in the semi-recap episode guest animated by Lindsay and Alex Small-Butera who had previously worked on the episode ‘Beyond the Grotto’. That episode was ‘Ketchup’, which we discussed at the very beginning of this article. And with that, we have now come full circle. Well I mean, there’s still stuff I want to say right below but, ok this didn’t roll as fluently as I tho…
There really is so much that I can talk about with ‘Adventure Time’. I haven’t even mentioned things like Lady Rainicorn’s bad girl past, the significance of the episode ‘Nemesis’ in showcasing the extreme moral greyness the series could reach, Earl of Lemongrab who in addition to providing one of the series’ most popular recurring catchphrases early on would also be another villain who went through a compelling redemption arc. Bonnibel’s secret dealings with actual aliens, how cool both Huntress Wizard and Canyon are and how they become favourites despite only appearing in the last few seasons, anything relating to Fern, or even the fact that Jake ended up becoming a father and then a grandfather in the course of the series. I haven’t even talked about two of my favourite episodes of the whole series in ‘Dungeon Train’ and ‘The Hall of Egress’, both of which take the initial dungeon concept of the series established way back when in ‘The Enchiridion’ and peel away the fun idea of it with incredibly frightening states of being which lock Finn in a state of being in which he becomes lost with frighteningly little help of return. The former showcasing Jake’s loyalty to Finn and the latter displaying what Finn can do when he finds himself completely alone.
However, if I were to pick a moment that best encapsulates ‘Adventure Time’, it would have to be the ending scene of ‘Lemonhope’. One of the most hauntingly artful moments in any cartoon which firmly establishes itself by disconnecting itself from the previous scene with a fade to black. This separates the concluding scene of that episode’s main plot involving the title character saving his people, seemingly conceding to Bubblegum’s wishes against the ideological disagreement the two characters had at the start of the episode. Except not, because he chooses to travel the world for the next 1000 years rather than stay and be king. Following this, we hear a song (and a beautiful little character moment between Finn and Bonnibel which I really like) about the character.
Following the fade to black, we get a vision of a much older Lemonhope gazing upon familiar locations of the series, but also aged significantly. Finn and Jake’s tree house seen having grown into the clouds and the Candy Kingdom considerably more technologically advanced yet abandoned, as is the entire land, including the Lemon Kingdom which he keeps his word to and returns to in order to finally rest, making it clear this is chronologically the last piece of story we get in the ‘Adventure Time’ mythos. The funny thing is that I remember watching this scene on Youtube for the song several times, and without the full context I simply thought it all looked quite nice, certainly serene for a children’s cartoon. But when I watched the full episode and understood everything in this moment, my heart sank into my chest. This scene actually broke me with it’s foreshadowing to the fact that the characters and land that we watched and loved wouldn’t last forever, the symbolism behind the tree showing that Finn and Jake and all the rest had ascended which of course means death didn’t help, nor did the character of Lemonhope being symbolic of, well Hope. The last thing that dies after everything else. It’s beautiful but also incredibly heart wrenching.
And the scene also showcased a point of no return for the series which assured it’s viewers that the Fun described in the opening song would indeed end at some point. And while this post-series Ooo was also shown in the folding narrative of ‘Graybles 1000+’ which continued to defy expectations by having a cute anthology series of episodes lead into this part of the timeline, the answer to how it would come will finally be answered in the ending. In the Great Gum War.
It was at this point in writing that the final episode ‘Come Along with Me’ aired, named for the song that plays in the ending credits of ‘Adventure Time’, I set everything aside to watch it. I certainly won’t spoil anything that happens in the episode as it has only just come out, and also because this article is meant to serve as an advertisement for the series and while some plot details can be revealed in doing that, I’m certainly not going that far. All I will say however is that I’m glad nothing in it made the content of this article instantly dated because it is an extremely rewarding finale which like any good finale builds upon what the entire series was leading to and provides a satisfying conclusion to all of it. Also worth noting is that Rebecca Sugar was actually brought to write a song for the episode, showing once and for all how much of a mark she had on the entire series.
‘Adventure Time’ encapsulated an entire decade of cartoon entertainment, and while I have perhaps overstated some of it’s influence, as ‘Phineas and Ferb’ technically came before it and reintroduced childlike fun, as did ‘Regular Show’ to some extent, both of which ‘Adventure Time’ would go on to out last, ‘Adventure Time’ nonetheless remains an indelible mark in the history of Western Animation. Introducing a new and cute animation style that I will continue to defend when people describe it as the death of animation, and is what we really needed in an age when the world’s youth is experiencing record levels of depression. It may not have been a completely perfect package, there are still some plot threads left open by the end, as with many episodic series the quality can vary according to episode with a few weak episodes in the mix, although given it has 280 episodes it is impressive how few weak episodes there are. And then of course there’s its crushing length which can be a major turn off for many, but that is also one of it’s key strengths in how it wraps up into such a congealed whole.
The series has of course influenced many other cartoons than the ones I have named. ‘We Bare Bears’ is a series that likely wouldn’t exist with it, as would ‘The Amazing World of Gumball’ and ‘Star vs. the Forces of Evil’, at least in the forms we know of them. This influence also extends to outside of Cartoons, with the medium of children’s Comics adopting that cutesy style such as ‘Rat Girls’ and ‘Lumberjanes’And it’s not just children’s animation it has influenced either, as Adult Animation which has in the past usually extended it’s perceived maturity to adult situations and transgressive humour ended up taking on a new emotional core which extended beyond brief sentimentalities to becoming direct character studies of flawed individuals such as ‘Bojack Horseman’ and ‘Rick and Morty’ (despite the impression the fandom often gives of that series), in the process cementing themselves as being truly mature.
As for the future of the medium now that ‘Adventure Time’ has ended, it is worth noting it continues to flourish new series. ‘Bravest Warriors’, Pendleton Ward’s other Frederator series which has been broadcast online for the last few years is apparently going to have it’s continuation broadcast on television, making the most obvious artistic successor to ‘Adventure Time’. The series also continues to spread it’s influence through the people who worked on it, with Julia Pott who worked on the last few seasons releasing ‘Summer Camp Island’, ‘Steven Universe’ sending it’s own staff to create new series with Matt Burnett & Ben Levin making ‘Craig of the Creek’. Although not instantly associated with ‘Adventure Time’ the big one that many are anticipating is Owen Dennis from ‘Regular Show’ making ‘Infinity Train’ which based on the pilot looks to continue the era of engaging cartoon storytelling with what we hope ends up being Cartoon Network’s answer to ‘Gravity Falls’. Although I am also worried given the current state of Cartoon Network airing many of it’s series inconsistently and failing to advertise it’s series which would cause ‘Adventure Time’s ratings decline in it’s last few seasons. If these series have to be subjected to this sort of treatment then I also fear for their futures and for the generation of children who could really need them.
But to avoid ending on a dour note, I just want to say thank you to ‘Adventure Time’. Thank you to all the incredibly talented and incredible people who worked on it over the years, who took an entire medium into a forward step. Thank you for choosing to televise your little writer’s Dungeons & Dragons game into a truly Mathematical experience. I love my cute funky little lesbians, crazy ice man, plant ladies, disabled children, and rubber dogs. I love this series so, Thank You!