‘I’ll get us out, with key hand!’
– Jake, Adventure Time
So began my love of this cartoon. During some absent-minded channel-flicking with a good friend of mine, I watched a dumpy little dog speak, and then his hand take the shape of a key. It was so wonderfully ridiculous, it had my friend and I laughing hysterically for longer than I’d care to admit.
But it is so much more than a bizarre cartoon.
Adventure Time primarily follows Finn, seemingly the last human in the world, and Jake, a magical dog. Several other characters include Marceline the Vampire Queen, the Ice King, and a whole host of different Princesses. As a kids’ show, this is great for its vibrant and playful ambience. Adventure Time goes a step beyond this though. Instead of having us accept the strange world for what it is, it tries to explain how it became that way.
Why is Finn the only human? Why is there a magical dog? Why are there strange characters made of candy? Many other cartoons, and indeed TV shows, wouldn’t bother to answer these questions. In fantasy realms there are certain things that simply are, and to enjoy the show we have to assume that their existence is a given, that they are as natural to that world as gravity is to ours. Adventure Time doesn’t force this acceptance onto us though. In the opening theme, the world is seen to have a huge chunk missing, evidence of some calamity that occurred in the past. Other episodes centre on past events in the show’s lore, and there are numerous instances where ‘the Great Mushroom War’ is mentioned in passing. Most believe this to be a World War that ended in nuclear catastrophe.
That’s a dark turn for a Cartoon Network show, huh? Adventure Time doesn’t shy away from other more adult issues either, and as a result has gained a large following outside of Cartoon Network’s typical demographic. It’s an interesting concept; most cartoons do contain some adult humour, presumably to entertain parents who are forced to sit through them. For me though, Adventure Time‘s originality comes from its refusal to treat children as children.
Importantly, that is not to say that it purposefully broadcasts inappropriate material. A balance is struck between whimsical wonder and profound philosophy. In Finn The Human, Finn wishes that the Lich, the ultimate villain, ‘never, even ever, existed’. We then witness the alternate timeline, in which things turn out much worse. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to watch this cartoon as a child. I’m not sure if the kinds of questions such a story raises are beyond the understanding of a child, but I’m inclined to think not. With the intense themes come simple, accessible lessons such as, ‘Sucking at something is the first step to being sort of good at something’ and ‘The mark of a great hero is his flaw’.
As an adult though, I find Adventure Time to be a really fun way to experience many classic storytelling tropes, and it’s something that I don’t necessarily have to label a guilty pleasure because of both its content and its growing adult following. The characters are cute, endearing, and relatable, and the stories are bizarre, entertaining, and somehow find ways to reflect reality. What more could you ask for?