Kids’ television programs tend to be restricted to specific visual mediums. The most easily referenced examples of this would have to be animation and, um, well, that long line of TV shows that incorporate an unquestioned homogenous society of flesh-and-blood people with sentient puppets. It is, admittedly, easy to understand why the latter category (including programs like “Sesame Street”) is classified as “children’s programming” with the emphasis on educational values being preached to viewers. Cartoons, however, have come a long way since the anvil-dropping Looney Tunes days.
And that’s not a reference to outright “adult” cartoons like Family Guy. Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time has come to usher in a new era of animation where a primary intended demographic of children’s viewers doesn’t impede on the show’s use of advanced literary elements and general self-awareness that most cartoons are just not structured to include.
Adventure Time chronicles the odd escapades of step-brothers and buddies Finn and Jake, who tromp across a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland searching for adventures amongst the mutant humanoids of the post-modern world. Post-modern, that is, in both a literary and very literal sense of the term.
The “Mushroom War” as it is referred to in passing, is rarely mentioned in the passing of the episode-by-episode narrative. It would seem as if the fact the human race is annihilated is barely worthy of mentioning outside of the fact that Finn is known as the last human. Buses, tanks, submarines and nuclear warheads can be seen littering the backgrounds of the most desolate locales in the “Land of Ooo”—the name “Earth” is apparently forgotten along with the lives of its first dominant inhabitants. The planet itself is seen to be missing an enormous chunk of its mass during one of the few shots of the former Earth from space.
Finn and Jake, however, adventure on. If they’re not oblivious to the relics of bloodshed and destruction that dot their global playground, then they must not grasp the reality of the darkness life can bring. Their main concerns revolve around things like saving their home, the “Candy Kingdom” of mutant candy people, from laughable and inexplicable threats, playing video games, “dancin’ with babes”, or even cooking up “bacon pancakes”—a dish Jake loves enough to compose a catchy singsong ode to.
The main derivation from the accepted structure of a cartoon begins here. There is no pre-asserted moral to be packaged neatly and hand-delivered to the reader during the last thirty seconds of the episode. A story is presented, a story that usually centers on the two “bros” hanging out. The subtle, biting irony of the buddies’ general obliviousness to the state of the world is always present, but never overrides the focus on adventuring and “bro-ing out”. It’s not hard to miss the parallel that draws itself in this obliviousness between the protagonists and the primary demographic: young viewers are just as apt to miss the truly disturbing nature of this gruesome backstory as Finn and Jake are. In this sense, interpretations differ depending on the perspective of the viewer—structure becomes irrelevant. A decidedly normal plot in a world of absurd and trippy happenings. The subtraction of this forced moral lends the show a new, post-structural life—it becomes a story that exists for the sake of telling itself, and not for the simple purpose of bowling alley style mechanical realignment for the next comic plot and systematic dispensing of morals.
And for this underlying movement to happen, Adventure Time is forced into waters deeper than any cartoon has ventured before: character development. Spongebob Squarepants was undeniably the King of animated hits of the 90’s and early 2000’s, but it earned this title by the predictability of its characters. Spongebob and Patrick were as clockwork ridiculous as Squidward was thoroughly stuck-up. These things were as concretely guaranteed to the viewers as the daily cycle of the sun. And the formula was a huge success. Children knew what to expect from these characters and were glad when the same kinds of humor that they assign to them were systematically dispensed like one massive inside joke.
Adventure Time doesn’t necessarily need to be watched in order, but offers a classic coming-of-age tale as it unfolds itself and Finn grows up in a world that offers him little direction on what to be outside of the sometimes misguided views of his peers. Finn, a twelve-year old boy strangely immersed in a presumably extinct “bro” culture, has a soft spot for the eighteen year old Princess Bubblegum, monarch of the Candy Kingdom and even struggles with the developing of his own identity with his status as the last human and with his deceased adopted father’s expectations of him. His general frustration builds in slight as the plot progresses from season to season and his understanding of his own identity matures. In what seems like an upheaval of his own childish worship of the Princess, Finn eventually abandons his unrequited love of “PB” to pursue a realistic and (no matter how much a conservative viewer might deny it) decidedly sexual love interest—the edgy teen Princess of the Flame Kingdom. It’s in this way that Adventure Time presents itself as a rebellion against classic cartoon structure by doing something simultaneously groundbreaking and archaic: telling a common story.
That story is told with all of the genuine elements of life. One of those elements is sexuality, and the show’s production team is not intimidated by its TV-Y7 cap of a rating in incorporating this natural human tendency into the narrative of young Finn’s life. Princess Bubblegum is maternal in every way, as far as Finn is concerned—she is a literal authority, enforces rules and is always caring and diligent. In a very Freudian and childish way, it is understandable Finn would nurture a boyish crush on Peebles—he’s even seen suspiciously treasuring a lock of her hair until Jake interrupts him in “What Was Missing”. Finn’s shedding of this childish way of thinking, marked by his more mature relationship with Flame Princess, marks the beginning of his sexual awakening. There is nothing over the top or perverted about the presentation of this. In “Hot to the Touch” the older and more experienced Jake even explains his own “15 tier” system of the physical progression of relationships to Finn in a healthy and pseudo health-teacherly way. When Finn inquires what the final “15th tier” might be, Jake responds with great gusto, “You do NOT do that!” It is even debatably implied that Princess Bubblegum and the group’s edgy, punk-rocker vampires friend Marceline have shared lesbian frustrations toward one another in one very tense Season 3 episode, “What was Missing”. Sexuality is used in this episode as it
is in reality—just one factor in the social interactions between adolescent social classes (Marceline arguably representing the countercultural and PB the archetypal “preps”) and something to be kept hidden. All social norms governing relationships are questioned in a very postmodern vein of thought—there is no such thing as a traditional relationship or family in The Land of Ooo in much the same way that the idea of “normal” cannot exist stably in a society that is determined by, as Mikhail Baktin would put it, by “heteroglossia”—the simultaneous presence of many voices. Jake the magic dog is perfectly compatible with Lady Rainicorn, Princess Bubblegum’s pet unicorn-rainbow hybrid that speaks Korean and plays cello. Finn and Jake are step brothers that live without parents in a world of zero parental supervisions and a close network of friends that acts as a surrogate family—there is no concept of normalcy in a world where candy canes, vampires and hot dog knights coexist. The show is even bold enough to end Season 4 episode “Lady and Peebles” with the revelation that Lady Rainicorn is pregnant with Jake’s 5, um, “puppies”. They’re not married—this isn’t addressed as an issue
Adventure Time uses the same cliché characters that many other cartoons do, except with the deliberate intention of examining the structure of the cartoon as a medium itself. The presentation of the female regulars is a perfect example of the self-aware structuring of character development. Princess Bubblegum, for example, seems at first to have fallen into one of the classic sexist cop outs of cartoon casting—what I’d like to call the “female scientist” trope. It’s not hard to see why the trope is so heavily relied on. Writers are trapped into or are too conditioned by what has come before them writing weak female characters due to the conflicting problems of conditioning of audiences to invest in male characters and the demand for stronger feminine roles. The solution: let’s make her a scientist or something. Yes, I ‘m looking at you Sandy Cheeks. Though the role in question doesn’t necessarily need to be a scientist, by sloppily pasting the female character into a role of expertise the writer is absolved from accusations of sexism and from actually having to invest in the development of her character. The misogynist trope is overturned, somewhat ironically, by making Bubblegum a flawed character. PB shows the conflicting demands of the roles she plays in life; she is a political leader, a creative inventor of a scientist and more than any of these a teenager. From the very first episode of “Slumber Party Panic” onwards she excels in all three of these roles and occasionally makes mistakes in them, often resulting in Finn and Jake having to help her sort out a mess she caused. Even so, in exchange for the expected “damsel in distress” trope, the brothers are cast in a subservient position to Bubblegum and carry out missions by her assignment, not by some implied code of chivalry. Summing up Bubblegum’s character into one overall impression and attitude is near impossible—one would think this would be the rule rather than the exception with characters of both genders.
The Ice King, the show’s main reoccurring villain, shows that Bubblegum’s case isn’t an isolated one. Ice King isn’t accidentally made to seem pathetic by the events of the plot like the usual cartoon antagonist, but is inherently pathetic as a caricature of the stereotypical princess-nabbing villain plaguing children’s media in everything from video games to cartoons. His best friend is a penguin named Gunther. He sits alone in his ice castle emptying his insecurities into a video diary and disciplining Gunther for doing things like eating his socks. As the overarching narrative progresses, [Spoilers: if you aren’t caught up yet skip to the next paragraph!] we find out that before the apocalypse the constantly ridiculed Ice King was a respectable scientist whose brain was addled into a slowly degrading mental state morbidly similar to Alzheimer’s. His love for capturing princesses is explained to be a shadow of his former self’s doting on his long-gone fiancée “Betty”, whom he affectionately referred to as his “princess”. There is no solution presented to quick-fix this problem. A surface viewing of Adventure Time sees the Ice King as a farce of a villain whose pitiful life buys a couple of audience laughs. But the Ice King is a parody of the video games and cartoons that inspired Adventure Time; the Ice King is a sad commentary on the helplessness for family members of those with mental illnesses. The Ice King can be anything because he is a character and a character with natural dimensions and roots in reality. Adventure Time tells a story, after all, and a story needs characters.
Therein lies the great irony of the children’s cartoon that has become a hit among college audiences. It shouldn’t be a surprise that three-dimensional characters exist because any fictional story is based off of our real world—some real people might be shallow but nobody is literally two-dimensional. The irony is that we don’t find any in The Land of Ooo, a world so different from our own that it begs us to expect it.