Adventure Time – Not Just for Children

By Kai-Arne Zimny

Image cred­it: Fred Seib­ert @ flickr

It was long after mid­night. I was sit­ting in a fan­cy bar, killing time while wait­ing for my train home. I’d been at Com­ic Con in Berlin that week­end and had a free­bie with me, its pack­age promi­nent­ly fea­tur­ing the image of a clum­si­ly drawn car­toon char­ac­ter with a yel­low dog. I con­sid­ered keep­ing it in my bag, giv­en that this was some­thing you’d expect to see in the hands of a preschool­er, cer­tain­ly not in this set­ting dom­i­nat­ed by high heels, suave suits, and classy cock­tails. How­ev­er, upon sit­ting down, I proud­ly put the car­toon on the counter. Instead of tak­ing my order, the bar­keep­er set his gleam­ing eyes on the boy and his dog, smiled from ear to ear, and said only two words: Adven­ture Time.

What fol­lowed was a free whiskey for me and a pas­sion­ate dis­cus­sion about a car­toon show fea­tur­ing a twelve-year old boy named Finn and his mag­i­cal dog, Jake, who live in a can­dy king­dom. You might say this sounds like a sto­ry made for lit­tle kids. Actu­al­ly, it sounds like a sto­ry made ‘by’ lit­tle kids. But the very adult bar­keep­er told me in absolute earnest­ness that Adven­ture Time’s (2010 – 2018) final season’s finale, which he’d just seen and which had its pre­miere in Ger­many on that very day, had moved him to tears. Now why is that?

Best friends, Finn and Jake, live in a tree­house in the so-called Land of Ooo. Day in and day out they solve quests, fight off mon­sters of lit­er­al­ly ‘all’ kinds, and help sci­ence buff Princess Bub­blegum and her can­dy peo­ple – walk­ing, talk­ing cin­na­mon buns, lol­lipops, and ice cream cones. Also, Finn’s very elas­tic, talk­a­tive, and par­ty-lov­ing dog Jake has a Kore­an-speak­ing girl­friend that’s half-rain­bow, half-uni­corn. Rest assured, there are stranger things than those you see in Ooo where there’s a stag­ger­ing sur­prise around every col­or­ful corner.

At first, I stayed for the absur­di­ty, the com­e­dy, and the sheer fun. But a few episodes lat­er, I got the strong sense that not every­thing is as it seems here, that some­thing is rot­ten in the Land of Ooo. [Mild spoil­ers ahead]. My doubts were nur­tured by char­ac­ters non­cha­lant­ly drop­ping state­ments like “I thought humans were extinct” – state­ments easy to miss in the bizarre blur of Adven­ture Time. Sud­den­ly, some­one men­tioned “the mush­room war” hav­ing tak­en place in the dis­tant past. And didn’t we – just for a frac­tion of a moment – see a few atom­ic bombs, next to an old, bro­ken TV set in the intro? Could it real­ly be?

It takes the show sev­er­al sea­sons to deliv­er this nuclear bomb­shell twist bit by bit. Despite being the last human on what used to be Earth, Finn usu­al­ly wears a con­fi­dent smile with his cute bear-eared cap. Ooo’s implied post-apoc­a­lyp­tic his­to­ry is much more seri­ous for the view­ers than it is for the crea­tures liv­ing out their radioac­tive con­se­quences on screen.

One could claim the ter­ri­fy­ing back­sto­ry of the oh-so col­or­ful Land of Ooo is sym­bol­ic of the over­all dual nature of the show. There’s lots to see and laugh about when Finn and Jake go on their wacky adven­tures. How­ev­er, almost every episode is packed with smart, mean­ing­ful dia­logue or jokes that may go over the heads of very young view­ers. Also, with each sea­son,  the char­ac­ters grow along with their world and plot­lines. The eleven-minute episodes become more and more inter­con­nect­ed. In fact, most sto­ry­lines of Adven­ture Time get as deep and emo­tion­al­ly rel­e­vant as those of a good, live action TV dra­ma series.

Yes, Adven­ture Time is about a hero­ic boy, his mag­i­cal dog, and – of course – adven­ture. It’s also about grow­ing up, friend­ship, (unre­quit­ed) love, and being dif­fer­ent. Its sub­text is, if you’re will­ing to face it, incred­i­bly sad. And even one of the odd­est, out-of-this-world episodes can be touch­ing on a top­ic as seri­ous as liv­ing with a dis­abil­i­ty. Sil­ly, cute, epic, fun­ny, dra­mat­ic – despite its appear­ance, Adven­ture Time has got it all. Unlike oth­er adult car­toon shows, Adven­ture Time doesn’t rely much on cyn­i­cism, shock-val­ue, or cur­rent cul­tur­al con­text – of course, there’s noth­ing wrong with that, but it’s refresh­ing to watch an adult car­toon show with­out these ingre­di­ents. But wait, is Adven­ture Time a car­toon show for adults?

“The show is for kids more than any­one else,” series cre­ator Pendle­ton Ward com­ment­ed in an inter­view; how­ev­er, not with­out adding that he and his writ­ers were pri­mar­i­ly focused on cre­at­ing some­thing they them­selves enjoy.

The result is a car­toon show span­ning ten sea­sons that not every­one will – but can – enjoy, includ­ing you, me, and smart bar­keep­ers in fan­cy bars.

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