For a cartoon ostensibly created for children, Adventure Time remains uncompromisingly complex. The show employs elements of traditional fantasy and science fiction, video game culture and fast-paced, millennial dialogue to create an aesthetic project of enormous scope and ambition. The complex and often subversive nature of the show is not just apparent in the scope of its current and well-observed humour, but has its basis in the unconventional setting of the cartoon: the island of ‘Ooo’, a vast continent constituted of various kingdoms (‘the Fire Kingdom’, ‘the Candy Kingdom’ etc.), is in actuality a post-apocalyptic vision of Earth.
The creation myth of ‘Ooo’ begins in the aftermath of ‘The Great Mushroom War’, the surprisingly cute retelling of what is implied throughout the show to be a global-scale nuclear event. Whilst much of Adventure Time’s core audience, both pre-adolescents and marijuana enthusiasts alike, might describe the shows premise as, “A little boy, Finn, and his magical dog, Jake, live in a giant tree house and have adventures”, it is important to remember the post-apocalyptic context when considering the show’s deeper appeal. The world that Adventure Time inhabits is a stranger version of our own, a Technicolor reflection of Earth in a deeper sense than geographical.
The narratives presented in Adventure Time, despite often concerning anthropomorphic ‘Candy People’ or sentient games consoles, all have a specifically human focus, with enormous insight into the concerns of the audience. This is emphasised by the fact that the show utilises the ‘Harry Potter Effect’, whereby, unlike The Simpsons, in which the characters seem to have been stuck in an endless and terrifying Groundhog Day-style time loop, the primary characters in Adventure Time grow up alongside its cast of voice actors, and its audience. Finn, the protagonist of the show, is 12 in the first episode, ‘Slumber Party Panic’, in which he must act as bodyguard at a slumber party organised for the Candy People by their wise and occasionally despotic ruler, Princess Bubblegum. By the most recent episode, Finn is 16, and far from the localised concerns of the Candy Kingdom, prevents universal destruction at the hands (tentacles) of a cosmic deity named Orgalorg, by merging his spirit with that of an ancient and mystical comet. The show anticipates that its audience will inevitably grow up, and ensures that Adventure Time grows up with them.
In this way, Adventure Time can provide an unnaturally pertinent social and cultural commentary of a world only once removed from our own. A good example of this is a plot thread that concerns Princess Bubblegum’s position as ruler of the Candy Kingdom, a position that is represented with all the complexity and difficulty of a legitimate position of political power. Indeed, Adventure Time, through Bonnibel Bubblegum – a 1,000-year- old being of sentient bubblegum – introduces its audience to the problems of leadership, statehood, and opens up a dialogue concerning the various attributes of democracy, dictatorship and feudalism. In one episode, ‘The Cooler’, relations break down between the Candy and Fire Kingdoms, due in part to Princess Bubblegum’s interference with the newly appointed Flame Princess’s method of leadership, a fiery democracy as opposed to a saccharine dictatorship. In the same episode, it is revealed that Bonnibel has resorted to nationwide surveillance in order to make her job easier, a fact presented to the audience by the show as inherently problematic. In an era where Edward Snowden has a Twitter account and the debate over the politics of information can be contributed to by anyone, anywhere, with a few swipes at their iPhone, how Adventure Time raises issues of data privacy and surveillance in an organic and penetrating way is undeniably impressive. This political expose comes to a head in the most recent story arc, where the citizens of the Candy Kingdom decide for the first time to mount a democratic vote, deposing the despotic rule of Bubblegum and placing the ‘King of Ooo’, an earwax person and conman, in power. The way Adventure Time presents this is complex and subtle, addressing the multifarious problems of statehood and the importance of surface popularity in contemporary politics.
What most deeply appeals to me about the show, however, is its ruminations on more fundamental and ontological subjects, its discourse on love and death. I am happy to confess that Adventure Time is the only animated series that has had the power to cause me to both laugh and weep hysterically in the same ten-minute episode. This is perhaps best illustrated by the show’s antagonist Ice King, a former human, Simon Petrikov, corrupted by the power of a magical crown. Due to the anti-ageing properties of the crown, Simon is one of the only characters that predates the Mushroom War, allowing the audience to view in unflinching detail through flashback episodes the tragic progression of Simon as survivor of nuclear Armageddon, driven insane by the crown and disfigured into the series’ original villain. Many of the show’s most tragic moments come from Simon’s relationship with Marceline, an immortal vampire who as a child was taken in by Simon after the Mushroom Bombs fell. One of the effects of the magical crown on the Ice King is memory loss, setting up some troubling heartbreaking moments, with Simon, after a thousand years, unable to die and unable to recognise the closest thing he has to a daughter.
Under the guise of screwball comedy, Adventure Time has a profoundly optimistic view of the most fundamental aspects of life on earth. Not a single one of the issues I have mentioned is presented in a histrionic way and there are very few cliffhangers or ‘NEXT TIME ON…’ moments. Instead, such issues are shown to be intrinsic to the world the show depicts, facts of life that are addressed and resolved in realistic and rational ways.
In this way, Adventure Time is profoundly good-natured, willing only resolution to the problems it presents its audience but never settling for the conventional happy ending. It is, I believe, this aspect of the show that many viewers find so subversive. For a cartoon that prominently features characters that are literally made of candy, the show doesn’t sugar-coat any of the realistic issues the narratives presents us.