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How The Game-Changing 'Adventure Time' Explored The Human Psyche

Despite being set in the surrealist Land of Ooo, this unbelievable cartoon touched on the most important aspects of life
by Karen Mae De Vera | Sep 4, 2018
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After ten mathematical seasons, Finn the Human and Jake the Dog’s journey has come to an end as Adventure Time aired its series finale. The Cartoon Network show about a boy and his shapeshifting dog traversing the whimsical Land of Ooo stayed on air longer than what was expected and yet somehow, it didn’t feel enough. The show was around for almost a decade and basically raised the Gen Z kids (plus, a whole bunch of adults in the peripheral demographic).

Before AT came into the picture, Western animated cartoons for children in the early-to-mid-2000s could be easily identified between action-driven and comedic shows based on the art style. A series with overarching plotlines were usually drawn with more realistic proportions or in the superhero comic book style, and was set against a backdrop of darker or neutral tones. Shows like Ben10, Samurai Jack, and the anime-inspired Avatar: The Last Airbender were some of the most popular titles from that genre. The comedy toon plots were usually contained within an episode, characters were drawn in a simpler style, and backgrounds were drenched in eye-searingly bright colors. You’ve got shows like Chowder and Fairly OddParents—while the latter added more characters later on, it always returned to the status quo. If there were any exceptions, they were few and far between.

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Pendleton Ward’s cartoon could not be neatly categorized in the same manner. Adventure Time may have rainbow landscapes made of candy and thrive on comedic scenarios but all those trappings stored hidden depths rooted in realism. AT could have easily gotten away with merely featuring non-sensical speak and shenanigans and would have successfully captured its target audience. But Adventure Time wanted to do a deep-dive into the human psyche. This drew a large following of older viewers who appreciated the nuanced characters, surreal design, twisted jokes, hella catchy songs, and a solid narrative. The animated series never underestimated the intellectual and emotional capacity of children. Some moral guardians were even worried that the show may have overestimated its young viewers and slapped on a PG rating for good measure.

Adventure Time contained all the elements of a fantasy epic: the intrepid hero, the magical creature, the evil wizard, and the princess (make that plural). The main protagonist, Finn, started the show as a tween who’s always ready to fight. However, he struggled with insecurities and failures but eventually found emotional maturity as he aged (as does his voice actor Jeremy Shada) throughout the show. When Princess Bubblegum rejected Finn, he cried out all the pain and it took several episodes before he finally moved on. Jake may act really smooth, but is really anxious about his role as both Finn’s guardian and father to his Rainicorndog hybrid children. Even the ear-grating Lemongrab can be slightly sympathetic since he was created by Princess Bubblegum without knowing his true purpose. He blames PB for his existential crisis, finds his situation, uh, unacceptable, and lashes out at everyone.

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The most tragic character in the series is Ice King, who at first seemed like a cardboard cutout villain with a penchant for kidnapping princesses. The wizard would often interfere with Finn and Jake or obviously lure them to his castle. He turns out to be a very lonely individual with only penguins as his companions inside the castle.

Simon’s experiences were played out like the magical counterpart of dementia. There were moments were Finn and Jake treated him like shit even after the fact and you couldn’t help feeling bad for the guy.

In a sea of gung-ho cartoon heroes, several male characters in Adventure Time are emotionally vulnerable—a trait rarely encouraged in men. And when you’re a kid, you tend to identify with the fictional characters in media. Seeing characters who aren’t straight up black or white on the morality scale but are inherently flawed (and may do questionable actions) are far more relatable. A valuable lesson to teach both kids and adults is to be more honest with one’s feelings and never hesitate to talk to someone. Because even in this day and age, men are still pressured to push it down and keep it all in.

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Marceline was your typical rebellious character until she was revealed to be something more. As an immortal vampire, she experienced abandonment issues from both Simon, her father Hunson Abadeer, and even PB. She worries about outliving her loved ones and longs for the sweet release of death. Princess Bubblegum, the great ruler of the Candy Kingdom, deals with shouldering everyone’s burden at the cost of her personal relationships.

“Oh my glob!” could have been written off as Buffy Speak but the phrase actually hinted at a four-faced religious entity named Grob Gob Glob Grod, who plays a vital role in the story later on.

Most importantly, Adventure Time reminds us that every action has a lasting effect and may lead to consequences. Following the episode where both of Princess Bubblegum’s experiments are locked in an eternal laser battle, the opening credits reflect this change adding both Goliad and Stormo atop the Candy Kingdom castle. Once the Lich, one of the show’s antagonists, was released from the ancient tree, he terrorizes the citizens throughout the series and has even killed off characters. When Finn loses an arm, he continues adventuring in the later season with a cyborg replacement. Despite the Land of Ooo’s high fantasy design, there’s no quick fix that could solve problems nor does it bounce back to status quo at the beginning of the next episode. Not even the setting is safe from a heavy dose of realism. The whole magical world of Ooo was the result of nuclear fallout from the Mushroom War. The setting is revealed to be a post-apocalyptic Earth and the landscape was formed by decades of mutation.

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Adventure Time’s success set a new trend in the animation industry, proving that serious doesn’t necessarily mean dark and gritty. The Cartoon Network show housed some great talent who went on to make their own titles. In fact, former storyboard artist and songwriter for AT, Rebecca Sugar, created the popular show Steven Universe on the same network. Steven Universe features overt pro-LGBT themes and most recently, a lesbian wedding (which would have been unthinkable a decade prior). Patrick McHale, who also worked on the show, created an Emmy Award-winning animated mini-series called Over The Garden Wall, a cartoon that told American folklore in the visual style of a Hayao Miyazaki epic.

While not necessarily a direct influence, it paved the way for other quirky toons to get greenlit as well. CN had the recently concluded Regular Show, a workplace sitcom that later on revealed a sci-fi-driven storyline. Disney aired the likes of Gravity Falls, which was like the kiddie version of Twin Peaks with a lot less murder, and Star Vs. The Forces of Evil, a deconstruction of the magical girl genre strongly influenced by Sailor Moon.

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The simple and vibrant CalArts aesthetic may have been met with divisive reception recently due to a saturated market (See: the issue with the Thundercats and She-Ra reboot), but we still give credit to a show that pioneered a type of visual storytelling, which broke boundaries.

Adventure Time may have ended its reign, but the show’s legacy will live on in our hearts…and with comic book adaptations, video games, defictionalized TCGs, and a buttload of officially licensed (and bootlegged) merchandise.



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