No really, what time is it?
I’ve just woken up from a five-season Adventure Time binge. It’s embarrassing to to add up all those hours in my head, spent essentially watching a post apocalyptic cartoon about a boy and his dog. I’m a late-comer to the program, which as it turns out is probably the best thing that could have happened. The show has one of the most refined narratives of any show out there. It is finely distilled storytelling, handed out in eleven-minute chunks.
Don’t judge me.
For those uninitiated to the series: The show takes place around 1000 years after the world has been destroyed by a war…( and by destroyed, I mean there is literally a bite missing from the earth.) Over the course of a thousand years, new species have arisen, candy can talk, and magic has returned to the world. Finn is essentially, the last human being, residing in a tree house with a mutant dog, living every thirteen year old boy’s dream–pillaging dungeons, saving princesses, and generally living on his own terms.
The show is 11 minutes long, which in most cases–and especially for an Oldie Hawn like myself–smacks of the short-attention-span-MTV generation, appealing only to those kids with learning disabilities and ADD from too much texting and Youtube. I suppose that’s why I avoided the show, thinking I just wouldn’t get it. It’s a show for 14 year old boys after all, not someone at an age where they should be looking into retirement plans.
We watched the first couple of shows out of curiosity and actually backed away from it, blinking our eyes, wondering what the hell we had just seen. The show moves fast, the story told at a seemingly random pace, with a style that is one part 1920s animation and one part Ren and Stimpy. We didn’t resume watching for maybe a month or two after that.
Our lives were in a state of upheaval during this time. We were both unhappy living in the Silicon Valley, and had decided to move, to get away, so that I could write full time and my wife could finish her degree. So it wasn’t until we were settled again in Idaho that we resumed our viewing… and we watched a lot.
We plunged in, finishing the first season with relative ease, drawn into the narrative by the quick wit and subtly subversive (and suggestive) adult humor. There is just enough winking and nodding between the lines, that after a while, one has a hard time believing it was conceived as a kid’s show at all. It’s pretty dark, folks.
It gets darker. By season two, the stories become downright Lovecraftian, bordering on unbridled adult horror. In fact, much of the show is horror themed, it’s just that in a cartoon you can get away with a lot–they aren’t real people after all, just drawings. If this were done in live action, I’m pretty certain it would be nightmare inducing. The long-term story arcs begin to emerge like those Magic Eye posters after you’ve stared too long, and suddenly the real message pops out at you. It becomes apparent that the childlike, cartoon skin, is really just the surface illusion for ideas and themes that would probably be too dark for many adults.
And yet, I was surprised when I mentioned my discovery of this show on Facebook. The backlash of “Um, you’re an adult?” or “It’s a kids show” returned on my comments feed. I wasn’t embarrassed at all about this discovery. But I did feel sad.
I’ve learned to ignore people who try and tell me what I can and can’t like in the world, but it’s still sad to see that people will still try and tell you anyway. But beyond that, these were writers, people who watch Walking Dead and True Blood, people who won’t bat an eyelash at The Hobbit, yet just because a show has the outward appearance of a children’s show, they dismiss any chance that there could be something gleaned from it. I wasn’t talking about My Little Pony here.
Let me break down the major themes:
- Finn, the last human boy on earth is abandoned and raised by shapeshifting mutant dogs.
- He grows up with Jake, his brother/friend, living in a treehouse (also a mutation) where the last video game console runs amok.
- Candy has evolved through fallout mutation to become a sentient, talking species. There is sometimes cannibalism.
- Mutant unicorns speak Korean and consider human flesh a delicacy.
- Mutant dogs and unicorns can mate and produce nightmares
- Demons occasionally walk the earth like Cthulhu and devour souls leaving nothing but wandering husks.
- Finn’s sometimes-girlfriend is a fire elemental.
- The major villains in the show have a backstory richer and sadder than Severus Snape.
Now, let’s slowly tear off the skin of the cartoon and get to the raw storytelling. There’s a few factors that play in my mind when I watch Adventure Time. For one, Finn is the only human, and it’s likely that after a thousand years, language has changed considerably, with English falling along the wayside like Latin or Esperanto. Therefore we don’t really know what language is really being spoken in Ooo. The story is told from Finn’s perspective, where all these things I listed above are normal. He lives in a land of mutant dogs and talking candy, which without the cartoon imagery, probably look a lot more like this.
We should also mention that Finn is colorblind.
This is Finn’s world and we see the story through his eyes. Demons and dragons walk the earth, dogs can change their mass and shape at will, teen vampires write songs out of boredom, wizards and sentient bubblegum debate religion against science, and mutants wait underground, preparing to overtake the world again.
Do not be fooled by the cartoon skin. Adventure Time is every bit as adult as The Road Warrior.