By Harry Coleman
Adventure Time is one of the most influential cartoons in recent years, it has not only captivated its target younger audience, but has also managed to garner an impressive adult following. The show has also won several Emmy’s and other awards over the years, and will no doubt influence many future cartoons in the years to come. Adventure Time at its simplest is a story about two best friends going on absurd adventures together, saving princesses and fighting evil, but in reality its so much more complex. The show relies heavily on the use of fantasy elements such as swords, monsters and princesses in a fantasy setting, and often includes many tropes consistent with the genres of Fairy tales and High fantasy. However, it also often subverts expectations, as many of the characters are twists on generic fantasy archetypes. The fantasy element is still prevalent and the show’s love for adventure is present in most of its episodes. Although Adventure Time is a strongly fantasy based cartoon, it is not afraid to inject some reality, and bring consequences to the seemingly innocent fantasy setting that the characters inhabit. Because of this, rather amusing things portrayed on screen are often revealed to have deeper, more serious implications. All of these things add up to give the show weight and substance. Which is probably why Adventure Time is so universally popular, because its world and its central characters have a surprising amount of depth, with most of the characters being relate-able to most people on some level, the core characters are also all developed well throughout the shows many seasons.
Adventure Time as a show contains many happy contradictions: it is silly but profound; it’s mature, but also kind of innocent. When asked to describe the universe he created Pendleton Ward stated, “It’s candyland on the surface and dark underneath, and that’s why it’s compelling, I think.”(Kleber, 2018). Adventure Time’s narrative can be initially seen as very episodic and non-linear, similar to shows like the Simpsons and South Park (Hartley, 2018). However, after enough episodes it becomes evident that the plot is actually fairly intricate and the overall story told throughout the series is actually a coming of age story for the main protagonists Finn and Jake (Kleber, 2018). Many animated shows don’t invest enough time on character development. This is not the case with Adventure Time, since over the years fans have got to witness Finn mature into a young man especially in regards to his relationships and his feelings, and Jake becomes a father and is more responsible as a result, however he didn’t lose the fun and goofy essence that made him great as a character to begin with (Mills, 2018). Because of this, the show satisfies both the casual viewer and the devoted fans alike, as each of its short episodes can be watched completely out of order and still feel like its own little satisfying self contained story with a beginning, a conflict, a resolution and a satisfying end. Adventure Time has become a pop culture icon. It may have taken some time to gain traction initially but once it did, it hasn’t stopped. One of the biggest reasons for this has to be the characters on the show. While Finn and Jake are the main protagonists, there story is just one of many told throughout the shows many episodes, and there are lots of interesting side characters who have become equally beloved by the fan-base (Mills, 2018). People could relate to the characters including Princess Bubblegum, Ice King, Lemongrab, Lumpy Space Princess and Marceline to name a few. There are plenty more but nearly every character on the show gained devoted followings such as cosplayers and Tumblrs dedicated to them or even articles just based solely on them (Mills, 2018). Adventure Time’s land of Ooo in which the shows characters reside even has a rich and interesting backstory, as it was actually the aftermath of a nuclear war that wiped out civilisation but unleashed magic back into the world (Kleber, 2018). This story is mostly told without the plot needing to explain what happened, the audience instead gets an idea of the backstory through hints presented on screen (Hartley, 2018). Adventure time has cemented its loyal adult audience through these longer-term narrative constructs, and world building.
It can be seen that Adventure Time takes place in a fantasy setting, and gets many of its inspirations from the Fantasy genre. Andrew Rayment wrote a book about what defines the genre of fantasy, he explains that any text which has elements that would usually be considered outside the bounds of ‘normal’ experience, in other words, any text with fantastic elements could fall under the category of ‘fantasy’ (Rayment, 2014). Adventure Time fits this description fairly well and is similar to classic fairy tales such as Hercules and Beauty and the Beast. However it pushes the boundaries of what defines fantasy and often parodies the genre as a whole, as it tackles many of the genres tropes in an offbeat way (Rayment, 2014). With many of the characters and situations on the show being unique twists on already established genre rules. For example, Instead of a brave and strong knight, the show features a “twelve year old boy with strong morals”. Instead of a brave steed sidekick, Finn is escorted by his best friend Jake (who happens to be a magic dog). Instead of battling an evil wizard, the Ice King usually comes off as crazy and confused in an almost sympathetic way (“Adventure Time / Analysis – TV Tropes”, 2018). As a result of this Adventure Time can be seen as a sort of “parody” of the fantasy genre as a whole, with an abundance of humour and its simplistic, colourful style (Rugnetta, 2018). By doing this the show has the ability to subvert the audiences expectations, and consistently delivers new and refreshing experiences that keeps them interested and wanting more (“Adventure Time / Analysis – TV Tropes”, 2018).
For kids Adventure Time is most likely appealing as it probably looks a lot like what they imagine the world to be like in there heads, as its filled with exciting sights, magical objects and impossibly terrifying things. For many adults the core appeal of Adventure Time is it’s nostalgia, as watching Adventure Time can feel like remembering parts of your childhood (Rugnetta, 2018). Although Finn can be characterised as a bit of a silly protagonist, he is also quite relate-able as watching him struggle to be taken seriously and facing new and unfamiliar challenges reminds us what growing up was like (Vanderwerff, 2018). This feeling of nostalgia is a powerful mix of good and bad, as it is essentially the feeling of fondly remembering something only to realise its now unattainable (Niemeyer, 2014). In “Nostalgia of the future”, Svetlana Boym writes. “The object of romantic nostalgia must be beyond the present space of our experience, somewhere in the twilight of the past or an island of utopia where time has happily stopped.”(Boym, 2001). Adventure Time evokes this romantic nostalgia perfectly. Well written and likeable characters that have lots of depth is what allows audiences to fully identify and relate with them on a more personal level, making it easier to put oneself in the position of the character onscreen and evoke this feeling of romantic nostalgia for the long past days of childhood (Rugnetta, 2018).
While I may be biased by my love of the show, I really believe that Adventure Time is one of the most influential cartoons in recent years, as it has successfully managed to captivate its target younger audiences, as well as establish a large presence in popular culture and garner an impressive adult following. Adventure Time achieved this feat by pushing the boundaries of what defines fantasy, as it often parodies the genre as a whole and tackles many of the genres tropes in an offbeat way, giving the show the ability to subvert the audiences expectations, and consistently deliver new and refreshing experiences to keep them interested and wanting more. Adventure Time also puts great care into the way it tells its narrative as it not only tries to satisfy the casual viewer with each episode serving as a self contained story, but also tries to build overarching story’s in order to develop its characters and world, all of the world building and relate-able characters are more appealing to a more grown up audience. Finally, Nostalgia also plays a big role in the shows success, as the core appeal of Adventure Time to most adults is the nostalgia it evokes, as watching Adventure Time can feel like remembering bittersweet parts of your childhood. Adventure Time ushered in a new era of original programming and animated shows representing more. Shows such as Steven Universe, Regular Show and The Amazing World Of Gumball are all fine examples of this. Adventure Time forever raised the bar for all future cartoons to produce content that isn’t just “random for the sake of being random.” It breathed new life into the genre and started a new age of cartoons.
Adventure Time / Analysis – TV Tropes. (2018). Retrieved from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Analysis/AdventureTime
Boym, S. (2001). The future of nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.
Ewalt, D. (2018). It’s Adventure Time! Pendleton Ward Talks About His Hit Cartoon. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidewalt/2011/11/15/its-adventure-time-pendleton-ward-talks-about-his-hit-cartoon/#56bde3015c69
Hartley, J. (2018). Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts (3rd ed., p. 154).
Kleber, J. (2018). The Progressive, Grown-Up Appeal of Adventure Time. Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/140225/progressive-grown-up-appeal-adventure-time
Mills, R. (2018). The Impact Of ‘Adventure Time’ Is Immeasurable. Retrieved from https://hiddenremote.com/2016/10/02/the-impact-of-adventure-time-is-immeasurable/
Niemeyer, K. (2014). Media and nostalgia.
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Rugnetta, M. (2018). Is Nostalgia the Reason for Adventure Time’s Amazing Awesomeness? | Idea Channel | PBS. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/7MVvkqbXiws
Vanderwerff, T. (2018). Adventure Time has become this era’s finest coming-of-age story. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/culture/2015/11/22/9779088/adventure-time-stakes-review