It’s difficult to describe Adventure Time. It’s a series of stories about a young boy and his loyal dog searching for adventure, but set in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war, of which a magical world emerged from the ruins.
It’s a show I can watch with my 4-year-old son, one we both genuinely enjoy. It manages to capture our attention together, each 11-minute episode telling an exceedingly simple tale, but set in the context of an ever-expanding universe and mythology.
Adventure Time started with a deceptively simple concept – Finn (the human) and his canine companion Jake (who can stretch his rubbery body into any form imaginable), would set off and get into trouble together. Their primary antagonist was the comically villainous Ice King, who wished to capture and forcibly marry Princess Bubblegum, ruler of the Candy Kingdom.
So far, so familiar. What exactly the Candy Kingdom was, and where the Ice King came from, didn’t need an explanation – it was a Super Mariostructure, boasting a kingdom, a princess, and a not-too-threatening bad guy. Rinse and repeat, right?
Wrong. The story of the gentle Candy Kingdom and the deluded Ice King was merely the tip of a gargantuan iceberg, a monstrous mythology that would expand into a multiverse, and beyond.
Animation legend Hayao Miyazaki is known for writing his film during production, describing his creative process thusly: “It’s not me who makes the film. The film makes itself and I have no choice but to follow.”
The creators of Adventure Time didn’t drip-feed the audience a pre-planned story – they crafted one as they went along. As the great J.R.R. Tolkien said of his epic, “this tale grew in the telling.”
And the tale of Adventure Time would eventually reach some very dark places, yet, somehow, never stopped oozing optimism and positivity, with friendship and love being the only constants in a chaotic universe.
One of the first signs that something was amiss in the Land of Ooo, was the appearance of humanoid zombies, frozen in blocks of ice, known only as the Business Men. While the creatures didn’t threaten Finn and Jake, they were an eerie remnant from a past age, only capable of understanding the world through a dull, corporate lens. The Land of Ooo was clearly not their natural habitat, and seeing as Finn seemed to be the only human left alive, questions arose.
The lore of Adventure Time would eventually unravel through multiple, seemingly unconnected episodes, some providing a tiny piece of the puzzle, others merely hinting, and multi-episode epics answering the really big questions.
The series gradually revealed that a nuclear war, known as The Mushroom War, almost destroyed the world, annihilating our current civilization and sparking a weird new one, the radiation seeding strange forms of life.
Princess Bubblegum was no 19-year-old damsel-in-distress – she was an ancient, hugely intelligent lifeform that emerged from an irradiated lump of chewing gum, a mad(?) scientist who built an entire kingdom, populating it with subservient, simple-minded candy people.
But Bubblegum wasn’t the only simple-on-the-surface archetype who fleshed out into a complex character capable of supporting their own series – almost every character with a speaking role seems to have a story worth telling.
The Ice King, the original antagonist, changed from a princess-obsessed aggressor into a deeply sympathetic oddball. Through a series of flashbacks, the cold-hearted sorcerer was revealed to be a confused old man, the victim of an ancient curse, and at heart, an immensely good person.
Each character has evolved substantially since the series inception, as has the world of Ooo. Which is interesting, perhaps even groundbreaking, seeing as most animated children’s series tend to deeply underestimate their audience, keeping characters static and resetting the story at the end of each episode. It’s patronizing, really; children’s lives are all about change, and they’re certainly capable of understanding it on screen.
Young children watching Adventure Time from the outset will have grown up with Finn, as the previous generation grew up alongside Harry Potter. Watching Finn develop (even keeping the same voice actor), from a dumb kid looking for a fight, into an emotionally balanced pacifist, reflects their own personal growth into adulthood.
While the direction of each episode can veer wildly, the theme of change is ingrained throughout. The characters are revealed to have past lives, different timelines, even gender-swapped doppelgangers that exist in fanfictions. People and circumstances change constantly; purity leads to corruption, and redemption can arise in even the darkest soul.
My favorite example of change within Adventure Time is the story of the Lich, Finn’s most frightening antagonist. While the Lich is essentially evil incarnate, a single-minded killing machine, planning to invade and annihilate millions of worlds with an army of ancient evildoers, he is stopped not by Finn’s blade, but by a blob of rejuvenating, life-giving … stuff. The healing substance Finn tosses at the Lich “heals” the skeletal creature, transforming it into an innocent baby, Sweet P, who soon joins the cast of characters as another friend.
It’s a beautiful message, and a great twist on the typical, paradoxical solution – to kill the evildoer, destroy violence with violence. And that unique approach to morality, of good and evil occurring in every individual, is a hugely important aspect of life that the vast majority of children’s fiction out there refuses to acknowledge.
But there’s one particular aspect of Adventure Time which I find unique, something that I think really speaks to the current generation. We’re living in a strange time, in which we are constantly told that humanity is on the brink of annihilation. Political and financial instability, the threat of nuclear war, and environmental collapse is part of our narrative, a poisonous inheritance that we didn’t ask for.
That might be why we’re drawn to stories of immense destruction and outright apocalypse; giant monsters, robots, zombies, superheroes and supervillains fighting to the death in crumbling cities. We’re doomed, or so the stories suggest.
But Adventure Time tells a tale of a world utterly annihilated through human stupidity, then regrown from the ashes, weirder and more wonderful than ever before, a hodgepodge of oddities fused together with toxic waste and chewing gum. I haven’t seen such a positive depiction of environmental apocalypse since Wall-E.
Sadly, Adventure Time is set to end tonight, with the Candy Kingdom drawn into war, Princess Bubblegum keen to send her candy minions to die, and Finn desperately trying to prevent the pointless bloodshed. However the story ends, it won’t just feel like the end of a beloved series, it will feel like the end of an era.
Adventure Time taught us that change is inevitable, sometimes for the worst, and often beyond our control. But the end always marks a new beginning. We should be thankful that the show went on far longer than anyone anticipated, and even expanded beyond itself, with many of the animators inspired to go out and create unique, bold animation like Over the Garden Wall and Steven Universe.
A new, golden age in animation seems to have been inspired by Adventure Time, and judging from modern-day phenomena like Elsagate, we desperately needed it.
We all require emotionally complex stories, children especially, and while one great tale is about to end, others are already rising from the ashes.