Adventure Time with Finn & Jake, a cartoon set in the magical land of Ooo, presents a world of perpetual wonder: there are caves full of slumbering monsters, portals to the afterlife, ghosts, magic… anything and everything you need to have a good adventure. The protagonists of this world are Finn, a thirteen-year-old hero boy (secretly in love with Princess Bubblegum of the Candy Kingdom), and his best friend Jake, a talking, elasticated, shape-shifting dog.
When Adventure Time was first released, the appeal for children was readily apparent. The World of Ooo is beautifully created – its colours are vibrant, its characters often silly and playful. It features songs, action, scary monsters and cute candy people.
Yet what has elevated Adventure Time beyond commercial success, to widespread critical acclaim (Graham Linehan and the Simpson’s Matt Groening are professed fans), is the emotional heart of the show. Beneath the sugary (and incredibly enjoyable) exterior, the show explores serious adult themes in artful, and often devastatingly emotional ways – which is especially impressive given its eleven-minute-per-episode runtime.
Pendleton Ward, the show’s creator, cites Hayao Miyazaki’s animation My Neighbour Totoro as an influence, in that he wanted to create a show that ‘just makes you feel good inside when you watch it’. Although this seems like a very simple edict, it is easy to see why so many cartoons that don’t follow it provide little more than transient entertainment. In the dumbing down of character relations, in the omission of real emotions such as grief and heartbreak, many currently airing cartoons lack real depth and, therefore, that real feel-good feeling. Even Spongebob – another breakout, cross generational hit – has an emotional core that is so consistently positive and upbeat, that it rarely escapes this status quo to provide something more emotionally meaningful.
The emotions in Pendleton Ward’s Land of Ooo are richer, deeper and rooted in a dark past. Although never explicitly stated within the show, Adventure Time is set in a post-apocalyptic world, born from the rubble of the so-called ‘Mushroom War’. The world is littered with old, rusty cars, collapsed skyscrapers, and people (essentially mutants) using lo-fi remnants of technology. This continuous, subtle reminder of our current world ensures that, from the outset, the show’s reigning emotion is nostalgia – not the ‘everything was better in the 80s’ sort, but a deeper, romantic nostalgia that plays with your heartstrings and hits you right in the gut.
For example: There is an episode in which we learn that the show’s villain – The Ice King – had lost his true love (and his mind) in the apocalypse. Finn, our protagonist and the last human, has an ongoing quest to find out who his parents were. There are episodes about disappointing your fathers, and about suffering deep, unrequited love.
On that note, I’ll leave you with this clip in which a heartbroken Finn sings a song about his love for Princess Bubblegum, and Jake the Dog serenades the Fire Princess – whom he hopes will lift Finn’s spirits.