Cartoon Network was the epitome of genius animation and storytelling in the 1990s. Whether it was the Powerpuff Girls battling Mojo Jojo or Dexter hiding his experiments from his family, each show served laughter, chaos, and heartfelt moments audiences loved. But as time went on, television became more focused on reality shows, character development, and remaining current. Then in 2010, creator Pendelton Ward’s idea of an animated show following a teenage boy and his talking dog caught the attention of Cartoon Network. That show is known as Adventure Time, an epic saga airing for practically a decade. During its 10 seasons, fans tuned in weekly to the half-hour slot showing two episodes of the series back to back. Adventure Time is arguably one of Cartoon Network’s best animated shows since Teen Titans.
The main protagonists in the magical land of Ooo are: a 12-year-old boy named Finn, who loves helping people by fighting bad guys; Princess Bubblegum, the 18-year-old ruler of the Candy Kingdom; and Jake, a shape-shifting, talking dog. The antagonist, however, is rather ambiguous, with both hero and villain sharing fault. Concepts like spirituality and death are analyzed through the lens of immortality. Finally, romance takes a backseat despite the show following an aging teenage boy. Here’s a look at the genius storytelling of Adventure Time.
Jake the Sage: Do Character Arcs Really Matter?
According to No Film School, character development is either internal, as in a character’s motivations and goals, or external, as in the experiences that can transform and potentially change a character’s trajectory. A character’s arc, specifically externally, often needs a catalyst and a sage. Adventure Time gave audiences both catalyst and sage in one character: Jake, the shape-shifting, talking dog. When Jake isn’t making bacon pancakes or spending time with his girlfriend, Lady Rainicorn, he is caring for Finn. In true older brother fashion, Jake is able to sense when Finn needs to get out of the treehouse and go on an adventure. Jake serves as the idiom “iron sharpens iron” incarnate.
Yet, Jake wasn’t written to be a one-dimensional catalyst; he was brilliantly written as the sage. He diverges from the sage trope by being old enough to guide younger characters. Due to Finn being a character, who ages from 11 to 18 years of age without a true father figure, when he is confused, Jake often has a pearl of wisdom ready for him. One of the best pearls Jake offers Finn is: “Dude, sometimes sucking at something is the first step towards being sort of good at something,” (Season 1, Episode 25). Characters like Jake open the doorway for older characters to be sages and catalysts rather than being pigeonholed into one trope.
The Real Villain (Hint: It’s Not Ice King)
Every story needs a villain to act as the catalyst for the protagonist’s growth. This is the second element of Adventure Time’s genius: the villain can also be the hero, depending on the situation. At first glance, the apparent villain of the show should be Ice King. He kidnaps the princesses of Ooo, uses other wizards’ powers for his own gain, and spies on practically everyone in Ooo. But as his story unfolds, it becomes heartbreakingly evident that Ice King is a victim of his human self, known as Simon, who was pursuing the collision of science and magic.
By being a victim to his own insanity, he becomes a shining example of the pursuit of forces unknown, like magic. His ethos is to be happy at the expense of others while also not recognizing how much disorder he causes. Yet upon re-entering Marceline’s life, Ice King becomes more of an aid to other wizards and reduces his spying and kidnappings. This duality Ice King shows does not make him an outright villain. Rather, the outright villain is the concept of human mistake. Ice King was once a human who found a magic crown that gradually drove him to insanity and amnesia. Even Finn can be the villain, specifically in his romantic pursuits.
Princesses and Finn: Why Romance is Not on Fire
Finn the Human Boy is 12 years old and loves several things: fighting bad guys, Jake, B-Mo, and his sword. Over two years, he develops a massive crush on Princess Bubblegum, who is 18 and rejects him for being too young. Finn becomes depressed and Jake takes it upon himself to find Finn an age-appropriate girlfriend. Jake finds her in the Fire Kingdom imprisoned by her father. Once Flame Princess is free, she and Finn become a couple. Often, teenage romances in movies and TV shows encounter a major obstacle, putting the characters in question at a crossroads: remain together or separate. In Finn and Flame Princess’ case, Finn put his wants before Flame Princess’, which led to the end of their relationship (Season 5, Episode 30).
Finn really liked Flame Princess, but in this one instance, he became the villain. Post-break up, Finn refocuses on helping people and romance takes a backseat, leaving room for Finn to become more self-aware. When a character’s development becomes more extrinsic than romantic, the character becomes more three-dimensional and can accomplish goals that potentially impact the whole rather than the self.
Death and Immortality: The Story of Marceline the Vampire Queen
Despite its TV-PG rating, Adventure Time covers the topic of death in a fascinating manner: through the lens of immortality. Marceline the Vampire Queen is an immortal bass guitarist who likes to make people panic for fun. As a half human and half demon, she survived the Mushroom War and began hunting vampires to protect the remaining humans. Over the span of eight episodes in Season 7, Marceline confronts the five vampires she hunted a thousand years prior, four of which share titles of tarot cards.
The concept of death is scary: either it is too crass to discuss, or it can be perceived as creepy obsession. But an immortal being like a vampire, who is 1000 years old, has watched death too many times to count. This actually brings a sense of peace to death because Marceline’s immortality shows that life continues on after things like war. While it may be difficult to conceive this about ourselves as individuals, the way the creators of Adventure Time handle it makes even the ending of the show easier to accept.
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