Why Adventure Time Is Awesome 2013-01-01
I've spent a large chunk of my holiday downtime watching Adventure Time. I've just finished the third season, and am enjoying every moment of it. It's one of the best shows I've come across in years. I wanted to talk a bit about what makes it so great. Warning, spoilers ahead.
Adventure Time is a cartoon about a boy (Finn), and his magical dog (Jake), and their adventures in the fantastical land of Ooo. It's full of a lot of random sillyness broken up by some surprisingly deep moments. Even the most often recurring villain is a someone you can sympathize with(though he is still comically evil enough for the kids). And there are some characters, like Marceline in particular, who seem expertly crafted to speak to certain people about what they're feeling, but not always in an overt way. It manages to do all of this in a mere eleven minutes.
Nothing in Adventure Time's world is normal. There are "tiny house people", who are, well, tiny houses. There's a snow golem who, when he leaves his house, puts a round-stick thing around his face. why? I dunno, but it's awesome!
If you were to ask me to draw a dragon, it would look something like a dragon informed by european or chinese folklore, easily recognizable and completely devoid of creativity,
This is a dragon from Adventure Time:
I don't oven. How do you trick your brain into letting you draw things like this when you hear "dragon"?. I'm not sure how, but they've figured it out over there.
Cuteness as cover
Everything in Adventure Time is smeared with cuteness, much in the way science fiction uses aliens and/or sciencey things to euphemistically talk about more mundane things, Adventure Time uses cuteness for similar purposes.
The world in Adventure Time is actually a post-apocalypic wasteland where Finn may be the last surviving human. Civilized cute-people are constantly being attacked, eaten, kidnapped, killed, or otherwise dimished by the horrible things around them.
It's a horrible place to be, and it does need heroes. It's also a place cute and silly enough that that hero can be a teenage boy.
Each episode is eleven minutes long, this is half the length of a normal half-hour cartoon. Having to fit everything into such a short timespan focuses the creators on making sure each minute has the maximum communicative capacity, and fluff is minimized, they rely on songs often, which allow emotional content in particular to be understood in less time. Exposition is usually to the point, and done in a way that works well with Finn's eagerness to jump at any problem that needs a hero to solve it. Action scenes are always appropriate in length (some cartoons really overdo this). The choice to do eleven minute episodes keeps the show extremely precise and focused.
Deftly handling pubescent frustration.
Society talks very little about what puberty does to little boys. In a short peroid of time, you have to turn from an adorable little boy into a man, just as your body floods your brain with chemicals that make you unstable and clamps down on the emotional parts of your brain that would normally help you process what's going on. It's really pretty horrible, doubly so since it's really hard for people to talk openly about.
Finn (who is 13 years old in the episode I'm up to) is struggling with the adorable innocent boy and the sex-crazed man that all boys that age are dealing with. As the show needs to remain kid-friendly, most of this is handled with subtext, or veiled jokes (see next section). But the writers accurately show the duality that boys that age have.
It's revealed that Finn keeps a bit of Princess Bubblegum's hair that he uses for his "special time", but, again, to keep the show kid-friendly, sexual feelings are mostly denied or played for laughs.
In "Wizard Battle", Finn enters the annual wizard battle, not to win the kiss from Princess Bubblegum, but to 'save' her from being kissed by someone else. In the end he confides in Jake that he wants to kiss her and that hiding his feelings is exhausting.
Another example is in "Marceline's Closet", Finn and Jake are hiding in Marceline's closet, trying to sneak out so she wont kill them. About three quarters through the episode, Finn sneaks out to see if the coast is clear, while Marceline is bathing, Finn sees her (presumably) naked, blushes, immediately sneaks back into the closet and says, with wide-eyes, "I'm not going back out there". Finn feels ashamed of how he feels, again, something that should speak to boys of that age.
Intentionally Ambiguous Subtext
A lot of deeper things happen just outside of earshot of the kiddies. Sometimes this is just tell adult jokes, but it is occasionally used to speak very different messages to different groups of people. It's even used as a way to communicate emotion alone.
For example, in "What Was Missing", A "door lord" steals the item most precious to a buch of the show's characters. Finn loses his glob of Princess Bubblegum's hair that he uses for his "special time" (see sexual frustration above), Jake loses his favorite blanket. Princess Bubblegum and Marceline join Finn and Jake to get their stuff back. Trapped at a door that will only open to music, Marceline sings the absolutely divine and emotional "I'm Just Your Problem" about how badly she feels Princess Bubblegum treats her. At the end of the episode it's revealed that the precious item that Princess Bubblegum lost was a t-shirt that Marceline gave her a long time ago.
There are many possible interpretations for this, and what you feel when watching the episode reflects on who you are. Most adults have people with whom they were extremely close with (especially when they were teenagers) only to later drift apart, sometimes over trivial reasons, sometimes not. So this scene can speak to innocence that both Princess Bubblegum and Marceline lost as they got older. However, being a life-long bisexual, who was especially active with the ladies in my teen years, I relate this more with a particular relationship (actually a series of relationships, we were on and off often) I've spoken vaguely about before.
If they had fully explained what exactly happened, or if Princess Bubblegum had simply lost her favorite sciencey thing, it would have had no impact. The writers of the show explicitly chose to imbue that scene with subtext to let us feel what it means ourselves, through our own hearts.
Feeling totally math,