To get a good sense of precisely why Adventure Time, a Cartoon Network show ostensibly aimed at kids, has gathered such a cult audience around the world, you only need to look at the way it ends its episodes.
Take, for instance, the episode where they go hunting in a forest to find a crystal apple for a pygmy elephant. It’s the Macguffin of the 10 minute story, and once found, said pachyderm – named Tree Trunks, for no discernible reason – takes a bite of the apple and disappears to a crystal realm, laughing. The episode ends.
Or, take the episode where Jake and Finn, the dog and human team who go on all these adventures, are evicted from their tree-house by super-cool vampire Marcelline. That episode closes with a group of psychic worms glaring out of the screen.
That sums up the massive appeal of Adventure Time; it is just a show about two silly characters getting up to lots of crazy, nonsensical exploits. The clue’s in the name. It captures the feeling of going on an adventure – and the two seasons now available on Netflix UK are a great place to start.
A basic intro may be required here, as the show itself doesn’t offer one. Finn, possibly the last human alive, and Jake, a shape shifting dog, live together in a tree-house in the land of Ooh, made up of multiple fantasy kingdoms (for instance., the Candy Kingdom and the Ice Kingdom). They go on journeys through these kingdoms, often battling the Ice King (who steals princesses) and trying to win the heart of Princess Bubblegum. Most episodes, they just want to have a good time.
This set up allows for total, unrestrained creativity, to the extent that even the segues and background details are brilliantly inventive: it’s a densely detailed world and part of the joy of watching Adventure Time is just spending time in Ooh and seeing what creator Pendleton Ward will come up with next. For example, in Season 2 (the latest to hit Netflix – bizarrely labelled as Seasons 3 and 4), Finn gets captured by gnomes, who want to harness his power for their evil engine. Jake has to fight his attention deficit and his natural, party-inclined nature to rescue his buddy. In the course of the episode, he parties in a cloud kingdom with a party god, teaches jokes to mermaids and dances with bugs. (It ends on an equally strange, funny note.) In the space of 10 minutes, Ward has crammed in over five different species of Ooh residents, and achieved one of the highest joke : screen time ratios of any show on TV right now.
This inventiveness feeds into the programme’s anarchic and perfectly judged sense of humour. There are moments of splutter-inducing silliness and it’s full of ridiculous images – Episode 4 of Season 2 features a gag about a cow’s udder that is so totally unexpected that laughter is the only option. Often, the humour is built on doing something very unexpected, such as when a penguin egg hatches into a floating, glowing kitten (the episode ends on that, too). Yet there are also terrible puns, a sweetly childish use of the word ‘math’ in many contexts and a great visual flair – the old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation creates a brightly coloured fantasy world that defies physics and biology. It’s difficult to quite describe the (wholly unpretentious) wackiness of the show.
The wackiness, the funniness and the invention all contribute to making any viewer feel like a child again. At least, it will, if you were the kind of child who played outside in both winter and summer and imagined all the kinds of worlds that Finn and Jake travel to. It’s got that wonderful, free-wheeling spirit of youth, which is characterised by the way that the stories don’t really finish. (The fact that each episode is only 10 minutes long reflects something of a kid’s attention span, too, and makes it even more compulsively watchable.)
Adventure Time is perhaps too strange and offbeat for a casual viewer or someone who prefers their humour crude or obvious. Yet for those who never really grew up, and love the comedy and imagination that comes with that, it’s pretty much the best animation on TV. It has no morals or lessons, rarely bothering with arcs and big climaxes where everything works towards a dramatic conclusion. It’s just two best friends doing cool things and then… it just ends.
Adventure is available in the UK exclusively on Sky and, for non-Sky customers, on NOW TV, as part of a contract-free Kids Pass, which costs £2.99 a month.