The Bright, Cheerful Apocalypse of Adventure Time

Adventure Time, created by Pendelton Ward Cartoon Network, 2010-2018.

I have young children, which means that it’s difficult for me to keep up with the latest prestige dramas other adults are raving about. Succession? Big Little Lies? These are mysteries to me, but I have seen the latest season of My Little Pony. Recently, though, my kids became enamoured with a show that, to me, seems equal to any Golden Age of TV program, in terms of scope and ambition. It’s called Adventure Time, and it’s about a human boy and his magical dog Jake, two heroes exploring dungeons and rescuing princesses in the land of Ooo. Yes, it’s a cartoon show for children, but this is children’s entertainment of the best sort, using the narrative tools of fantasy to explore themes of growth, loss and death. It’s on par with The Princess Bride and The NeverEnding Story, classics from my own childhood. 

What makes it affecting? There’s the setting, for one. As the show revealed in bits and pieces, the land of Ooo is actually our own Earth, one thousand years in the future. A cataclysmic event called the Mushroom War ended human life as we know it, and the long-dormant powers of magic returned to control the world again. Many of the characters are incredibly poignant, particularly the Ice King, who comes off as a comic villain at first, but eventually becomes an almost tragic hero, as we learn that his humanity is suppressed by the powers of his magical crown.

The makeshift family that he creates with Marceline the Vampire Queen (I know, this all sounds silly, but trust me) is deeply moving. Finn’s relationship with Flame Princess, which starts as a budding romance and eventually becomes a respectful, caring friendship, is a model for young people learning how to relate to each other. It’s a wonderful, wide-ranging show and I love it almost as much as my kids do. What do you think, next should we watch Breaking Bad together?  

  • Adam’s work has appeared in many venues, including the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature and Real Life. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and two daughters.

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