March 2015 - Adventure Time
Having young kids is generally great, but one of the unexpected benefits is that you get to watch cartoons with a straight face. Initially (at least in the UK) this means, Peppa Pig, Ben and Holly (hideous mixtures of misandry and impotent fable) or Tree Fu Tom (urghhh). But eventually your kids get old enough to watch truly interesting things, like Adventure Time.
When I was a kid, the scariest thing we saw on TV was the robot episode of Scooby Doo (Foul Play in Funland?). Now kids get this. My eldest son and I watched 'The Lich' episode together in silence. When it finished I was quite deeply shocked by what I'd seen, but my son was simply entertained. I'll talk more about that episode later.
Ostensibly (at least to children) Adventure Time is a set of simple short stories about a human boy named Finn, and his talking dog brother/sidekick named Jake (as summarised in the delightful title sequence song). But that I've bothered to make a blog entry about it should give you a clue that there's something more to Adventure Time.
Finn is courageous, loyal, honourable (to the point of fault), but definitively indomitable. He considers himself an 'adventurer'. As a role model for kids (or any human really), he's pretty much ideal. He's aged between 12 and 15, and wears a distinctive white hat with ears, which is made from a skinned bears head. Underneath his hat, Finn has long blonde hair. Finn actively enjoys fist fighting, but he carries a sword as a primary weapon when adventuring. In later episodes a cursed grass sword is magically and inextricably bound to his arm. Finn also carries a backpack which he uses often as a pillow or cushion in a manner intoning his intimacy with it's general usefulness. It is apparent to the viewer that though Finn is a young boy, he is very capable of looking after himself.
Jake is not only a talking dog but has a magical ability to shape shift, which leaves the inquisitive wondering if Jake actually is a dog, or if is it just his preferred shape? Jake is much older than Finn, aged between 28 and 36 (sometimes said to be in 'magical dog years'). The age difference is never really apparent because Jake is seemingly emotionally juvenile. He is a slacker, often bad mannered and prone to mood swings. He and Finn accept Jake as Finn's older brother and as absolute equals, but in the darkest of moments it becomes apparent that Jake is actually Finn's guardian. Sometimes Jake will try to steer Finn away from potential trouble or emotional difficulty by acting the fool. But in moments of mortal danger Jake ceases to be feckless and flippant and becomes often ruthlessly and frighteningly efficient.
This is where it gets a bit odd. The pair live in a place named 'Ooo' which is taken by children to be a totally separate planet. However adults will quickly notice that something isn't quite right with Ooo.
In fact Ooo is a post apocalyptic (presumed to be nuclear war) earth filled with mutants, and littered with the remnants of human civilisation.
The apocalypse killed off almost all human life, and for a long time Finn was assumed to be the last living human being on Ooo. Something about that process reintroduced magic into Ooo, and Ooo is full of magical beings and artifacts. The magic in Adventure Time is never properly explained, but it has the feel of northern European traditional mythology. It is often arcane, accepted implicitly, and totally ubiquitous. Often a magical being is linked with a magical artifact as a norse warrior might be to an enchanted sword. Some of the magical entities are good (Jake, the Gauntlet of the Hero), some benign (Marcelline, grass sword), some bad (The Ice King and his crown), and some viscerally malign (The Lich, The Enchiridion)
Periodically the episodes reference a time either before or immediately after 'The Mushroom War' that created Ooo. For example The Ice King is revealed to be of human origin, originally a man named Simon Petrikov. In the immediate post war chaos Simon is an adult human acting as guardian to the young Marcelline when he discovers a golden crown. The crown is somewhat like a Germanic (Tolkienesque) ring of power. It bestows upon Simon incredible power, but begins immediately corrupting his soul. Little by little Simon becomes the Ice King, just as Sméagol slowly becomes Golumn from wearing the one ring. We learn later that both the Ice King and Marcelline are hundreds, if not thousands of years old, Marcelline herself being a vampire and therefore immortal. Marcelline, The Vampire Queen.. you see..
Adventure Time is full of these references to dark age terrors. And this is where I'll mention the 'Lich' episodes again. The Lich is a re-occuring character in Adventure Time. It is a character a little like Death, only far less ambivelent. The Lich is actively bent upon the destruction of all life, that is it's soul purpose. Perhaps The Lich is perhaps a metaphor for the human propensity to self destruction, or even the spirit of armageddon itself. Either way, the episodes featuring the Lich are the stuff of nightmares. The character's appearance alone is pretty horrific, but the accompanying stories are really quite scary.
To an adult Adventure Time seems often only a few unspoken words away from absolute horror. A dystopian, bleak and unremittingly grim post apocalyptic future.
But then Jake farts, and we're back to a story about a cool young boy and his dog.
And there are moments of belly laughing hilarity. There's one episode featuring a horse named James Baxter. Immediately after a scence that appears to be a funeral straight from a mediaval painting, James appears and begins a circus act on a beach ball, constantly repeating his name in a horse whinneying voice. I literally had tears of laughter rolling down my face. The skill with which James Baxter lightens the mood inspires Finn and Jake to try and repeat his act, and the rest of the episode is about Finn and Jake's search for the essence of comedy.
Another little delight is BMO, a small sentient robot based on a hand held games console. BMO speaks cute broken english with an endearing Japanese accent and often provides a source of comic releaf, and a perpective on what is right and wrong in morally ambiguous situtations.
The makers of Adventure Time remind me a little of Matt and Trey, the creators of South Park. Their vision is holisically complete, and that's what makes Adventure Time worth a blog entry.