Adventure Time:

Losing Momentum

Warning: Spoilers for the latest Adventure Time miniseries, Stakes, as well as plot elements from older seasons below.

Recently, I had just finished watching Adventure Time’s eight-part miniseries, Stakes, and needless to say, I enjoyed it. It was a nice return to form after a not-so-great season 6 and season 7 premiere. The humor was great and there were some genuinely emotional moments. However, the miniseries also highlighted a problem I have noticed with the entire show itself: a severe lack of permanent meaningful progression or change.

Now, I have praised Adventure Time before (just look at my other article), and my positive opinion towards the series still stands, at least for seasons 1-5 and some of season 6. The characters still are great and each character has experienced a significant amount of mental development. It is subtle and at times feels inconsequential, but the development is still there, especially when one reflects on previous episodes. Adventure Time has always nailed subtlety-effectively making the hints at more grandiose concepts more powerful than they have any right to be. With 7 seasons of a drip-feed approach to storytelling though, I’m starting to wonder if there might be other reasons for maintaining the subtlety.

In the miniseries, Stakes, Marceline seeks to have her vampirism removed, and for the rest of Stakes, we see a more vulnerable and less emotionally distant side to her. It was an idea that I would have loved to see as a permanent part of the show; a Marceline who is able to grow and maybe even cope with her past now that she was free of the chains of immortality. Sadly, Marceline becomes a vampire again at the end of the miniseries and everything returns to the status quo. At the beginning of Stakes, Marceline openly expressed how she wanted to grow up and mature emotionally, yet the ending implies that she was able to grow up through her very brief stint as a mortal. While she confronted some of her past struggles by fighting the vampires and their leader, the Vampire King, that sense of character progression was not conveyed to the audience that well. The miniseries felt almost pointless, and that sense of pointlessness has been all too common with Adventure Time.

Other drastic changes included Finn having a girlfriend, Jake and Lady Rainicorn having kids, Finn losing his arm, and Finn meeting his father. All of these alterations to the status quo could have been fascinating, with opportunities to bring some more emotional moments and to test the limits of the relationships the current characters have made. Instead, these plot points are barely explored, maybe dedicating an episode or two to those plot elements and then completely ignoring all of it for literally months. When first introduced, for example, Jake’s kids result in Jake living with Lady Rainicorn so that he can help raise them, but by literally the end of the episode, the kids are grown up (they age much faster than Finn or Jake, so they are adults after maybe a couple of days), so Jake no longer has to be the responsible father and can go back to adventuring with Finn. Jake is much older mentally than Finn, making the conflict between youth and adulthood a big part of his character (or at the very least should be), but his life of adventuring is rarely challenged afterwards. The elements that could have challenged the perceptions and dynamics of the characters are willed away either through convenience or blissful ignorance, and it is a shame that the creative team’s dedication to new story ideas is virtually non-existent.

What’s surprising is that this is the same team that is praised for its unconventional methods of storytelling. As of now though, it seems that underneath all of that experimentation, there is a heavy layer of restraint that keeps the series from reaching new storytelling heights, and I am not sure why that restraint exists. Given the uncertainty of how long Adventure Time will continue, it could be the team imposing restrictions so that they don’t run out of material, which means that either the last season will be a poorly-paced, exposition-heavy mess that fails to savor the more significant moments, or they will just continue to avoid creating pivotal moments for the characters and the overarching plot until the audience is left with an ultimately unsatisfying conclusion to the series. Another possibility is that the team is too afraid to break from the established formula; unsure of how to incorporate new long-lasting changes into said formula.

There is a bleaker possibility that is probably a little too far-fetched. It could be an intervention on Cartoon Network’s part, making sure that the content the creative team makes is in line with the rest of the marketing. If Marceline was no longer a vampire for example, then the current tools used in marketing her would be mostly irrelevant and possibly cause confusion for consumers (is she or is she not a vampire? Which product should I buy?). Adventure Time has been a wildly successful investment by Cartoon Network and has essentially become a merchandising empire. Few television shows are as widely adored as Adventure Time, and Cartoon Network wants to keep milking the series for as long as it can, even if that means renewing the series until it completely runs out of steam. At the end of the day, Adventure Time is a product that still needs to appeal to the largest audience possible, even at the cost of artistic integrity. This is all speculation of course, and the likelihood of ever learning about the in-depth creative process behind the series is highly improbable.

Regardless of the reason, the show’s lack of commitment to new ideas is causing the series to stagnate, which is an absolute shame. I want to see Adventure Time succeed, because I am truly invested in the characters and I want to see them grow and develop (as cheesy as it sounds, I want to see the characters become the best they can be and to be truly happy), but as the show continues to avoid character growth as much as possible, it becomes harder to remember why I loved this show in the first place. Now that Steven Universe has surpassed Adventure Time in terms of character and story, I am left wondering if it is time to abandon Adventure Time for good, and that decision is more painful than I would care to admit.

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Matthew Berg-Johnsen is a college student studying Business Economics who also aspires to be a creative writer. During his free time he likes to develop his story ideas into full length narratives. While he can't draw to save his life, Matthew still seeks to make said narratives into comics. If you have any questions (or criticisms) for him, you can either leave a comment below his articles.

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  1. I think you hit the nail on the head when it comes to the marketing, I mean Bruce Timm has openly said that the reason why The Green Lantern series didn’t continue was that it didn’t sell enough toys. Great article, I’m watching them all on DVD so I’m a bit behind, but I’ve heard season 6 is…rough.

    • Thanks! I didn’t really watch much of the Green Lantern series, but it is disheartening to hear that a such a well-regarded show like that would just be abandoned due to merchandising. I am actually surprised Bruce Timm openly stated that, but I guess that is mostly because I am so used to hearing about the incessant amounts of NDAs used in the video game industry that I just assumed it was the same case for the television industry.

      I would definitely say season 6 is rough, and I will spare you the spoilery details (I would love to discuss your impressions with the direction of the series once you are caught up), but what I will say is that there are times where it lacks the “heart” that previous seasons had. Even in season 5, there was one episode that almost made me quit watching the series entirely, although that reaction was admittedly more emotional than critical.
      I hope I didn’t spoil too much for you with the discussions of some of the episodes.

  2. Cody Walker says:

    First off, at the end of the day, it’s a cartoon for children where the episodes are restricted to around 10 minutes (20 minutes for two-parters). That means each episode has to have a coherent beginning, middle, and end in half the time of a normal cartoon along with being entertaining for their target audience. And while I absolutely adore the show, I recognize that as a 30 year old man, I am not that audience. The fact that we have ANY sort of continuity or character growth should be amazing.

    Take, for example, “I remember you.” Plot-wise, it is a quiet episode. Not much happens except Marceline and the Ice King hang out and we learn about their relationship. It is an emotionally satisfying episode that makes me cry every single time that I have watched it. That’s incredible for a kid’s show. And while that was from an earlier season than this one, those moments still exist.

    Part 1 or 2 of the recent mini-series has a great character moment when we see Marceline’s mother. It is a small moment, but it is sweet and loving. We don’t know anything else about her mother except that moment, but we don’t need to. If they want to explore her mother’s story later, they can, but we don’t need to see her die because we can infer it. And that’s what I love about Adventure Time. It allows fans to either theorize or just infer what the blanks are.

    But, going back to your article, specifically the part where you said, “Other drastic changes included Finn having a girlfriend, Jake and Lady Rainicorn having kids, Finn losing his arm, and Finn meeting his father. All of these alterations to the status quo could have been fascinating, with opportunities to bring some more emotional moments and to test the limits of the relationships the current characters have made. Instead, these plot points are barely explored, maybe dedicating an episode or two to those plot elements and then completely ignoring all of it for literally months.”

    While, yes, part of it is a marketing thing to keep the status quo (which is something that comic books do as well), it also is because they don’t have the time to have development, nor should they make the time for in-depth development. Take the part where Finn loses his arm. Do we really need a 10-minute episode of Finn being bummed out that he lost his arm? More importantly, is that what children want to watch? Do they want to watch Jake raise his kids with Lady Rainacorn? Not really. My son is 3 and he was losing his mind during all the fart jokes of the Marceline episodes. He thought they were hilarious. But he was also empathetic toward baby Marceline and her mother. He was worried for Jake when Jake was scared of vampires.

    The point is that the character development may not be to the degree you want it to be, but for children (which is the intended audience), it’s just enough. My son empathized and loved it and he got to laugh.

    To me, that’s a win.

    • Yes, I do acknowledge that it is a cartoon for children, and to be honest, this show and Steven Universe (and even We Bare Bears) are the kind of content that I am glad exists for children to watch. However, the fact that older individuals including us find enjoyment out of the show speaks volumes about the writing ability of the creative team.

      Personally, I think it should be reasonable to expect episode continuity and character development out of a children’s cartoon, as not expecting those qualities underestimates the mental capabilities of that demographic. If we as adults expect a high quality (ideally) of storytelling, then similar standards should be applied to children’s entertainment, otherwise we are belittling the value of complexity for children. As a whole, society needs to respect the retention rate of children, and that should involve challenging kids to think at higher levels by challenging their perceptions of reality with relatively new ideas (at a gradual pace) on all topics.

      Now, I don’t mean to say that there shouldn’t be shows or movies of lesser quality, but if marketing didn’t dictate how and what shows and movies were created, I think entertainment as a whole would be better off. There would at least be more shows like Adventure Time than Spongebob Squarepants, and more movies like How to Train Your Dragon than Minions.

      So yes, they should make more time for in-depth development, but in a way that makes the characters adapt to their new changes. It doesn’t have to be an episode where Finn is depressed about losing his arm (even though there was an episode or episodes that was pretty much that), but rather have those changes be incorporated into how Finn interacts with the world and the other characters during his adventures. It is possible to make something that kids would want to watch, while introducing new themes or scenarios that are unfamiliar to them.

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