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[OPINION] - Why Adventure Time became a cultural phenomenon

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Created by American animator Pendleton Ward, Adventure Time (2010) quickly became a global cult phenomenon after getting passed on by Nickelodeon and picked up by Cartoon Network. There’s no way you haven’t seen some type of Adventure Time merch, someone cosplaying, or a nod/ reference in TV series and movies.

Best known for its trippy adventures featuring protagonists Finn and his dog Jake, it was characterised as one of those kids shows that’s not really for kids and although backing and promotional material from the network became sparse as the show progressed the quality never dropped.

Even as big crew members including creator Pen Ward, animator Rebecca Sugar, and writer Adam Muto stepped down, the stories continued to go in exciting new directions. So what is it that made everyone fall in love with this little trippy show and its brightly coloured fantasy world? That's right. It's retrospective time! |(• ◡ •)|═ɜ ɛ═(❍ᴥ❍ʋ)

Life lessons and a coming of age journey
Much of AT’s raging success through 10 seasons can be attributed to its storytelling which was, all in all, based on a fun but pretty generic premise. The story told during the first two seasons have a much lighter thematic tone from the later more experimental and philosophical seasons, yet they still revolved around the same core elements.

It’s a great way of creating a TV series and making it accessible to a wide audience because once the zany colourful characters have been established through random one-off stories, the show spent a lot of time seeing them grow and change. In fact, there’s not a single main, secondary or even tertiary character who hasn’t undergone some sort of character development. Even characters you’d never think would be given another second of screen time return and get fleshed out. It's impressive considering it's all done within 10-minute episode bursts on a kid’s show.

Finn undergoes so much character development from the sword-happy kid who keeps having crushes on beautiful princesses to a mature and emotionally intelligent 17-year-old who has learned to accept his past mistakes and own up to them. Much of that growth was triggered by his dirtbag father abandoning him twice but even when it comes to Martin, Finn was able to see his point of view and forgive him because really, he did the best he could as a father even if it wasn’t enough.

Every character is given freedom to hurt and work through their emotions because repressing them only makes things worse and eventually they all work towards recovery, even if the scars are still present. For viewers who’ve also experienced similar tragedies, the life lessons discovered through such arcs have a big emotional impact.

As the music hole explains in the episode with the same name, there are only two types of people can hear her song: “those who see the world with pure childlike wonder and those with a deep sense of loss in their hearts”. The same can be said about AT as a whole, it appeals to two kinds of audiences at the same time and can offer gut-wrenching emotional material combined with silly and knee-slapping comedic moments.

Social commentary: humanity, politics, and the apocalypse
Although its post-apocalyptic setting seems like the cornerstone of Adventure Time’s lore, it wasn’t always planned to be so. It’s hard to believe that the first season hadn’t set up any backstory about a nuclear war that eliminated most of life on earth until the writers came up with that idea in the episode “Business men” and just ran with it. In fact, most long-running arcs were also conceived in a similar way, with Easter eggs and throwaway jokes planted to be revisited in future episodes.

The post-nuclear holocaust land of Ooo represents is some pretty gritty social commentary. Imagery of old ruins and landmarks, skeletons, mutated body parts, and even pools of radioactive waste run rampant in the background of AT. From its title sequence to countless episodes and flashbacks (The heartbreaking "Simon and Marcy") featuring them, the childlike wonder of Ooo is juxtaposed to a terrible past marked by war.

In the "Islands" Miniseries we get a "Black Mirror" look at the three islands inhabited by the last remaining humans, tackling one of the show's biggest mysteries since its very beginning. One was meddled with by human technology causing a deadly climate change that killed most of them off, in another one humans sleep in metal cocoons and live out their lives in a Virtual Reality.

Finally, in the most advanced one, humans have reformed a small civilisation but are not allowed to stray further than the island’s bounds, and are kept at bay by a steel giant guardian. Initially, these revelations leave Finn, who was hoping to find a group of humans to connect with, utterly horrified and it serves as a warning for what our own fate may become. The islanders of Adventure Time destroyed the earth with their war and then set sail from the mainland to start anew.

The so-called “Great Mushroom War” may have wreaked havoc and devastations for many characters, especially Marceline and Simon who met in its aftermath and paired up to survive, but it’s also the catalyst that gave rise to the world of Adventure Time; characters made of candy, dragons and monsters, even the resurgence of magic.

In the present timeline, the writers us all the princesses and kingdoms introduced in the first few seasons to satirise on modern and old-time politics by examining alliances, instabilities, and shifts to the status quo. The subjects of the Fire Kingdom live in a Shakespearean world where uncles scheme to assassin and usurp the King who’s keeping his daughter imprisoned until a rightful suitor appears. The Lemongrab earldom

Castle Lemongrab is ruled by Bubblegum’s Frankenstein creation who begged her to create another to keep him company only to get overthrown and eaten by his clone. The evil Lemongrab clone then turned his kingdom into a North Korea type of regime where everyone starving and dying (because he ate all their food).

The more advanced democratic system of the candy kingdom rings back to our own reality and even seemed to predict that a scamming fraud made of earwax would be running for office against a female candidate who, while morally grey and dubious, was certainly more prepared and capable to run a country.

The show has also touched upon religion by putting its own crazy spin on it, using the worshipping of 'Glob" the four-faced fierce deity that lives on Mars (where King of Mars, Abraham Lincoln also resides). The phrase "Oh my Glob" has been used countless times by numerous OOO denizens and eventually we even get to meet Glob, and see him meet his demise in the trippiest episode to date when Finn transcends into a celestial dimension and floats up into space (Astral Plane).

As the show nears its grand finale, where a new war is erupting in OOO, it seems that the world is repeating its patterns all over again and that’s probably the most universal and profound message Adventure Time has put out there: No matter what, everything stays even if it keeps changing. Even in the bleakest moments of the show, like the sneak peeks (Graybles 1000+) into the future wasteland that replaces OOO Adventure Time highlights the beauty of the finite eras that come and go on Earth.

 of LGBT and complex female characters
While AT has always featured female characters in its ensemble, they were given a lot more agency with each coming season as the writers added new layers to their backstory and the show’s mythos.Characters like Princess Bubblegum, the brilliant saccharine scientist and ruler of the Candy Kingdom, her on-and-off girlfriend Marceline the Vampire Queen, a terrifying demon vampire who jams to her sad songs inspired by her tragic life, and Flame Princess, Finn’s ex-girlfriend and in line to the throne of her evil father. Although most, if not all, of these characters, were introduced as potential love interests for Finn, each one eventually stepped out of that stereotype and completed her own journey.

Even side characters of the ensemble like LSP, Tree Trunks, and Susan Strong got their own story arc and development. After failed relationships, heartbreak, and homelessness, LSP learnt how to love herself and what it means to love someone else. The saucy tree Trunks was revealed to have taken up three different lovers while she travelled around the world (à la Mamma Mia) and ditching them before becoming a powerful shipping magnate. The mighty Susan Strong, the first remaining human Finn ever met, regained her memories after years of crash landing on OOO and reunited with her childhood best friend girlfriend.

Although pop culture has made significant progress in its storytelling of compelling female characters, mainstream LGBT animated characters have never been the accepted norm. Nowadays, shows like Steven Universe and Star vs. the Forces of Evil are fighting for representation and Adventure Time also managed to give voice to queer characters throughout its run.

Most notably, the evolution of the Bubblegum and Marceline’s relationship has been followed throughout the seasons, thanks to the show's amazing ex-storyboarder Rebecca Sugar. Having gone on to make her own show, as the first female showrunner (Sugar is non-binary but accepts female pronouns) on Cartoon network, Rebecca Sugar has been very vocal about the importance of LGBT representation in the lives of children and how it can have a positive impact on how they see themselves through LGBT characters.

It was heavily implied that the two used to be together and their status is solidified in episodes like “Varmints” where the characters discuss their romantic history, and the Stakes mini-series focusing on Marceline’s backstory and showing the two being there for each other and even dreaming of growing old together. Not to mention “Broke his crown” where Marcy literally invites Bubblegum over as her girlfriend to have dinner with her adoptive father, Simon. And yet, despite all this, so many people are somehow still sceptical about whether they’re gay or not.

Similarly, although the show never straight out confirmed it, Susan and her childhood friend Frieda have been undeniably gay-coded with Susan being a less conventional and not stereotypically feminine female character. Let us not forget about Patience St. Pim, the last ice elemental who was thrilled to hear that after being frozen for 1000 years all the other elementals were finally girls and not dudes.

Mental Health
At first, the show seemed to play into the usual tropes associated with the genre. Boy hero saves the princess and the day from the evil wizard but before the narrative could run dry, each archetype was flipped on its head. By the end of the show the Princess becomes a nuanced morally grey ruler who created her kingdom to fill the void in her heart, having grown up with no parents (she spawned from a wad of gum, hello). The evil wizard turns out to be the result of a crown that took over his identity and erased his memories, a poignant metaphor for mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Mental Health has served as an important part of the plot in AT when it comes to the characters’ past trauma and how they deal with it. Finn, for instance, suffers from PTSD and depressive episodes after getting abandoned by his father (Escape from the Citadel) and after seeking advice from Doctor Princess (Breezy) decides he has to do whatever he can to be happy, though he doesn’t realise he first needs to solve his underlying issues.

In the climactic season 6 finale, after trying to repress his emotions and losing his confidence and drive he learns to make peace with the past with the help of the Catalyst Comet who shows him that life comes with the good and the bad and that all of its different facets make it worth sticking through.

Even though Jake’s teenage troubles are long gone, the writers gave him his own emotional baggage to work through. Whether it was reconciling his volatile past (Dignified), raising his pups (Jake’s pups) and grandpups (Wheels), or finding his place in the world by being a brick in a rundown shack (Jake the Brick), Jake is often the show’s biggest source of wisdom that Finn can turn to.

During its 10 year run, AT has matured visually as much as it has storywise. its background art, even character models. The miniseries especially shine in their design and animation, from the dark and gritty vampire hunting of "Stakes" to the nautical Islands and xx four Elements that took over OOO.

The unique crazy world of Adventure Time has served as a playground for its creators as much as it has for its viewers. Writers, storyboarders, and animators put their heart and soul into making this show and giving it the emotional depth it’s well known for, drawing influences for other cartoons, comic books, and video games.

Any fan would know that almost every season the crew would feature a guest animator to tell a story from their own unique art style and perspective. Diverse and new talents were invited to make memorable special episodes including Masaaki Yuasa's "Food Chain", Kirsten Lepore's stop-motion "Bad Jubies", and Lindsay Small and Alex Butera's Oz-inspired "Beyond the Grotto" - each showcasing a crazy new interpretation of OOO and its heroes.

The Ultimate Adventure
Image Credit

On September 2nd, after 10 seasons of dungeons, monster slaying, and life lessons the cast and crew are ready to take us on the ultimate adventure with the four-part long series finale "Come along with me", which a lucky few have already seen in a screening in LA a few days before release.

There's a lot to expect from this finale; the cast has promised an emotional bittersweet goodbye and Rebecca Sugar has played a live demo of a song she wrote especially for one of the episodes that's sure to have you in tears. This has been the adventure of a lifetime. Enjoy the finale and let us know what are some of your all time favourite AT moments.

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