Every 7 or 8 years there's a television cartoon that comes around to set the standard for all other animated series to follow. A show that all others will be compared to for years to come, and its style sets the stage that all other creators, director and producers to use as reference from that point on.
No matter what your personal opinion of Adventure Time may be, like it or not, it is one of those landmark shows. Here's a great article by Noelene Clark from Hero Complex (LA Times)
“Adventure Time” at first glance is a typical kids’ show. Finn, a 14-year-old boy, and his buddy Jake, a magical dog with super stretching powers, battle candy zombies, evil gnomes and their arch-nemesis Ice King in a shiny world called the Land of Ooo. In the show’s Season 5 premiere Monday, Finn fights a gang of neon-colored, village-burning hoodlums while Jake goes hot-tubbing with Cosmic Owl and a pink, wish-granting being named Prismo.
“If somebody pitched me verbally an episode plot of an ‘Adventure Time’ cartoon, I’d probably think, ‘That’s the dumbest thing ever,’ ” said Cartoon Network chief content officer Rob Sorcher. “But somehow in the hands of ['Adventure Time' creator Pendleton Ward], the nuance with which this is executed, it’s perfect.”
The Emmy-nominated cartoon is one of the Cartoon Network‘s most popular shows, consistently ranking No. 1 in its time slot among boys 2 to 14, according to Nielsen. But the show has developed its most devoted following among adults, who appreciate the dark humor beneath the inviting rainbow storybook exterior. It’s rare for an animated series to be equally informed by the likes of “Meatballs” and “An American Werewolf in London” as by fairy tales. As whimsical as the “Adventure Time” world may appear, the series is dappled with hints that the Land of Ooo is, in fact, a post-apocalyptic version of Earth — a dark origin story for a colorful world. After all, Finn is the only human he knows, and although he is unfailingly positive, that knowledge comes with a profound loneliness.
“I think that’s what makes the show interesting, if anything,” Ward said. “It’s candyland on the surface and dark underneath, and that’s why it’s compelling, I think, if at all. Those are my favorite kind of emotions — the ones that conflict with each other, and they feel weird inside of you.”
“Adventure Time” was created by Ward, an animator and writer who had previously worked on “The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack,” as a short on Nickelodeon’s sister cable channel Nicktoons in 2008. The network passed on the full series, but the short was posted to YouTube, where it became a viral hit and attracted the notice of Cartoon Network.
“There was a certain charming sincerity,” said Sorcher, who greenlighted the show. “And it wasn’t in a way that felt like, ‘Aw, that’s cute for kids.’ It was a direct emotion. It had a random humor, like Abe Lincoln on Mars, and then you had this positivity in it, and you had this kid making these exclamations like “Algebraic!” And all of that conspired to be so charming, and it didn’t necessarily seem to be about something. it didn’t have a theme or a point. It just was all captured in a very loose kind of loopy, really pleasing style that seemed, to me, very cool.”
It was exactly the kind of creator-driven animated comedy the network was seeking, Sorcher said, pointing also to another “Flapjack” alumnus J.G. Quintel and his hit cartoon “Regular Show.” But “cool” as it was, “Adventure Time” lacked a plan or a script, Sorcher said, so to foster the creativity of these young, relatively inexperienced creators, the network completely changed the way it did business.
“We knew that the soul of it was there, but we really had to help Pen and all those guys get to their own shows,” he said. “Some of it was bringing in some veteran people to assist and kind of translate that pure imagination and all of these amazing ideas into a show that has to put out a half-hour over and over and over again.”
The network allowed creators to build their own teams organically rather than force staffing on them, Sorcher said, and instead of requiring creators to pitch scripts to executives, the network and the artists now communicate through storyboards and shorts, working things out “by actually doing the work.”
“We know that we’re dealing with artists who are primarily visual people,” he said. “It really took some learning. ‘Adventure Time’ was not easy. I thought ‘Adventure Time’ was going to collapse a couple of times.”
But collapse it didn’t, and nearly three years after the series premiered, “Adventure Time” draws an average of 3.3 million viewers each week. “Adventure Time” merchandise and comics have proliferated, and a unique, creative fan culture has evolved around the show. Fans express their devotion on Tumblr blogs and message boards, not through words but through “Adventure Time”-inspired art, fiction and music. Gallery Nucleus, a Los Angeles-area gallery and store, hosted an “Adventure Time” exhibition called “Oootopia: An Artgebraic Tribute to Adventure Time,” and, though a handful of children attended the show’s opening night, the majority of the estimated 1,200 attendees were adults, many donning Finn’s blue shirt, green backpack and trademark bear-eared hat.
Adults also dominate the show’s standing-room-only panels at comic conventions, and at least as many Finns as Avengers or Stormtroopers seemed to be wandering the floor at Comic-Con International and WonderCon this year, though cosplay certainly isn’t limited to the show’s hero. The Land of Ooo is home to a host of zany characters, including Marceline, an immortal vampire queen who feasts on the color red and turned her heirloom battle ax into a bass guitar; Tree Trunks, a pygmy elephant with a Southern accent and a penchant for apple pie; and a plethora of princesses (some reminiscent of Super Mario’s Princess Toadstool), each named for the dominion she rules. Bubblegum Princess, Wildberry Princess, Slime Princess, Turtle Princess and Hot Dog Princess are just a few.
“I don’t want to put a cap on the amount of princesses in the world; I think that would be a mistake,” Ward said. “I love ‘em. I love ‘em all …. There’s Breakfast Princess, and yeah, she’s cute, and her sister is a little Toast Princess. By breaching the silliness of what princesses can be, I think almost any princess can exist in the show. I know there’s Bouncehouse Princess who’s coming up really soon. She’s a big, rubbery, bouncy house that you can jump inside of, and she’s got a little curtain, and she lets you into the bouncehouse.”
The magical characters and far-fetched plots aren’t the product of random humor or make-it-up-as-you-go creativity. “There’s a rulebook — The ‘Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Manual,’ ” said Ward, a lifelong fan of the paper-and-dice fantasy role-playing game. “I feel like that’s what writing is for me. It’s role-playing these characters. You get inside their heads, and you think about what they would decide, and what they would do in any situation, and you execute it by drawing instead of rolling dice.”
Ward also grew up watching cartoons like “Doug,” “The Simpsons,” “Beavis and Butt-Head” and “The Ren & Stimpy Show” — shows that didn’t pander to children, he said. It’s a quality that has made “Adventure Time” so popular among adults as well as children.
“I don’t think anyone sets out trying to write for kids, because I don’t think you can,” Ward said. All of the writers are in their late 20s and 30s, and we’re all just writing it for ourselves. We’re making ourselves crack up with it.”
Sorcher credits much of “Adventure Time’s” success to this this cross-generational appeal.
“It has a little bit to do with the stage that these guys are at when they’re thinking it and making it, and their peer generation is responding to that,” Sorcher said. “So I’ve really learned to completely step back and really trust that these guys are arbiters of taste. They know when something is going to be cool and when it’s going to be cheesy.”
And if the show’s fans are to be believed, “Adventure Time” certainly has the trappings of cool. In Season 5, Fiona and Cake, female versions of the show’s heroes, are expected to make another appearance after a massively popular gender-swapping episode earlier in the series. Jake and his girlfriend, Lady Rainicorn, will have “really cute” puppies, Ward said, and Jake will “try his best like any parent and be very kind and sweet to them.” And Monday’s season premiere revealed the evil Lich will likely play a large role in the Land of Ooo’s future, as well as in its mysterious past.
“The ideas are getting weirder because we’re having to reach to new places to come up with new plots and story lines,” Ward said. “It’s a touchy subject, a post-apocalyptic world for children’s television, so we’ll never go too in depth about it, but everyone on the show knows what it is, and we add to it, too, whenever we think about it. It can change. Everything can change as we develop the show.”
– Noelene Clark