"Adventure Time: It Came From the Nightosphere" DVD: Still Strange, Still Surreal, Still Spectacular
Adventure Time: It Came From the Nightosphere is the second Adventure Time DVD, bringing another 16 11-minute stories from the show to home video. While any Adventure Time at all is welcome on general principle and there are a number of gems to be found on this volume, I find I still have mixed feelings on the way this series is being handled on DVD which keep me from giving the home video release the same full-throated recommendation that I give to the series.
Adventure Time centers on the young Finn, a human adventurer, and his friend Jake, a shapeshifting dog (both performed to perfection by Jeremy Shada and John DiMaggio, respectively). The pair live in the magical land of Ooo, populated by sentient candy, vampire queens, minotaurs, living computers, evil princess-kidnapping sorcerors, and all kinds of other strange and wonderful beasties. As with the episodes found on the first DVD, My Two Favorite People, the only typical thing you can say about an episode of Adventure Time is that there’s no typical episode of Adventure Time. Finn and Jake are about the only things that remain consistent. The setup allows the show to roam around and do whatever they like however they want to, and it’ll all still fit as well as all the other crazy stuff that happens on the show. As an example, the title episode of this DVD has Finn attempting to help Marceline the Vampire Queen reconcile with her estranged father (communicated to us in a hilarious throwaway song). Unfortunately, daddy is a monstrous soul-sucking vampire from the Nightosphere, an infernal alternate dimension, and he quickly sets off to suck the souls out of all the inhabitants of Ooo. The episode then alternates between surrealist humor and genuine nightmare fuel as Finn now has the dual mission of daddy-daughter reconciliation and saving Ooo. At its best, it can be both at the same time, as when daddy (in full-on, Lovecraftian monster form) finally makes fumbling attempts to reconcile with Marceline.
Other episodes on this disc are equally bizarre for entirely different reasons. “The Enchridion!” is another Dungeons and Dragons adventure campaign on LSD, as though series creator Pendleton Ward played a demented dungeon master challenging his storyboard crew to come up with ever-more creative solutions to the increasingly bizarre obstacles he’d throw in front of them (and, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that something like this is exactly how the show is made). We get two off-beat murder mysteries in “Mystery Train” and “The Creeps,” and without giving away the surprise I’ll simply say that their inclusion together on this DVD is not an accident. Indeed, other episodes on this disc also reveal much deeper thought and planning behind episodes than one might expect from a show that seems so spontaneous and unencumbered. “Nightosphere” sets up a throwaway gag in the subsequent “Memory of a Memory.” “Crystals Have Power” pays off one of the hanging plot threads on the My Two Favorite People DVD. There is also the ongoing background crush that Finn has on Princess Bubblegum (delightfully played by Hynden Walch), which comes to play in “The Real You.”
Critically, I find I have little to add to my earlier comments about the first DVD. The only new observation I have to offer is that the show has a certain guilelessness which sets it apart from its contemporaries and is one of the reasons why I think the show is so successful. There isn’t a trace of cynicism or any sense of knowing self-parody in Adventure Time. It’s greatest success is that it possesses the same kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm to everything that you’ll find in small children discovering the world for the first time. Indeed, I think the strange, surreal landscape and wacky inhabitants of Ooo aren’t just weird for weird’s sake (which I’d say for shows similar on the surface like Chowder or The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack). I think that if anything, the outlandish elements of Ooo reminds older viewers (from teens to grown-ups) what it felt like when they were extremely young children and the entire world was new. The closest the show comes to cynicism is in Jake, but even he is only a smart-aleck in the same way as your favorite Uncle Morty, with few if any sharper edges to his ribbing and where there’s never any doubt that he has your best interests at heart. Stepping so far away from the worlds we know also means the show can’t rely on contemporary references for its humor. The concluding moment of “Memory of a Memory” may remind us of Monty Python, but it’s not funny just because it reminds us of Monty Python. Rather, it’s funny for the same reason that the gag is funny in Monty Python, drawing from the same well of non-sequitur humor and making an old joke feel new again. Only the very best TV shows can manage tricks like that.
Like the My Two Favorite People DVD, the episodes on It Came from the Nightosphere are taken from across Adventure Time‘s entire run, even adding in some episodes from the show’s most recent season 3 (season 4 begins this April). Those who have sprung for the first DVD will find no surprises in presentation on this one: beautiful widescreen transfers (which would look even cooler on Blu-ray, he said subtle-hintingly-to-the-powers-that-be-at-Warner-Home-Video), a solid Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, and easily skipped opening and closing credits attached to each 11-minute story. Since the TV broadcast half-hour is composed of two 11-minute stories, this pads out the disc’s running time non-trivially and also makes for some confusing moments in reading end credits, as actors are credited for roles that didn’t appear in the episode you just watched. As before, there is also no true “marathon play” option, where you can watch all the episodes in sequence with just one opening sequence and one big run of closing credits at the end. Even if I don’t much like modern SpongeBob SquarePants episodes, they do get that bit of DVD presentation exactly right. The sole bonus feature on this disc is another set of character profiles, which may be a bit more amusing than those on the previous DVD because it covers some of the more obscure characters on the show.
I have no doubt at all that Adventure Time can sustain sales of season sets, and would be willing to bet a tiny bit of money that sales of these DVDs have been slow because the show’s substantial fanbase is waiting for a season set. On the one hand, Adventure Time has little to no continuity, so releases like this aren’t doing any harm to people discovering or following the show on DVD, and the arrangement of episodes on this disc can ensure locality of some in-jokes (as with “Nightosphere” to “Memory of a Memory”). On the other hand…well, I just really want a season set (maybe even on Blu-ray, he mentioned again in a casually offhand but pointed manner), preferably with bonus features and other goodies beyond the character profiles available on this DVD. I have no complaints whatsoever about the quality of the episodes on Adventure Time: It Came From the Nightosphere, though, and it’s as good or better to introduce newcomers to the show as the first My Two Favorite People DVD.