Season one of Adventure Time on Blu-ray is, quite simply, a first-class release for a first-rate cartoon. Here is festive program born of unrestricted imagination finally presented the way it was meant to be seen, fated to stand the test of time for a simple reason: just as truly great animation so often does, it finds ways to offer something for everyone and condescends to no one.
The considerable success of Adventure Time with both children and a broader and older fanbase is thanks to an assortment of creative triumphs. The entire program is built on the foundation of the many adventures of Finn, a lively preteen boy aspiring to heroism, and his shape-shifting magical dog Jake as they explore the post-apocalyptic fantasy land of Ooo. This is a world where a storm can rain knives from the sky, where people made of candy coexist with dungeon monsters and all sorts of bizarre creatures, a place where a frog’s mouth can teleport you to the alternate dimension your purple, roundish, floating friend comes from. The setting is relentlessly wacky while Finn is impulsive and fun-loving to a fault in ways only a young boy is capable of, and since Finn is supposedly the only human on Ooo he’s totally unsupervised. Frankly, one would have to think hard to conceive of ways this show isn’t the ultimate children’s fantasy: here is a place where our good-natured hero can go anywhere and do anything he pleases, with a massive tree house to go home to and a talking dog for a best friend. This is a place where seemingly anything imaginable can happen, even while things reliably work out and it’s a given that nothing truly dire will occur – most of the time. Your average kid dreams and imagines fantastical things, but Finn hardly has a need to; for him practically every day is “Adventure Time”. Any given episode plays out like the product of a dreamer’s overactive imagination.
The sheer silliness of Adventure Time is definitely a part of what makes it fun, but what sets it apart from other fare is its relentless and bold humor and the variety of its storytelling. If the program is not assaulting the viewer by the sheer sights of the absurdity of the moment, odds are it’s commanding attention to the idiosyncrasies of its cast or setting up a twist with its incisive and witty dialogue. Both the simplest of gags and entire story concepts can range from the juvenile to the clever to even the subversive. Such episodes as “Dungeon” and “The Enchiridion” see Finn and Jake undertaking lively quests, though the program shines brightest when simpler exploits take a turn for the whimsical. For instance “What Is Life?” starts with Finn trying to invent a pie-throwing robot just to prank Jake, only for it to come to life and present Finn with the responsibility of teaching it right from wrong. “Business Time” sees Finn and Jake thawing out a group of mutated, now dim-witted “businessmen” that they employ to help them out, which backfires when they do such a good job that the pair get slothful until their employees start getting out of hand.
Other episodes see Finn grappling with one moral difficulty or another, though they’re mercifully lacking in cliche proselytizing. Sometimes its situations are safe as in “The Duke”, where Finn has to work up the courage to tell the truth about an accident he caused rather than let an innocent party take the blame. Another such episode and a creative highlight of the season is “Rainy Day Daydream”, where Finn gets a crash course in the value of imagination when Jake somehow turns their treehouse home into a death trap full of invisible but very real perils just by thinking about them. Then there are the times when the program starts pushing boundaries. “Ricardio the Heart Guy” looks set to see Finn dealing with jealously over Princess Bubblegum, only his suspicions about Ricardio turn out to be correct. In “The Witch’s Garden” Jake loses his shapeshifting powers and can only get them back by apologizing to a Witch for a slight, which he ultimately does in order to rescue Finn from danger – only to turn right around and triumphantly reveal he learned no humility and that his remorse was a lie. In “Donny” Finn and Jake teach an ogre to change his obnoxious ways, until Finn scrambles to turn him back to normal against his will when it turns out his behavior was the only thing stopping a village from being overrun by ravenous wolves. The leading example by far is “His Hero”, where Finn’s idol hero Billy talks him into trying out his new philosophy of pacifism and community service to help people instead of battling monsters. After a comedy of errors and one monster attack too many Finn finally gives up and returns to his hero, reviving Billy’s warrior spirit by raving enthusiastically about how useful good old fashioned violence can be. Yes, that’s right, this is a cartoon episode made for kids in 2013 whose moral is an explicit, full-throated endorsement of violence. I’d have to go back to Animaniacs for a cartoon that not only gets away with this sort of material, but also thrives on it.
In retrospect both the world and the supporting cast of Adventure Time have expanded and been explored substantially since these early days, to the point that more than a few characters can hold up an episode all on their own even without Finn and Jake being meaningfully involved. This is something that is possible, however, in large part because this first season builds the foundation for all of that, while I find that this isn’t a situation where a show starts out basic and needs to take time to find its footing. Amid the episodes committed to straightforward zany questing there are others that will some define major and fan-favorite characters for episodes to come. Take “Prisoners of Love”, “When Wedding Bells Thaw” and “What Have You Done?”, all episodes featuring the Ice King. Between his nasty temper and his habit of trying to kidnap and marry the many princesses of Ooo he’s the closest thing Finn has to a nemesis, but even in these early days he’s not so much evil as he is a volatile sociopath clumsily trying to solve the problem of his solitude. We see how he softens in response to acts of kindness and the prospect of actual companionship, particularly in “When Wedding Bells Thaw” when he thinks he’s finally found a bride and gets Finn and Jake to throw him a bachelor party. Sure, they foil him constantly and he has to threaten them by saying he’ll go on kidnapping if they don’t, but he’s oblivious to details and others’ feelings. He still gets to hang out, so mission accomplished. Then there’s Marceline the Vampire Queen, who puts up a front about being “evil” but is really just a teenager with powers that’s simply not above messing with the heads of Finn and Jake for a laugh. Princess Bubblegum of the vibrant candy kingdom rarely steps outside her role as the giver of exposition and quests, though there’s an exception in “Dungeon” and the show does manage a good recurring gag where Finn lands in or causes trouble in part because Bubblegum’s instructions omit important information that Finn could have used much earlier. Jake is older and ostensibly wiser than Finn but he’s also his best friend and a dog; it’s amusing to see how often either member of the pair vacillate between being the perfect partner and just indulging in perfect folly.
Whether you’re looking for a laugh or some insight into the creativity behind Adventure Time, the extras available on this Blu-ray set have plenty to offer. The “Behind the Scenes” and the “Behind the Scenes of the Behind the Scenes” featurettes play like mock documentaries, offering you both an inside look at the studios and oddball special effects inserted entirely for their own sake. The highlights by far are the selected audio commentaries and animatics, where an assortment of staff and voice actors sound off on creative highlights and are quite eager to poke fun at the sheer absurdity of what they’ve brought to life. It gets all the more fun when someone gets in character, as when creator Pendleton Ward channels Lumpy Space Princess. The animatics are essentially storyboards brought to life, accompanied by more serious commentary. The finished product is far more interesting to watch, but careful study pays off here as creative staff point out how some detail or an expression on a character ended up being modified from what was originally intended.
In my view, we’ve been enduring a time when TV animation on home video too often represents a compromise. This is a format that’s supposed to collect entertainment for our enjoyment and posterity, and yet so many cartoons broadcast in high definition only to be limited to a bare bones DVD release or, even worse, lie dormant in a network’s proverbial vault. Fortunately this year we’re starting to see shining examples of a better way of doing things that respects both the work and our wallets, and one of them is this collection of Adventure Time. This is a release that deserves emulation, and this is a show that is essential in any collection for the young and the young at heart.
NOTE: Screen captures are from the Adventure Time DVD releases and do not represent the Blu-ray image quality.