If it is possible for a cartoon as consistently excellent as Adventure Time to have a best season, I believe the third can make a strong claim to the title. Once again, 26 eleven-minute episodes have been gathered together on a single Blu-ray disc and as ever, whimsical and fun adventure is never in short supply here. Beyond that, this collection also includes some of the series’ most interesting experimentation and represents the further expansion of its world, as well as the limits of what can and should be achieved within the constraints of its format.
Perhaps the clearest sign of the series’ well-earned room to experiment is the episode “Thank You,” which simply follows the exploits of a sentient snow creature for a day as he ends up befriending what would most accurately be described as a fire elemental wolf puppy and trying to return it to its own kind. Here actions alone must speak, as with these creatures there is no dialogue at all. Against the backdrop of all this is Finn and Jake engaging in an extremely prolonged battle with the Ice King for their obligatory appearance, but that is both secondary to the main plot and completely irrelevant to how it all turns out. This case example of a story that must show everything and tell nothing is a modest but enjoyable success. Then there are episodes play around with perspective, as seen in “Memory of a Memory” and “Marceline’s Closet.” The former sees Finn and Jake exploring aspects of Marceline’s past in rapid succession in a prolonged sequence that resembles a mashup between Adventure Time and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, while in the latter the pair’s hijinks see them managing to trespass in Marceline’s house and silently spying on her through her closet door so they won’t be caught and get in trouble. These quirky tales speak volumes about Marcline’s character and her past life with nary a prolonged moment of exposition to be seen, which is one testament among many to how this creative team is as adept at incisive storytelling as it is at goofball humor.
Several times in this season we also see an irreverent and quirky treatment of serious or scary material. “The Creeps” sees Finn and Jake join a small group of their friends at a masquerade in a mansion on a dark and stormy night only for members of the party to seemingly vanish or die under mysterious circumstances, quickly developing into a riff on the likes of And Then There Were None and other good murder mystery yarns. This starts out subdued enough but eventually gets intense enough for comparison to season 2’s “It Came from the Nightosphere” and “Mortal Recoil,” which discerning parents of younger folks may want to take note of. This is also true for “No One Can Hear You,” where after a long period of unconsciousness Finn wakes up to find the Candy Kingdom’s denizens missing and a mentally messed up Jake trying to persuade him to his false, tenuous conviction that nothing is wrong. Jake’s instability is a creepy and even unsettling thing to behold, while what happened to the abducted people renders this an ideal choice for something to run on Halloween night. Speaking of which, that would go just fine with “From Bad to Worse,” which calls back to the first episode “Slumber Party Panic” and drastically ups the ante on its concept of a zombie apocalypse in the candy kingdom the second time around. Moving along from creepy stuff to material of a more somber variety, Adventure Time finds a way to tackle death in “The New Frontier,” where Finn goes to great lengths to prevent Jake’s supposedly prophetic dream of his imminent demise, while Jake embraces it as fate and tries to comfort the lad with his theories about the afterlife that only succeed at blowing Finn’s adolescent mind. The ridiculous circumstances of the whole affair soften up the heavy matter of just how much Finn values, loves, and relies on his best friend, and it all caps off beautifully in the climax when Finn both does and doesn’t concede the conflict when he decides that if Jake has to go, then he’ll just be right there with him rather than be separated from his pal.
In contrast to the largely standalone nature of so many past adventures, perhaps the most notable thing about this third season is how it goes about building a degree of meaningful continuity. For example “The Creeps” acknowledges the events of season two’s “Mystery Train;” “From Bad to Worse” is effectively a sequel to the very first episode; and “Beautopia” brings a new adventure with the titular character of “Susan Strong.” More substantively, the third season addresses matters from the second season finale featuring the malevolent Lich, which saw Princess Bubblegum regressed to Finn’s 13-year-old age. In “Too Young,” this appears to be a chance for Finn to connect with his crush and start a meaningful relationship, but the status quo must be restored when Bubblegum is lawfully usurped by the unhinged Earl Lemongrab, who is chronically high-strung and anxious to the point of parody in his best moments – and he doesn’t have very many of those. Finn’s efforts in subsequent episodes can’t bridge the age gap and create anything more than friendship with Bubblegum, leading to a near-breakdown for Finn in the season finale “Incendium” that would be soul-crushingly depressing if not for Jake’s hilarious, improvised and almost disastrous effort to set him up with the volatile Flame Princess in order to break him out of his funk. Perhaps most significant is the matter of the Ice King, who continues to vex Finn and Jake in such episodes as “Hitman,” “Still,” and “Wizard Battle,” as his terribly misguided pursuit of companionship leads to him causing no end of trouble for our duo. Then comes the momentous two-part episode “Holly Jolly Secrets,” which delivers numerous candid looks at the Ice King’s goofy behavior through a discovered stash of VHS tapes that Finn and Jake try to marathon while stonewalling the Ice King and, eventually, a conjured horde of monster snowmen. It’s all traditional wacky fare for the series until a dead serious revelation at the end, after which no viewer can possibly look at the Ice King without pity, or even in the same way ever again. Fortunately, there’s also the closest thing the land of Ooo can get to Christmas cheer. This is undoubtedly a crowning moment for the entire season.
Of course, the series still knows how to have its adventuring fun also, as seen best in such episodes as “Conquest of Cutness,” “The Monster,” and “Dad’s Dungeon”. One tremendous highlight is “What Was Missing,” an episode that’s largely defined by some of the series’ finest tunes yet, but also includes the familiar humor and manages to explore and further the friendships between Finn, Bubblegum and Marceline as they attempt to collaborate on a jam session in order to open the way to a mischievous magical creature that’s stolen their possessions. Another creative highlight on this set is undoubtedly the fan favorite “Fionna and Cake,” a special episode that gender flips the entire Adventure Time cast and tells its own story in that context. That the whole thing is, hilariously, a product of the demented imagination of the Ice King does nothing to take away from fact that it completely works as a plausible alternate universe with potential to support plenty of future stories in its own right – which has since been realized in a later season five episode and a six-issue spinoff of the Adventure Time comic book. Aside from a charming musical number and the novelty of the familiar-yet-different setup for everything, the episode is successful for making Fionna a bit girly and her own character while still retaining Finn’s adventurous disposition. In fact, it’s perhaps even notable that at the end of an adventure that was basically focused on Fionna getting a date, she decides that she’s fine with her life as-is and doesn’t need to rush into anything. Considering this and Finn’s angst over Bubblegum in hindsight, I think one has to wonder whether Finn couldn’t benefit more than a little bit from the perspective of his female counterpart.
Bonus material for this third season collection is, in relative terms, modest. Screen Novelties’ alternate intro the Adventure Time opening rendered in stop-motion animation, which amounts to a novel and fleeting diversion. “How an Idea Becomes Adventure Time” is a 7+ minute feature with some commentary from creator Pendleton Ward, storyboard artist and supervising producer Adam Muto, and head of story Kent Osborne. Here the trio reflect on how first and foremost they strive to write and create what makes them laugh, which has fortunately resulted in a brand of humor that viewers of all ages have been able to enjoy. The occasional amusing anecdote makes it in also, such as how Mr. Ward believes he’s given Finn quite a few qualities of Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation on the grounds of his capacity for quick and decisive action. Well-chosen clips from season two episodes complement what the three men have to say. But what sets the bonus material for this set apart from what is typically seen for most other cartoons is the presence of audio commentaries, which are once again present for every single episode just like in the second season collection. There continues to be a fair amount of fun had with these, but between all the commentaries all major creative staff and artists are included and there is enough commentary and insight on their creative process to make everything worth listening to. Fortunately, the collection makes this a hassle-free task with an option to play all episodes consecutively with the audio commentary switched on.
All things considered, this third season collection upholds the standard of excellence set by the collections for the first two, and with any luck the rest will be following on home video at a steady pace in the coming years. Adventure Time continues to be a creative highlight of TV animation in this day and age, and collections such as these are indispensable for fans of any type.