It’s DVD watching time!
The realm of kid-centric animated programming has long been dominated by disposable garbage, but every now and then a gem will rise to the surface. Batman: The Animated Series. Avatar: The Last Airbender. Justice League Unlimited. Animaniacs. Spongebob Squarepants. You get the idea. Now we can add the incomparable Adventure Time to that list, one of the strangest and most weirdly hypnotic pieces of children’s entertainment to hit the small screen in quite some time.
The series focuses on the adventures of a 12-year-old boy named Finn and his magical size-shifting dog Jake. The two reside in a wondrous fantasy land populated by the enchanting Princess Bubblegum, the evil Ice King, snarky lumps, a villainous runaway heart chiropractor, frozen businessmen zombies, cute tiny yellow elephants, vampire rockers, weepy mountains, tadpole wizards, roughhousing villagers, enchanted rainbow unicorns and many others. There are a host of complex problems to be solved, though Finn seems reasonably convinced that nearly every situation can be resolved by punching something.
There’s really no way to capture Adventure Time‘s distinctive tone in a review, other than to say that it plays like a low-budget, G-rated (or at least PG-rated) cross between Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and a host of Adult Swim programs sprinkled with dashes of Game of Thrones, The Chronicles of Narnia, Feist songs, and Monty Python sketches. Yeah, basically. Either that sounds like must-see television or one of the most obnoxious things ever, and it won’t take too long to figure out which camp you’re in. Personally, I found myself intrigued immediately and hooked just a few episodes in. Very few kid-friendly shows have managed to make me laugh out loud quite as frequently as Adventure Time (though it’s worth noting that there’s a considerably larger supply of cheeky-yet-subtle references to drugs and sex than you’re likely to find on Sesame Street).
Prior to this DVD set, the episodes were released in random mixes containing a selection of adventures from multiple seasons (the show is already in its fourth season, which makes this first-season release more than a little bit late), so it’s nice to have the episodes presented in their original broadcast order. There’s not much in the way of ongoing continuity aside from the innocent romance Finn conducts with Princess Bubblegum, but you can really see the writers starting to gather momentum as the first season proceeds. The characters begin to solidify (especially Jake, who begins as a standard-issue trusty companion and quickly develops into an entertainingly complex sidekick), the plotting gets snappier and the oddball sense of humor starts growing on you (this is very much one of those shows where you eventually find yourself laughing at a joke you only smiled at initially).
The level of quality is generally pretty consistent, though I’d pick “Tree Trunks” as my personal favorite of this first season. Its a pretty loosely-constructed eleven minutes of television, but it features some hilarious voice work from Polly Lou Livingstone as the title character, a handful of killer gags and some wonderfully Lynchian touches from time to time. Plus, like several episodes, it ends on a surprisingly bizarre note. While the show is never subversive to an aggressive degree, there is a delightful avoidance of Important Life Lessons (in fact, the characters frequently find themselves missing obvious lessons entirely, leaving them even more ill-educated at the episode’s conclusion than they were at the beginning). Parents should be warned that there’s also a pretty steady supply of death littered throughout the series, but its presented in such a fantastical and goofy way that I doubt most kids will really be bothered by it.
The DVD transfer is excellent, delivering a bright, sharp image which gets the job done nicely. While I do wish the show had been granted a Blu-ray release, this standard-def offering is satisfactory for now. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track is also impressive, delivering the robust sound design with vigor and clarity. Supplements include a generous supply of audio commentaries, a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes, a bonus short, a music video some animatics and a “Finndemonium” montage featuring fans paying homage to the show.
Regardless of whether or not you have youngsters at home, Adventure Time is worth checking out. Some of you will find its manic energy and indie-film whimsy exasperating, but I suspect a large portion of you will find it an inventive delight.