What Time Is It? Adventure Time!
C’mon grab your friends,
We’re going to very distant lands
With Jake the Dog
And Finn the Human
The fun will never end,
It’s Adventure Time!”
(Adventure Time’s theme song)
“A group of diverse characters roaming peculiar lands in search of never-ending adventure and fun” can be considered a satisfying tagline to describe what Adventure Time (Pendleton Ward, 2010-2018) is about. The series, broadcast globally by Cartoon Network, is highly regarded in our contemporary cultural landscape, establishing itself as one of the most popular and referenced shows of the 2010s. Adventure Time features a plethora of characters, landscapes and themes, and presents diverse topics and discussions in its episodes. Its universe is a place in which anything can happen; a place where fun truly never ends. The series balances its storytelling between episodes that are self-contained and ones that push larger narrative arcs forward. Insofar as this balance happens, the show is circumscribed into the realm of complex narratives, as defined by Jason Mittell in his essay “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television” (2006). The ingenuity of its storytelling is widely acknowledged, and the changes in Western mainstream cartoons’ paradigms it promoted paved the way for several hit series that followed, such as Steven Universe (Rebecca Sugar, 2013), Over the Garden Wall (Patrick McHale, 2014) or Gravity Falls (Alex Hirsch, 2012). Sugar and McHale are part of a large number of artists who worked on Adventure Time and went on to create their own successful TV series, which also includes Ian Jones-Quartey with OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes! (2016), Julia Pott with Summer Camp Island (2018), and Natasha Allegri with Bee & Puppycat (2013).
This essay will explore how Adventure Time’s opening title sequence, as a representative of the entire series, performs its movement on screen, narrativizing spaces and foregrounding its complex narrative world. Drawing from Thomas Lamarre’s reasoning in The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation (2009), Giuliana Bruno’s in “Site-Seeing: Architecture and the Moving Image” (1997) and Jason Mittell’s in Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (2015), I will argue that the series’ storytelling balance and, therefore, its complexity, derive also from the affordances and possibilities of Adventure Time‘s world-building of its diegesis, performing different tendencies of animated movement resulting in the logic and visual style of a mobile map (Bruno 2). With this, I aim to challenge existing perceptions and categories of analysis within Animation Studies, as I will explore the question of visuality and animation style as an approach to the relationship between animation form and narrative, while still thinking about the role of the spectator.
The rationale of movement and visuality in a mobile map parallels the narrative logic in Adventure Time. Operating in the same way as a map – a site of discoveries – the series’ storytelling is unpredictable and filled with novelty and awe. The map in Adventure Time, like its narrative, is mobile, always changing, and always depicting new and unexpected places. The Land of Ooo, where Adventure Time is set, is as important a character as the protagonists Finn the Human and Jake the Dog, inasmuch as one of the main larger narrative arcs of Adventure Time is discovering what has happened in this place throughout several years. The Land of Ooo is always in the making, becoming, and revealing itself for the spectator as new sites and stories follow. Although Finn and Jake are the protagonists, the series does not focus only on them or other specific characters, but rather on the individuality of several distinct ones, following their different narrative arcs. The show’s episodes can be replete with plot points that thrust a larger narrative arc forward or self-contained ones that do not address any overarching narrative whatsoever.
Arguably, these characteristics are what engages the spectator into fan practices, as they create not only a world filled with potentialities but one that, in order to be fully appreciated in all of its nuances, needs to be discovered in all of its particularities and details, to be put together in a cohesive manner. This essay will explore how the characteristics and affordances of Adventure Time‘s world-building project have set the series apart in the contemporary landscape of Western mainstream TV animated series, contributing to the establishment of a new era for animation.
Reading the Opening Title Sequence
Opening title sequences (OTS), often set aside as unimportant extra-diegetic material, actually represent the first contact the spectator has with a movie or TV series, a bridge between the outside world (extra-diegetic) and the diegetic world, “providing a focus that allows for a transition into the [series]” (Stanitzek 44). They lay the ground, literally, forming the series’ starting point for the viewer. By definition, an OTS “has to lead into what follows, has to set the course in this respect, capture the genre, and the specific ‘mood’ of what is to come, so that one is initiated into the cinematic narrative, the diegesis” (Stanitzek 49), helping to delineate the identity of the audiovisual work that is to follow. The modern animated OTS in TV series could be understood in the same manner as early filmmakers’ practice in animations from the 1910s and 1920s of presenting their works before showing them, as an attempt to “train audiences in how they were meant to understand and relate to animated films” (Sammond 73). Arguably, contemporary OTSs in serialized cartoons are a distant echo of the practices of early animators such as James Stuart Blackton or Winsor McCay, who presented their work on the screen before the actual animation. The presence of the human animator on screen is effaced in contemporary OTSs, and therefore, the acknowledgment of the animators’ labor nowadays is approached differently. Notably, OTSs in live-action movies or series have different characteristics from OTSs featured in serialized animation. Live-action OTSs, for example, tend to balance their audiovisual elements with typography, such as opening credits, effectively presenting some of the laborers involved in the making of the production before it starts. Animated cartoons usually present a few of their laborers in sped-up title cards shown right after their OTS and before the episode. Yet, serialized animations mainly address their laborers’ names in the ending credits, often cut out on TV, effacing such labor. Understanding labor and performance in animation is an incredibly rich debate which, however, is not the focus of this essay.
Even though Stanitzek focuses his analysis on live-action movies’ OTSs, his claim for the importance of this moment as being transitional, which allows the viewer to enter the diegetic world, is also relevant for television, particularly animated series. As I will examine further ahead, Adventure Time’s OTS can also be read as diegetic material. Insofar as the OTS is considered part of the diegesis, it escapes Stanitzek’s claim of the impossibility of the title sequence being thought of as a diegetic space, foregrounding a narrativization of the spaces, places and characters it depicts (57). It is essential to consider the importance of opening title sequences vis-a-vis seriality. Jason Mittell argues that seriality is constructed around the intervals between episodes (“Narrative Complexity”). As the introduction, the opening act to these episodes, OTSs then delineate the serial experience itself.
The choice of typography is also a relevant element in title sequences, as it also assists in establishing a visual identity and in setting the tone for the series. In Adventure Time’s case, it strongly resembles the type of typography used in RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons, constantly cited by Adventure Time’s animators and writers as one of their biggest influences (McDonnell 16; 276). This could be read as another layer of meaning when thinking about the series’ narrative complexity in relation to its world-building since RPGs are regarded as games in which the building of worlds is mobile, unpredictable, and spontaneous. There are little to no boundaries in storytelling, since the narratives created by the players, oriented only by the unpredictability of the rolling of multiple dice, can go in any direction, be they self-contained adventures not related to the larger narrative supporting the session, or events which push this overarching narrative forward.
In order to conceptualize movement and its implications in Adventure Time, I will focus mainly on analyzing the series’ original opening title sequence (OTS). It is important to stress that my analysis is grounded on the original OTS, since the series, in its almost 300-episode run, presented ten different title sequences (original included). Four of those sequences introduce guest-directed, special episodes that are technically and aesthetically diverse, and, therefore, non-canon. These special episodes are “A Glitch is a Glitch” (David O’Reilly, 2013), “Food Chain” (Yuasa Masaaki, 2014) and “Bad Jubies” (Kirsten Lepore, 2016). Although “Diamonds and Lemons” (2018) features a distinct OTS animated by guest artists Ivan Dixon and Paul Robertson, the episode in itself was not guest-animated and is considered a bonus crossover episode with the popular game Minecraft. “Water Park Prank” (David Ferguson, 2015) is the only guest-directed episode that did not feature a different OTS, even though it is animated in a different style and technique than the rest of the series. The other six OTSs precede episodes circumscribed into the series canon. These OTSs comprise the gender-bending OTS preceding episodes starring Fionna and Cake (female counterparts to Finn and Jake), OTSs specially made for the three miniseries contained within the main series (Stakes, Islands and Elements), and the last OTS created for the last four episodes which were condensed in a 44-minute finale for the series (“Come Along with Me”).
I will divide the original Adventure Time’s OTS into two moments, as they each feature distinct thinking of the diegetic space and the tendencies of movement performed within them, while also diverging as to how time is presented (and traversed). The first part starts with an image of a field of debris and ends with the main characters Finn and Jake fist-bumping. This part lasts approximately 12 seconds. The second part begins when the theme song starts playing and the first title card with the name of the series is presented, held by Finn and Jake, and it ends with them striking a pose on top of a mountain, accompanied by the show’s title written in its particular typography. This second part also runs for roughly 12 seconds. Despite its short duration, the OTS foregrounds all the elements of the series to come, as this essay will argue.
Entering the Diegesis
At first glance, seemingly random, the choice of elements that compose the first part of the series’ OTS is presented at such speed that it requires the spectator more than one viewing (or several pauses) to fully grasp what is being shown, which is already the first sign of both the visual and narrative complexity present in Adventure Time. This characteristic is also representative of the active work performed by the spectator to fully enter Adventure Time’s universe. The aforementioned field of nuclear debris, followed by mountains with faces, a flying mad king (Ice King), creatures made of candy, flying rainbow-unicorns (Lady Rainicorn) mounted by gum princesses (Princess Bubblegum), and bassist vampires (Marceline) are all comprised in a fleeting moment of non-stop, accelerated movement. They present to the viewer some of the peculiarities of this particular universe while mapping its landscapes, travelling through some of its different regions and their diverse inhabitants until finally reaching its main characters Finn and Jake. The second part does not feature this accelerated movement through the Land of Ooo, as it introduces the protagonists through two extremely-fast scenes of them and their title cards accompanied by the show’s theme song, whose lyrics seem to describe what this particular thinking of performing movement foregrounds – a world full of possibilities.
The OTS poses itself here as a “matrix of imagination. This matrix offers, compressed in a plural, configuring manner […] the elements of the [TV series] to come, which arranges them in a narrative manner” (Stanitzek 54). The first part of Adventure Time’s OTS displays actual elements of the series (such as objects and characters), and it does not feature generic landscapes that are not part of its diegetic universe, nor specific scenes from subsequent episodes. Everything and everyone the spectator sees in this part of the OTS will be depicted throughout the series. While this is also true in other animated works, the particularity of Adventure Time’s OTS is that it can also be read as a narrative space in itself, not entrusting only to the episodes the task of arranging the elements in a narrative manner, as Stanitzek affirms. That occurs because Adventure Time, inscribed in a model of media convergence (Steinberg 135), also expands its narrative and diegetic universe through different platforms and media, such as comics.
Adventure Time’s first comic series, comprised of 75 editions, can be considered canon, as stated by some animators and producers involved on the show and the comics. Ryan North, one of the main writers in the first comics series, has stated that the comics can be considered canon since they had to get Pendleton Ward’s (Adventure Time’s creator) approval in order to be published (North). While North states the comic writers strive to not clash with the plot of the TV series, he acknowledges that they may miss out on a few details. North’s claim was made regarding the first issues of the comics, published in 2012, which include issue number one.
As promptly as the first panel in the first comics’ issue, the TV series universe converges with the comics. As shown in Fig. 1, Jake is revealed to be the one behind the “filming” of the first part of the animated OTS, through the use of his alien-shape-shifting-stretching-body. Here, the situation is depicted not as an opening for the comics, but as a “real” situation that happened between Finn and Jake in the diegetic world. Therefore, it is possible to argue that the first part of the OTS, as the direct consequence of Finn and Jake’s actions, is effectively transformed into diegetic space. By asserting the canonical status of the comics and choosing to present the opening title sequence as a product of Jake’s labor, Adventure Time also presents itself as self-reflexive; everything that happens on screen has a justified, diegetic reason for happening. By presenting the first part of the OTS as diegetic, Adventure Time becomes self-aware of its own construction, effectively presenting its world in a narrativized manner.
Thinking Movement from Within
“Because [animation] operates (and thinks) at the level of the moving image, we need to understand how its themes and stories operate from the level of the moving image” (Lamarre 11).
Even considering its short span, the first part of the OTS presents a combination of motion tendencies, harnessing different potentials of its moving image, as it is a diegetic site. Thomas Lamarre, in The Anime Machine, elaborates on different tendencies of performing movement within animation, focusing on the differentiation between cinematic and animetic movement. Lamarre argues that animation is “as much an art of compositing (invisible interstices between layers of the image) as it is of animating bodies (invisible interstices between frames)” (xxiv). I will draw from his definitions in order to understand how Adventure Time thinks its own visuality. Thus, I am setting the basis for the rationale behind Adventure Time‘s original world-building approach.
When analyzing cinematism, Lamarre (6) argues that “the spectator becomes an apparatus-subject, whose eyes and other senses are aligned with the apparatus” and that its essence lies in the use of mobile apparatuses of perception, which serve (1) to give the viewer a sense of standing over and above the world and of controlling it, and (2) to collapse the distance between viewer and target, in the manner of the ballistic logic of instant strike or instant hit.
In the initial scenes of the first part of the OTS, the spectator sees a very rapid succession of different landscapes of the Land of Ooo: a field filled with debris, an icy field, and ice mountains (the Ice Kingdom). But the movement here, accelerated as it is, does not in its totality entail that of the mobile camera as the kino-eye, for it is not a ballistic way of moving into depth. Using Lamarre terms, here the traveler is not “first and foremost a projectile” (xvi), the eye does not become “one with the bomb,” and everything is not a target (6), as the perspective proposed in this segment does not follow a Cartesian thinking. Unlike the Cartesian perspective, there is no vanishing point. The segment does not propose to move into depth or follow changes in scalar proportions along with its motion. The movement performed in this part of the OTS does not create the feeling of a panoramic perspective. Thus, it does not entail a viewer situated over and above this world, separated from it, ruling over “the hierarchically ordered world presented in the image” (Lamarre 113). In other words, the movement in these scenes is not fully cinematic, as discussed by Lamarre.
The type of motion performed in this segment is that of sliding layers, a characteristic commonly found in cel animations, which were drawn in different celluloid sheets and stacked together in a multiplanar image, composed of multiple layers (Lamarre xxiii). Although Adventure Time is digitally animated, with its final animation done at Rough Draft Studios Korea, it still somewhat performs its movement on screen in a similar manner to that of cel animation, as we can observe the effect of layers’ movement. The sliding of layers in this segment imparts a sense of relative movement. That means that the viewer’s sense of motion is relative to the movement of things in the world around her, relative to the movement of the layers performed on screen. The viewer moves as the world and the layers of images move. The segment presents dehierarchized layers of image, all drawn with equal emphasis on detail and analogous in style. This generates a distributive field, “in which movement into depth is replaced by density of information” (Lamarre 133).
This distributive field draws attention to the structuring of its elements, giving orientation to the movement of surface depths that function as potentials. These potentials can be read as focal concerns, in which the viewer has to make a personal selection of what is interesting among the array of information offered, and direct their attention to that. This is a practice that directly engages the viewer. The spectator follows the lateral movement of the layers opening up before them, moving on and between surfaces; they then become a moving subject. This tendency of operating movement falls under what Lamarre calls animetism, as the layers are present, and there is no effort to efface the sensation of their movement in relation to one another – which constitutes, by Lamarre’s definition, the animetic interval (7).
Lamarre stresses the importance of compositing to animation, defining it as “an internal editing of image” (xxiv). For him, “compositing is what makes for a sense of the coherence of the image under conditions of movement in animation,” a question of “what sort of sensorimotor schema will serve to harness and channel the force of the moving image” (124). Even though they entail a sensation of movement within the image, the aforementioned sliding layers in this passage of the OTS do not fall completely under what Lamarre calls open compositing, as they do not make one “feel the gap between planes of the image” (36). In that sense, the movement cannot be fully understood as animetic. As previously stated, it cannot be fully understood as cinematic, either. It falls somewhere in between, for it also does not completely entail a type of closed compositing as the sensation of sliding layers is present and you feel the movement within the image (xxiv). Neither is it completely flat compositing, as the images do not move at a different rate to create the sensation of movement. Motion, in this section, presents itself as a hybrid combination of tendencies of performing animated movement and compositing.
Once the camera leaves the Ice Kingdom, it enters a pastel-colored path margined by bubblegum-colored trees, the Candy Kingdom. Here, movement becomes somewhat ballistic, since the camera seems to accelerate into depth as it tries to bring distant landscapes together using speed. However, this depth is not volumetric. It feels as if the elements in the image have been flattened, and this depth stays on the surface of the image as a potentiality, moving on and between surfaces. The pastel-colored trees slide, as a layer would, but not laterally. They slide inwards the screen, opening the path for the viewer, thus imparting the sense of depth by producing a “phantasm of one-point perspective in its ballistic form” (Lamarre 107). It is neither purely animetic nor cinematic movement.
Nevertheless, the sense of speeding into this world is present, and it is what imparts the sensation of depth, even if it is a flat, non-Cartesian, type of depth. The landscapes are far from each other but made close through this accelerated movement that can be associated with a divergent type of ballistic perspective, since it does not operate within a panoramic perspective. Therefore, the potentiality of the image in this segment lies in the amount of detailing (characters, objects) present in the surroundings (and in the landscapes as well), which also seem to present themselves to this active viewer as this world in movement, always expanding, always new. Again, the sense of the trees opening themselves for the spectator conveys this impression of a new world full of places to be discovered, a world in the making, that can be inhabited.
In the last moments of the first part of the OTS, the actively diegetic part inhabited by Jake’s stretched arm holding a camera, movement again performs in a hybrid way. Clouds rendered as layers also “open up” for the viewer, super-imposed on top of green, somber mountains that move laterally, animetically. Then, the mountains suddenly open up in a similar manner to the pastel trees, as if creating a corridor of movement, and the camera moves towards the horizon, promoting a type of ballistic movement into a flat, surface depth, and revealing Marceline. Even though this movement is directed towards depth, the layers in the mountains can still be seen, and, therefore, felt, in the movement – even though the gaps between these layers are not apparent. Movement speeds up through grassy plains right before the Tree-House, Finn and Jake’s home, distant in the horizon. But here, their sliding is not felt. Rather, in accordance with the Cartesian perspective, ballistic movement into depth is performed until reaching the Tree-House and the protagonists through their window.
By proposing such diverse tendencies of movement condensed in its OTS, the series announces how it envisions its world-building. The hybridism of the animated movement performed in Adventure Time’s OTS can be read as the series’ rationale behind its formal aspects. Adventure Time creates its own rules, whether regarding how it presents its world in motion or its storytelling, as I am going to further explore in this essay. The Land of Ooo in this segment of the OTS appears to open itself up through the combination of speed and sliding of its layers, an animated landscape that has moved from being a “backstage trick to a center stage attraction” (Pallant 5). Thus, it presents itself for the viewer who is no longer separated from it as a transcendental, all-knowing, passive spectator. The world is then not an absolute frame of reference, but rather, a process in the making, not something to be controlled by the spectator. It is a place of discoveries, novelties, and surprises. If the viewer moves with the world, they are also moved by this world. The spectator, then, engages with this world actively, choosing where to focus their attention, where to inhabit, and where to explore. The world is a place that has to be made cohesive in all of its elements by this active viewer, a place that is not done, is not finished, and is always actively becoming. It is a place that functions as a mobile map.
Inhabiting the Mobile Map
If Adventure Time’s world in the OTS and the animated tendencies of movement performed within it do not entail a panoramic perspective and a transcendental viewer situated out and above it, it is not an absolute frame of reference. As it is not absolute, the world becomes unpredictable. Thus, the world does not pre-exist the spectator’s experience and cannot be fully grasped from its beginning as finite, as a whole. The viewer’s sense of movement is relative to that of the layers, relative to the movement performed within the animated world. As I have previously discussed, this is then a place that is always becoming, always new. It invites the viewer to be part of it, to bring their own narrative into it, a site “within which each viewer can read their own meaning” (Pallant 5).
The thinking of occupying spaces here in Adventure Time‘s OTS evokes Giuliana Bruno’s reasoning in her essay “Site-Seeing: Architecture and the Moving Image” (1997) on the practices of film vedutismo. Bruno argues that
film’s own vedutismo is a mobile mapping of space. It is the trajectory similarly drawn by a visitor or dweller of a city, who projects herself onto the cityscape, and who also engages the anatomy of the streets, the city’s underbelly, traversing all different urban configurations. (6)
The spectator of this particular world stops being a passive voyeur “locked in a fixed gaze” (Bruno 2), to become a voyageur, actively discovering new sites, and giving meaning to them through their own experience. This imparts a certain sense of awe, similar to the reading of a previously unknown map, for the landscapes in this new world cannot be predicted.
The intention of Adventure Time‘s OTS is to condense distant locations (and the characters who inhabit them) in a reduced timeframe via movement, which can be read as thinking its active site-seeing as much as it thinks its passive sight-seeing through the choices of tendencies of movement. This juxtaposition of several sites, seemingly incompatible, through the collapsing of time, configures the series’ OTS as a heterotopic space (Foucault 6). As a heterotopia, the OTS also presupposes “a system of opening and closing that both isolates [it] and makes [it] penetrable” through these practices of active viewership (Foucault 7). The aforementioned dedicated viewer, the fan, has to perform and submit to rites of fandom and fan culture to fully enter Adventure Time’s complex universe in its entirety. Adventure Time’s OTS, as both diegetic and heterotopic, condensing different sites through movement, also appears to abolish time, as its acceleration through spaces is something outside Finn and Jake’s “normal” experience of traversing such sites, and simultaneously seems to rediscover such time, as the dedicated viewer learns through the comics that Jake, through his shapeshifting ability, was the one performing such accelerated movement.
Showing faraway places in this manner is part of the show’s world-building project. These places are presented to the spectator and inhabited by them as a voyageur, as “the framing of space and the succession of sites organized as shots from different viewpoints, adjoined and disjoined by way of editing, is a montage of spectatorial movements” (Bruno 7) and their “navigation connects distant moments and far apart places” (Bruno 4). Bruno’s work aims to signal the transition from a passive and voyeuristic spectatorial mode to one based on the voyageur. Even though Bruno is referring to practices of live-action cinema, her words could be modified to fit under animation analysis. When she mentions “editing”, it can be read as “performing movement and compositing”, as Lamarre proposes and this essay discusses.
Thus, the thinking behind the tendencies of movement performed follows the rationale of a mobile map – a map constantly changing, being changed by the narratives that build it. As Bruno argues, “incorporating the inhabitant (or intruder) in the space is a narrative passage. It does not simply mean reproducing, but reinventing her various trajectories through space and charting the narrative that these navigations create” (7). Like Jake filming and traversing these landscapes via his magical stretching limbs, the viewer is invited to actively inhabit this self-revealing world full of potential. Jake – and the viewer – is made present in the landscape, stumbling through it like a person reading a map, actively permeating and re-thinking these spaces, as a corporeal inhabitance, as a dweller that lives and travels in this world; this also means this world is narrativized by the motion present in it.
It is only through thinking differently about tendencies of movement, thus playing with speed and scale, that such faraway places could be shown condensed as they are in OTS. By hybridizing its tendencies of performing movement, Adventure Time thinks its own world-building, its technology of being, thus being self-aware of its quality of mobility, of its thinking as a mobile map, as a live map, filled with possibilities. Hence, it is also self-aware of its virtual infinitude, as a mobile map is a site of discovery, of new places, of exploring, of awe, and of unpredictability. On account of this thinking about its own rationale of being, performed in hybrid manners of operating movement, Adventure Time is able to consider its own storytelling as connected with the mobile map configuration.
Balancing a Complex Narrative
Evoking Lamarre’s line of questioning in The Anime Machine, what might emerge from this world that does not pre-exist the viewer’s experience in an absolute way? (106) The short answer comes in simple words: anything and everything, for this is a world of discoveries. The hybridization of tendencies of movement performed in Adventure Time‘s OTS provides a framework of thinking motion as in a mobile map. When conceptualizing possible storylines in such a place, all sites – and characters, as owners of their will – become potentials for storytelling, as the thinking of spaces as sites (as opposed to sights) narrativize them. When Jake inhabits these spaces with his stretching arm, filming them, recording them, he also adds another layer of meaning to them as he allows the spectator to inhabit heterotopic perspectives all at once (Bruno 6). This could be read as a parallel to the thinking of different storylines within the same spatial universe. When space becomes narrative, it entails a world of possibilities, translated as plots. The orchestration of different plotlines is the laying ground for thinking narratives as complex.
If the world in Adventure Time is conceptualized as an unpredictable site of spatial discoveries, it also becomes a place of new and erratic stories. As these storylines are as unforeseen as the spaces presented, they can be about anything, any character (or the landscape as characters, such as the anthropomorphized Island Lady or Mountain Man), any topic. As the Land of Ooo itself – and these anthropomorphized characters – are also a crucial part of the series’ overarching narrative, Adventure Time also problematizes the distinction between landscape and character (Pallant 5). Framing different characters in their respective surroundings in the OTS also pose them as potentialities to be discovered. As such, narrative sub-plots can also be explored, combined with the thinking of larger narrative arcs. The logic of movement in the mobile map also functions as the logic behind the range of themes proposed by Adventure Time’s narratives. Episodes can then push forward the larger narrative arc of what happened to the Land of Ooo and Finn’s saga to become a true hero or be extremely self-contained, referencing characters or plots that will never again resurface. There are episodes about secondary characters that have nothing to do with protagonists Finn and Jake, episodes about events that do not relate to the overarching narrative in any circumstance, and episodes about happenings that are never mentioned again. There are three sequences of episodes presented as mini-series within the series, as they have to be watched in their original sequence to make sense, to push a specific narrative arc forward. The miniseries are Stakes, which shows how Marceline became a vampire; Islands, which follows the narrative arc of the whereabouts of Finn’s mother and the rest of the human beings in the Land of Ooo; and Elements, which explains the foundation of the Land of Ooo. As of 2020, the miniseries Distant Lands was also broadcast as extra episodes, not within the original series, actively expanding Adventure Time’s universe. These mini-series function like surreptitious adventures which further explore the far-off corners of this mobile map that makes up the Land of Ooo.
The viewer is always surprised by Adventure Time‘s storytelling, for there is no way of previously knowing what the episode will be about. Like reading a map, where all aspects are novelties, every episode in the series is also presented as a discovery, a site of awe. Therefore, Adventure Time is truly circumscribed within the rationale behind a complex narrative. As Mittell defines, “at its most basic level, narrative complexity is a redefinition of episodic forms under the influence of serial narration—not necessarily a complete merger of episodic and serial forms but a shifting balance” (“Narrative Complexity,” 32).
Even if presenting a subtle, diluted larger narrative arc, spread through its long run of episodes and small details that have to be actively put together by the spectator, Adventure Time and its erratic storytelling can still be considered a complex narrative. There are several different narrative arcs present, some longer, some shorter. This characteristic was something extremely unusual for American mainstream kids’ cartoons made for TV, which in their majority tended to perform within the framework of conceptualizing narrative in formulaic, procedural episodes. Critics point out that Adventure Time’s complex narrative and its compelling animation aesthetics are the two aspects that draw adult audiences to the series. The writers and storyboarders have commented on the processes of writing Adventure Time’s episodes, and the mechanisms and tools employed by them to create these episodes filled with possibilities (McDonnell 234-237).
Mittell argues that the thinking behind the complexification of the narrative is also one that draws attention to how it operates at its formal level, its operational aesthetic (“Narrative Complexity,” 35). Inserted in a formal level of analysis, this “aesthetic” draws attention to how complex narratives operate within themselves, drawing more attention to the modes of practice than the actual outcome of the story. Mittell enumerates some of the narrative devices used to pose a challenge in storytelling through disruption, such as starkly limiting storytelling parameters, genre mixing, shifts in perspective, or foregrounding an unusual narrator (“Narrative Complexity, 35). As this essay discusses tendencies of performing movement within the animated image, it is worth acknowledging these tendencies of performing movement within the animated narrative, as this particular type of complex storytelling, in Adventure Time, derives from the reasoning of its own materiality as a moving image.
As Mittell argues, promoting an operational aesthetic on narrative levels invites the spectator to think about how the series works from a formal perspective. In the same sense, the tendencies of movement, scale and speed in the OTS also entice the viewer to actively populate these locations, and thus, to think about the formal aspects of the series. As the site of a mobile map, Adventure Time‘s OTS also provides the viewer the mindset to perceive and problematize its spatiality and how they inhabit and experience these spaces. The velocity in which the OTS condenses its spaces and characters demands for a paused, more attentive second viewing of it. All of these practices in Adventure Time draw attention to its formal aspects, to how the series thinks its own materiality. By providing this framework, it attracts an observant, interested, focused viewer, who actively engages with the series’ world-building. The spectator inserted in the context of media convergence is thus able to experiment with the series at all levels of storytelling. Adventure Time, as a self-reflexive series that actively thinks about how it builds its movement and narrative, becomes a complex site of appreciation.
Post-Humanism in the Land of Ooo (Object-Oriented Ontology)
By evoking the sensation of collapsing great distances through movement and speed, the OTS performs its own logic of thinking movement and scalar relations in hybrid ways. It could also be claimed that Adventure Time‘s OTS thinks of its scalar relations in the same manner Sylvie Bissonnette discusses in her essay “Scalar Travel Documentaries: Animating the Limits of the Body and Life.” She argues that scalar relations in animations work as a technology that enables the representation of places that were somewhat impossible to be seen in that manner by humans. Bissonnette’s argument on the relationship between gaze and scale also entails a post-human type of perspective, when thinking scalar relations so grand (or, in the same sense, so small) that they become disconnected from the human body.
Thinking about the absence of the human has a strong connection with Adventure Time‘s conceptualizing of its narrative. Drawing from Lilly Husbands’ work, the concept of OOO, or object-oriented ontology, can be related to the characters’ conceptualizing in Adventure Time, as it “attempts to think the being of objects unshackled from the gaze of humans in their being for themselves” (Bogost qtd in Husbands 2). After all, it may not be a coincidence that the story is led by Finn, the last human on Earth, and set in the Land of Ooo. The post-apocalyptic scenario without humans imagined in Adventure Time‘s overarching narrative can also be thought of in connection with the thinking behind OOO. As Husbands argues, “a philosophy that places all objects on an equal plane of existence (what in OOO is called flat ontology) stands in contrast to the alarming disregard that human civilization, primarily in the form of capitalist economic systems, has for the environment, other beings and objects” (2).
In Adventure Time‘s world, everything can be alive; non-human characters include the Gameboy BMO, the homemade robot NEPTR, and creatures made by other creatures, built out of candy or lemon. The land, too, is alive, through characters such as Island Lady, Mountain Man, and Music Hole, sentient landforms that further demonstrate that in the Land of Ooo, everything is capable of life, with its potential narrative, and thus give image to non-hierarchical modes of co-existence. It is worth mentioning here how Jake, via his magical shape-shifting alien body, occupies space, filming the environment in a way no human could. This could be related to the narrative strategy performed in Adventure Time, which thinks of its characters (and landscapes) as owners of their own agency and will. Although this character’s conceptualizing cannot be fully considered as circumscribed into OOO reasoning, for these characters are anthropomorphized and exhibit human-like behavior, it could be worth noting that this rationale finds its foregrounding in how the OTS thinks of its places and placement.
When choosing to show the characters in their respective surroundings in the OTS, Adventure Time detaches them from the protagonists Finn and Jake. Movement is thought of in order to present these characters in their respective inhabiting sites, as the mobile map it is, promoting the thinking behind Bruno’s site-seeing. This performance of operating movement does not subordinate these characters to the places in which the protagonists are located. That means these characters, not only non-human, can exist on their own, without even having to be aware of the main character’s lives and adventures. The construction of diverse figures, liberated from their subordinate existence tied to a protagonist, envision a world of multitudes. These characters have their own will and agency, and, therefore, their own narratives.
By acknowledging its several characters’ independence from the main character, the series allows for a particular worldview, as defined by Otsuka Eiji and further discussed by Marc Steinberg in Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan, which argues that ‘the reader must view the world through the eyes of the character” (199). The multiplicity of environments and characters entails more possible points of view that the viewer can inhabit through these characters. Arguably, this means Adventure Time promotes more opportunities for the development of spin-off material inserted in the context of character-based media convergence, such as the series Fionna & Cake (TBA) based on the gender-bending characters of the same name, and that it also has virtually infinite source material for the conception of different storylines and plots. That proves especially true in Adventure Time‘s self-contained episodes that do not focus on Finn and Jake (or do not feature them at all), but rather show new dimensions of storytelling by shifting their narrative focus towards other minor characters.
Finn, an arm missing, is laying on the ground with Jake, next to Music Hole. They talk to each other, and Music Hole starts singing. But it is not any song. It is “Island Song,” the same song played extra-diegetically in the ending credits of almost all Adventure Time’s episodes, now
distinctly made part of the diegetic universe. There are very few episodes (“Shh!”, “The Suitor, Jermaine” and “Chips and Ice Cream”) that feature a different song in their ending credits. “Island Song” was composed and interpreted by Ashley Eriksson, who also voices the character Music Hole, in another example of the extra-diegetic world pervading the diegesis. What follows is a fast-paced montage accompanied by the song, showing several minor and main characters. Jake in his true alien-form flying with Lady Rainicorn, Princess Bubblegum cozying up on the sofa with Marceline, Finn and Jake welcoming Finn’s Mom and the humans back to the Land of Ooo, and finally, Shermy and Beth, characters introduced in the finale, repeating Finn and Jake’s action in the OTS. They climb up a tree, and Shermy, who resembles Finn, pulls up a sword, while Beth, who clearly resembles Jake, lies next to him. Their pose is undoubtedly the same as Finn and Jake’s in the series title card. This is how the series came to an end in 2018, with the same image it started, back in 2010 (see Fig. 2 and 3).
These are the last images on “Come Along With Me,” a 44-minute special broad
cast as Adventure Time‘s finale. This segment of the finale distinctly echoes the opening title sequence, not only concerning the narrative thinking behind showing different and distant spaces comprised in a quick montage, but also because of the decision to transform extra-diegetic elements of the series into diegesis. What started in a particular way will end the same way. Here, not only does the narrative end as a cycle (a major recurring theme in Adventure Time) – it also does so by thinking about how it performs movement in a formal, aesthetically operational way. The choice of a montage in the finale presenting several characters and places echoes the thinking behind presenting different landscapes in the OTS. Performing the ending credits song along with these images also adds up to the reading of the series as a whole diegetic and narrative space, its opening and endings sequences as much part of it as the episodes themselves. As an echo of the OTS, the first moment of the series, the ending montage thus creates an emotional and narrative framing for the series as a whole.
The series’ self-awareness as being a site of originality is one of the elements that have characterized Adventure Time as an innovative production not only in American mainstream animated television, but globally as well. Observable through its extensive presence in our cultural landscape, the series helped to promote the idea of televised animation as a place for experimentation, a place that should be appreciated not just by kids but by any viewer willing to engage with its unconventional way of world-building and storytelling.
This essay harnesses its thinking from the materiality of the moving image, looking at the tendencies of movement within Adventure Time’s animation for the purpose of being able to analyze the series for its movement as a whole – not only technological, but narrative, too. It attempts to better comprehend how the series operates as a self-reflexive site, which entails an active viewer that inhabits it. As a mobile map that balances a complex narrative, Adventure Time functions as a place of discoveries, potentialities, and awe. Its stories can be found all over. It is truly the place where fun never ends.
Elena Altheman is a Ph.D. candidate at Concordia University and a screenwriter. Her research focuses on the political economy of the Brazilian animation industry, with a special focus on labor. She teaches screenwriting and has written for several animated productions such as Irmão do Jorel (Jorel’s Brother, 2014), Menino Maluquinho (Nutty Boy, 2022), Clube da Anittinha (Anittinha’s Club, 2018) and Livro e Meio (2018). Her work can be seen on Netflix, Cartoon Network, HBOMax and others. She is the co-author of Irmão do Jorel: Livro Fenomenal, published in 2021 by Harper Collins.
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