A boy and his dog go on adventures. The boy has a cool hat; the dog has magical powers. That was the original concept behind Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. Now in its fifth season, the show has become a cult sensation and one of the most consistently inventive series on television. Sometimes stars Finn and Jake fight monsters. Sometimes they have girl problems. Usually, though, they’re just hanging out. They live in Ooo, a vivid landscape built from the spare parts of the whole history of geekdom. Fitting, since the show is a hybrid sci-fi/fantasy/horror/musical/fairy tale, with echoes of Calvin and Hobbes, Hayao Miyazaki, Final Fantasy, Richard Linklater, Where the Wild Things Are, and the music video you made with your high school garage band.
But Adventure Time is more than just a mega mash-up. Finn is voiced by real-life teenager Jeremy Shada. As Shada’s voice has deepened, Finn himself has aged. This is a coming-of-age story, and like Harry Potter, Adventure Time has matured with its protagonists. Characters who initially seemed like parodies have developed rich, engrossing interior lives. Nominal antagonist Ice King (voiced by Tom Kenny, the man behind SpongeBob SquarePants) has become a tragic figure, with an apocalyptic origin worthy of a Ray Bradbury short story. The show even recently had a pregnancy plotline, involving Jake and his girlfriend, Lady Rainicorn. (She’s half unicorn and half rainbow. Naturally.)
Episodes of Adventure Time are barely 12 minutes long. They’re not all perfect, but they’re never not interesting. At its best the animated series — much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Watchmen — reanimates old genre tropes and discovers fascinating new depths. Creator Pendleton Ward has turned the series into an emotionally intricate look at adolescence, jealousy, obsession, parental anxiety, and maturity. It’s also a fantasy panorama filled with alternate universes, penguin sidekicks, musical interludes, and a kingdom made of candy.
And it’s funny! In the Feb. 25 episode, Finn takes maybe-girlfriend Flame Princess on a date to a dungeon. He asks her to light a torch with her flame powers. She quickly responds — sweetly, awkwardly, firmly — “Do we need a torch? I’m sorta made of fire.” A