Authored by guest writer Shawn Edrei.
(Having recently completed his Master's degree in English Literature, Shawn Edrei is taking some time off to watch cartoons before pursuing his doctorate. His favorite animated series are Daria and Avatar: The Last Airbender.)
Sometimes you just want something wacky.
Nostalgia’s a tricky creature, in that it often leaves you with the impression that an artifact of your past was significantly better than it actually was. When I go back to series I grew up with in Ye Olde ‘90s, Animaniacs still makes me laugh, Darkwing Duck makes me wonder what the hell was wrong with me, and Gargoyles makes so much more sense now that I understand the Shakespearean references.
(Of course, sometimes things are exactly as you remember them: yes, 14-year-old Shawn, Ren & Stimpy really were that gross.)
But in comparing those old toons to today’s output, it seems to me that there’s been a bit of a paradigm shift in animated storytelling, at least with regards to comedy. South Park, Family Guy and The Simpsons are just a few examples of contemporary cartoons which derive their humor from the topical rather than the situational, more influenced by current events and pop culture phenomena than by the complete absurdity which characterized the Looney Tunes era.
Enter Adventure Time: a simply-drawn and simply-executed series about Finn the human boy and his shapeshifting dog Jake having adventures in the Land of Ooo. They rescue Princess Bubblegum from the evil Ice King, they get sucked into 8-bit video games, they traverse a maze in search of a genie that will grant their fondest wish: to ride a psychic two-faced shotgun-wielding elephant with rocket pads for feet.
It’s so gloriously over-the-top that you just can’t anticipate what comes next: the Land of Ooo feels like the product of a hyperactive child with a particularly vivid imagination, a landscape in which literally anything can happen to our protagonists. That freedom, that sense of randomness, allows the writers to subvert, deconstruct and reassemble the standard Quest clichés in ways that would make Picasso weep with envy. To wit: Finn is forced to face his fear of the ocean by the embodiment of that fear – a black smoke monster with John Waters’ mustache that lives in Finn’s navel – and you’d be forgiven for thinking this would play out the way it does in so many other adventure narratives, with the Hero conquering his fear and proving his worth, rah rah rah. Not so in Adventure Time: the lesson Finn learns is that it’s okay to be flawed, that heroes are in fact defined partly by their flaws. It’s certainly the truth – Achilles has his heel, Superman his kryptonite, Aang his youthful inexperience – but no one’s ever come out and said it quite like that.
Another strength of this series is its pure enthusiasm: there’s no question that the writers and voice actors are having a ball, and that sense of fun is infectious. Finn himself belongs to that rare breed of child protagonist who’s adorable without being cloying, impulsive without being stupid, and uncomplicated without being shallow. The rest of the cast is equally entertaining, from the demented Ice King who thinks kidnapping a princess is the proper way to get married, to Princess Bubblegum’s forays into Mad Science to Lumpy Space Princess’… well, everything. (Look her up on Youtube, you’ll see what I mean.)
The animation style is neither revolutionary nor groundbreaking, but as an utterly madcap fantasy-comedy it’s quite good. The series is currently airing on Cartoon Network  and has been renewed for a fourth season in 2012.