Adventure Time, or, why we need good animation criticism

by criticalhit009

If you’re reading this, you probably know a lot about Adventure Time, probably even more than me. So I’ll waste no time introducing the show (the video below does a decent enough job,) and instead seek to dig deeper into the accolades and criticism of the show.

While thoughts on Adventure Time recently percolated in my mind and in discussions with others, I am primarily posting in reaction to two different takes on Adventure Time. One is a piece by NPR that prompted me to start writing again. The other appeared months ago, and while I mentioned my criticism of the analysis in question to friends, I never published my thoughts until now.

Below is the work of PBS Idea Channel, which I’ll touch on in a later post. Suffice it to say, I find their work somewhat problematic, but valuable in attempting to widen discourse on youtube. But without further ado, their take on Adventure Time.

Do I agree with the video? In a word, no. I find the use of nostalgia in the video problematic. While I can understand nostalgia may play a role in the show’s success with its audience, that doesn’t explain why *children* would like the show. The notion of a ‘nostlagiaception’ is not as clear cut as the video may imply. The only characters that do have nostalgia is Marceline and the Ice King, because they’ve lived long enough to actually remember and experience losing the past. We would not say Finn experiences nostalgia, because he has not lived  long enough to remember the devastation of the world, and grieve its loss. Many in the world might not even realize how the world changed.

To explain further, I’ll reiterate some of the research I’ve encountered. I find Fred Davis’ book Yearning for Yesterday (talk about a nostalgic title) a great source on nostalgia. Thorough his studies, he finds that people experience nostalgia, a yearning for the past, when they go through period of change, especially in identity and maturity.  In other words, when we are confronted with change (growing up into an adult), we seek the things from our childhood, old concrete notions of our identity. Whether it be through behavior or objects, we seek to recapture the past because we are uncertain of the present. On my college campus, for example, I occasionally find instances of invoking the past, whether it be chalk hopscotch, juvenile behavior, or obsession with old-school gaming. 

Now, in regards to Adventure Time, the aforementioned Marceline and Ice King’s experience of loss and nostalgia makes sense, they remember and are affected by the loss of the past. However, I would point to the emotional depth of the scene as a reason why Adventure Time is a great show.  It’s not just nostalgia, but good character writing, and make up only a facet of why the show is so entertaining. Instead of cut and dry good and evil, The Ice King’s story is a fascinating tale of madness and self-sacrifice. There is pure evil in the Lich, the main antagonist in the series. Instead of being a one-note villain, the Lich provokes terror and commentary as a product of nuclear Armageddon.

Aside from character writing, I want to emphasize the bursting creativity of the show. The designs and the world the show creates help prove something I hold true: Adventure Time could only be done in animation. I suspect that Pendelton Ward is aware of the nature of aesthetics in animation, and utilizes them effectively. Glimpse at the animated world below:

Adventure Time World of Ooo

Anything can be done in animation without aesthetic compromise or limitation. The colorful creations, from Lumpy Space Princess to Peppermint Butler, all feel coherent parts of this animated realm despite the conceptual weirdness. Jake the Dog himself is an example of the strength of animation in its plasticity. Able to transform his body into all sorts of shapes and sizes, his power is helpful when navigating the world, but never feels strange or disjointed from the show. Other characters also illustrate this plasticity (just look at all the limbs of the characters above,) but Jake serves as a prime example of this. Plasticity is a great strength of animation as an art form, and I believe Adventure Time engages this well. Much more could be said of Adventure Time‘s great qualities, but as an animation scholar, it’s the show’s engagement with the art form itself that I find incredibly rewarding.

And it is an art form, a realization that is slowly but surely acclimating in America. To go back to the NPR article,

Count plenty of grown-ups among the millions of fans of Adventure Time, a kids’ show on Cartoon Network. Some are surely Emmy voters. (It’s won three.) Others are very possibly stoners. Still others are intellectuals. Lev Grossman falls in the last category. He wrote two best-selling novels, The Magicians and The Magician King,and he’s Time‘s senior book critic.

Grossman’s critique of Adventure Time? “It’s soooo smart! It’s sooo intelligent!”

Hang on. He’s just getting started.

“I am a little bit obsessed with it,” Grossman continues. “It’s rich and complicated the way Balzac’s work is, which is a funny thing to say about a cartoon.”

The last sentence infuriates me, even though it’s a great compliment to the show, because it appears to  assume that depth and artistic intelligence is not something that is normal for animation. (Also, a reference to Balzac? Seriously?) It helps illustrate why the word “cartoon” is so problematic because of its various connotations, mainly that “cartoons”, aka animation, is only for kids. It’s seen as something silly and humorous; never profound; never art. 

This is why we need good animation criticism, to help dispel these connotations attached to animation. The world of animation must be recognized as an art form, not a genre. Until audiences and critics realize this, that animation doesn’t have to be just for kids, doesn’t just have to be silly but ultimately trivial, but can be profound and beautiful, bewilderment will remain a staple in animation appreciation instead of understanding.

Also, the video implies that The Simpsons isn’t emotionally profound – what?