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Ideas/CommentaryTV

How ‘Adventure Time’ Revitalized Post-Apocalyptic Storytelling

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There’s too much post-apocalyptic fiction around, in books and movies, TV and games. In the typical such story our world is broken via multimillion-dollar special effects, civilization burns like tissue thrown in a furnace, and the ragged survivors must fight each other and their environment before Tom Cruise saves them…or something like that. There might be religious messages; there definitely are overt or covert social messages. I’d toss the lot into a dumpster now, except for Adventure Time.

Adventure Time steps beyond the tropes and distortions of post-apocalyptic fiction and creates something altogether more honest, fun, and wholesome.

It’s a common fallacy that people automatically revert to looting and barbarism in a disaster. (Revert? Were cavemen nothing but looters? If so, The Flintstones is a big fat lie!) As soon as the apocalypse comes, everyone is supposed to bust into bondage-wear stores in order to cosplay their favorite Mad Max characters for the rest of their lives, and kill anyone who comes near. It’s simply not true, and lazy storytelling at that. Read Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant book A Paradise Built in Hell for how real people react in real disaster situations. The size of the disaster does not change human nature. Adventure Time, in presenting relatively stable societies that grow after the Mushroom War, might be more realistic than its adult counterparts.

The look of the post-apocalyptic world has become stereotyped: ruined cities, silent and buried, the survivors mutated and monstrous. Even Futurama gave us glimpses of that while poking mild fun. In Adventure Time, some mangled, broken debris gives us an indication that this was once our world, but very little survived the war, and what did was altered, not always for the worse. Magic was loosed on the world, which is hard to consider disastrous.

Even the scariest villain in the show, The Lich, introduced in the second season, is magical, more a result of rather than leftover from the pre-apocalyptic world, although its resemblance to the Horned King from Disney’s film The Black Cauldron (1985) nods to the bygone world of cartoons. (And Choose Goose, with his Ed Wynn-inspired voice, must surely be a descendant of Gandy.) Finn, though presented as (perhaps) the sole surviving human, looks rather strange, potentially alien under that hat or hood. When he first takes it off, and his blonde hair appears, there’s a sense of relief.

The accidental genius of Adventure Time is that the apocalypse was added as the show developed. The intentional genius was the decision to keep the apocalypse secondary. Compare that, for example, with the post-apocalyptic kids’ TV of my youth, which range from dystopian (Return to the Planet of the Apes) to quietly optimistic (Ark II). They were designed to be emotionally and structurally simple, and, in the case of Ark II, vaguely educational. Where Ark II succeeded, though it only ran one season, is that it was free of pessimism while still involved with post-apocalyptic societies.

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Animated features run a wide gamut too, from the complexity in tone and story of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind (1984) to the more half-baked structure of Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards (1977). In poor post-apocalyptic fiction the backstory sets the tone, and characters are just flotsam bobbing in the current. In good post-apocalyptic storytelling, the characters work with the backstory yet remain able to make their own stories. Marceline the vampire, aside from being the coolest vampire on TV today, is an example. She transcends the standard tropes of vampirism, and is allowed to become an individual as a result.

Finn and Jake are not holy fools or inhabitants of a new Eden, both of which are tropes of other kinds, they’re just two kids living as best they can. Survival is not the travail presented by most post-apocalyptic fiction. It can even be fun. I like to think of Finn and Jake as the utopian counterparts to the title characters in Harlan Ellison’s famous story, “A Boy and his Dog” (1969); just two friends making do in a world more complicated than they know. There are monsters—what adventure would be complete without them? But there are friends as well.

And to those who say, “It’s just a kid’s show,” reflect on how every generation is shaped by the stories they hear as children: the Alice in Wonderland books, the Oz books, Seuss or Sendak. Adventure Time brings a little of its own distinct flavor, a 21st century addition to the canon, and a welcome one.

  • CDF-CRO

    “I’d toss the lot into a dumpster now…”

    Could you give examples of what post-apocalyptic movies, books etc you have in mind?

    • steepertree

      A few movies: After Earth, Damnation Alley, all the Mad Max films (sorry, Tina Turner), Waterworld,
      There are good post-apocalyptic films – hello, Wall-E – but most are shallow excuses for a lot of fight scenes.

      • djm

        Adventure Time’s whole deal is that Finn and Jake are in it for the fight scenes. Monsters and fight scenes and looting. Duh. It’s D&D. Nuance and character have been added over time because that’s natural due course for shows (and D&D), but to not say Adventure Time isn’t an excuse for lots of fight scenes and monsters and looting is quite wrong.

  • SarahJesness

    I love the apocalypse stuff in AT, and yeah, keeping it on the side was a good decision. I enjoy speculating on the details, and looking for little clues as to what went down. One thing I love about AT is that they don’t tell you a bunch of stuff directly, all at once. Whenever they do decide to answer a question, it usually ends up raising even more questions. (Rebecca Sugar brought this trait over to Steven Universe as well) There’s no big exposition or speech, and the extra mystery makes it all the more interesting. You never know when they’re going to reveal more, and a huge amount of the information is hidden in the visuals or the dialogue. The show takes place 1000 years after the apocalypse, so it’s definitely not going to be the “typical” post-apocalyptic story of a badass running around in a wasteland, but there’s also not much reason for our two main characters to focus on it either.

  • Hanover Fist

    A fallacy that people revert to looting and barbarism in a disaster??!?

    You can go to the rooftop and shout your faulty premise of people coming together during chaos, I’ll be expecting on the law of the jungle from my fellow man.

    I guess its no wonder that in the progressive world-internet-community where atheists insist religion is no longer needed as a moral compass(because Dr Dawkins attests that we have an “innate” sense of right and wrong), we now have the ridiculous idea that humanity can be counted on when evil has the greatest opportunity for conquest. Bullocks.

    The kurds are making Mad Max look consummately prophetic right now:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2773452/The-REAL-road-warriors-Mad-Max-battle-buses-tanks-built-Kurdish-fighters-repel-ISIS-soldiers-Syria.html

    Solnit’s book might have some comforting anecdotes that you can wrap yourself up in when you go to sleep at night, but its not a counter to world history at large. Or human nature- a nature that is inherently evil. And how ironic that non religious voices, which hang their hat on Darwin at the end of every day, are now bending over backwards to explain humanity as being exceptional from the animal kingdom. Human nature is as brutal as the natural world from which we came. Treat yourself to a tour of the cramped ships that were used to transport slaves from Africa or make a date at a holocaust museum to help wrap your head around the fact that humanity is inherently evil.

    Its a simple equation: when morality and self interest come in conflict with each other, self interest always wins.

    • Roberto del Corazõn

      Quoting the Daily Mail doesn’t really give any weight to your speaking ;)

    • Axolotl

      Yes, I have also felt that ADVENTURE TIME did not adequately reflect mankind’s inherent evil.

    • GW

      While I agree that there are overwhelmingly negative aspects of human nature, it’s an overstatement that self interest always wins. If that were true then why are there vegetarians? I’m an atheist but I don’t consider human beings particularly exceptional, only slightly smarter than the rest of the animal kingdom and possessing the only opposable thumbs. I also have to say that human beings are able to become more ethical over time. There wouldn’t be democracies if that weren’t true. Children can be inherently ethical but they’re not in a position of power so they don’t make much of a difference. And for those who aren’t ethical, they still usually know how to be ethical. We don’t need to believe in divine retribution to realize how to properly treat one another.

      But it’s easy to talk about other people and say negative things. It’s another thing to apply the same logic to your self. Would you be amoral without religion? Would you behave selfishly in a post apocalyptic circumstance?

    • Ben

      I can’t help but picture you as some emotional 16 yearold that hates the world and thinks their incredibly clever by being pessimistic.

      You don’t even stick with a cohenert line of reasoning, you argue that humanity isn’t good because of darwinism, then argue that humanity is inherently evil? So Darwinism is evil? If mankind follows Darwinism wouldn’t that make humanity inherently neutral? Or do you think all animals are inherently evil? Like cows, are you trying to say cows are evil cause man… that’s a hard sell.

      Hell even following just plain logical darwinisim, humanity benefits by working together, we’re social animals and have evolved as such. The individual benefits from helping their neighbors. That’s how we’re programmed on a biological level. there is countless evidence for it. We were pack hunters using numbers and intelligence to bring down much larger and stronger prey. So the health and ability of your pack is directly tied to weather you’re going to eat. So you look out for Jimbo, because if he’s got a broken leg you can’t work together to kill that mammoth and none of you get to eat.

      But man that’s just plain Darwinism at work, humanity is more complex then straight up animal instincts. You can list disaster after disaster, and horrific shit done by people all you want, but you go to the holocaust museum and you’ll see records of atrocities committed by man, and you’ll see records of heroism and self sacrifice committed by the people being persecuted, people that died and sacrificed their lives so that others could live. People that hid jews at risk to their own lives, prison guards that helped people escape etc. For every Hiter there’s an Oscar Shindler. For every terrorist attack on civilians, there are people that run straight towards the danger to help the victims.

  • Paul M

    Yeah, brilliant job, Adventure Time, remake “Thundarr the Barbarian” and add comedy:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhAobPugvsk

  • Ant G

    Great article but may I use the same subject as a counter to your argument? Here’s a scene also from Adventure Time which pretty much nails the behavior of humans and what would likely come in a post apocalyptic world; the ones with power make it their world with laws that the rest of humanity would be repressed by. Not much different than today.

    The looting and barbaric behavior from starving individuals is nothing compared to being stripped of your humanity by people who put their wealth before another human’s health (or millions of) .

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36FbHXsEuzM

  • Ben

    That’s the opposite of terrifying. If civilisation is muddling along, 2 steps forward, 1 and a half step back. That means we’re just going to continue to make progress endlessly towards a utopian society. Slowly but still progress. And that’s rad.

  • Meh, I’d say mid-Season 5 is when shit REALLY started to hit the fan.

  • Barrett

    I am more concerned that civilization will muddle along in a 1 step forward, 2 steps back way, and end up devolving into an Idiocracy-type scenario where people are too stupid to even realize what has been lost via generational attrition.