“People say you shouldn’t live in the past,” says Betty Grof during the Adventure Time episode entitled ‘Skyhooks II,’ but she finishes this expression by saying “but I say, ‘why not?’” This is the mindset that she and many other characters embody over the course of the series, from Magic Man longing over his wife Margles to the protagonist Finn missing his brother Jake prior to the events of ‘Together Again.’ This incalculable loss is talked about, granted, but it is not the primary theme, more of a series of subplots in a fantasy adventure setting. The spin-off Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake, fixes this by making this fascinating idea the central theme of the series. Almost every character (Fionna, Simon, Prismo, etc.) has their past on the forefront of their mind, attempting to live it once again and experiencing a wide variety of results.
Adam Muto has done it yet again, reviving a classic series for the modern times. Unlike other franchises full of spin-offs and reboots, however, the original Adventure Time series just ended in 2018. Only five years have passed since then, with another spin-off (Distant Lands) being released in 2020, meaning that only three years have passed since fans’ last exploration of the Adventure Time universe. So why is it that audiences are getting a full-blown spin-off instead of a new season, akin to what Hulu is doing with Futurama? Well, unlike previous installments, this show should not be viewed by young children.
Before biting into the meat of the show, it should be said that this is not your childhood adventure time. Instead of sunshine and rainbows, it is alcoholism and depression. Rather than cartoon violence where nobody gets hurt, people die (and boy howdy do they die brutally). There is cursing, implied nudity, and complex adult themes but throughout all of this, the plot and characters still fit in with the television series we all know and love. As viewers, we are all too used to dark, gritty, depressing reboots and spin-offs of our favorite franchises, but where Fionna and Cake strives to be different is by actually being faithful to the source material and by being an actually good series.
All of the series' best characters return, albeit in altered states. Finn is a buff bearded adult still desperately trying to live his life of adventure instead of dealing with his loss. Simon is depressed and disillusioned after being released from the curse of the crown. Even Fionna and Cake, the series’ titular characters, are somehow now just living in a version of our real world instead of an alternative Land of Ooo. But the show is not just a rehash of your favorite characters and set pieces, as many new people and places are introduced as the series goes on. The Scarab, a ‘god-auditor’ with incredible cosmic powers acts as the series’ primary antagonist, chasing our heroes through never-before-seen parallel universes run by vampires and somehow not insane versions of the Ice King. This series will take you all over the highs and lows of the multiverse, to places familiar and distant populated with strange and wonderful beings.
Alongside the meat of the main story, the audience is also given a few different side plots to chew on. Whenever the Scarab is not attacking the party of the protagonists, he is doing other business in the bizarre world of the cosmic entities, giving the audience a glimpse into the inner workings and lore of the Adventure Time universe. The side plot that is more focused on, however, takes place parallel to the main story in Fionna World, exploring the lives of its now normal-ish citizens. Donald Glover returns as Marshall Lee, although he is not a vampire, and begins to explore a relationship with Gary Prince, who is not a monarch made of gum. Unlike other corporate franchises that attempt to integrate LGBTQ+ messaging into their product in a cynical attempt to get more money, the showrunners clearly have a decent understanding of the nature of queerness and are able to show such a relationship without stooping to quasi-stereotypical tropes and virtue signaling. These elements help the multiverse explored in Fionna and Cake feel like an actual series of lived-in worlds populated by real people, rather than mere backgrounds with wooden characters in the foreground.
There is an argument to be made that a show in this format is made almost exclusively for fans of the franchise, which is only partly true. Yes, there are references to the main series and the Distant Lands spin-off, and yes a new viewer may have difficulty picking up on all the various moving pieces that long-time fans will enjoy far more, but one does not need a doctorate in Adventure Time to appreciate this work of art. If you are a fan of dark fantasy, or even just fantasy, or even just good television, there are certainly elements of the show that you will appreciate. All someone really needs is a catch-up lore video, twenty to thirty minutes, to understand all one needs to understand to appreciate the show. Anything less, you are going to have some confusion, and anything more you might as well just watch the original series.
With a series of great worlds populated by great characters, both familiar and new, it is not surprising that this series is a hit on par with the original. Time and time again, the works of Pendleton Ward and Adam Muto prove that there is a way to create unique and beautiful works of art in the world that don’t have to adhere to the standards of the industry. Once in a while, something truly incredible is created, and when it has a formula this creative and this fun, all that people end up wanting is more.
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