The recent news that Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time” has become fodder for a movie project in development at Warner Bros. should stimulate the excitement of the show’s ever-growing fan base — even as it provides just as many reasons for skepticism.
For anyone not yet hooked on this alternately charming and profound fantasy show in Saturday morning cartoon clothing, it’s important to note that “Adventure Time” doesn’t fall into any of the familiar buckets associated with contemporary television.
On the one hand, the bright, goofy odyssey about the prepubescent Finn and his talking dog pal Jake maintains a fast-paced irreverence, not unlike other offbeat animated programs designed to please kids and adults in equal measures — “Spongebob Square Pants” chief among them.
However, since it first launched in 2010, “Adventure Time” continues to refurbish its appeal. Without dropping the trippy plots and equally bizarre asides, show creator Pendleton Ward gradually injected emotional sophistication into the futuristic setting, along with an effectively dark mythology. Nobody could have guessed early on that “Adventure Time” was actually a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age tale that only looked outwardly silly because of its inhabitants’ behavior.
But lurking beneath that vibrant surface lurks a melancholic depth that continues to develop alongside the more outrageous bits. Unlike any show of its type, “Adventure Time” manages to reach for big ideas without losing the ability to have fun: It’s a zany comedic enterprise and an alluring metaphor for inexpressible feelings, often at the same time, so it’s possible to experience many layers of the show at once: Sure, the Ice King is a ridiculous villain who dreams of kidnapping Princess Bubblegum. Then again, the Ice King is the tragic shell of a once-brilliant scientist whose mind was destroyed by an ancient artifact, and Princess Bubblegum is a mad scientist who rules mercilessly over an army of subservient candy people. Whether or not the show’s writers make it up as they go, “Adventure Time” never goes anywhere expected.
Ward pairs a world of vibrant images, occasional musical tangents and peculiar origin stories with flashes of unapologetically sophomoric humor, because, hey, that’s life. There’s always the sense of a shrewd agenda lurking just beyond the specifics of any given storyline. Perhaps the biggest magical flourish of the Land of Ooo was that Ward secretly harbored an ambition on par with Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” chronicling young human Finn’s experiences as he grows up more or less in real time: A giddy child in the earlier seasons, Finn steadily evolved into a more emotionally complex teen, enduring romantic hardships, confronting the pain of losing his elders and grappling with his deadbeat dad — even as he and Jake continued to battle all kinds of other weird forces. Sometimes, the show hints at revealing backstories or veers off on odd tangents involving side characters, but it never loses touch with a sensational fusion of tones: the kooky, erratic pace of a video game runs parallel to a heightened sophistication and artistry that creeps in from the sidelines.
Whether channeling the discursive events of a “Dungeons and Dragons” game or the rich imagery of a graphic novel, “Adventure Time” always feels slightly familiar and weirdly off-putting at the same time. It’s still one of the most exciting, unexpected forms of narrative experimentation on network television today. And that’s partly because the show benefits from the boundaries of its format. With such a fleeting running time, “Adventure Time” episodes get away with hinting at the bigger picture of the show’s dark, mysterious world, while exploring the broad canvas of emotions in broad strokes — songs and tender or zany asides supplant traditional exposition.
All of which makes it hard to imagine the energy and invention that “Adventure Time” has developed over the years getting crammed into a single feature-length production designed for mass audiences. The show’s concise style gives each episode a stanza-like quality in which the details of the world gradually reveal themselves: “People working on the show are poets,” former “Adventure Time” writer Rebecca Sugar told Indiewire in 2013. Indeed, there’s an intimate, almost fragile quality to Jake and Finn’s goofy antics, as if we’ve stumbled onto Ward’s private therapy session for workshopping his deepest feelings through fictional characters.
To that end, the show’s popularity may explain why Ward quietly left his position as showrunner last year, leaving executive producer Adam Muto to run the ship. Fortunately, Ward’s departure hasn’t impacted the show’s quality: Four episodes in, the eighth season of “Adventure Time” already shows plenty of potential to continue developing its characters (Finn successfully confronts his dad about his shortcomings) as well as its outlandish backdrop (the subterranean human Susan Strong breaking into the mysterious Super Porp soda factory, assailing a mutant race of soda manufacturers). Even when “Adventure Time” seems to advance some aspect of Finn’s life, it always holds the potential to veer off in some new direction.
There’s no way a (presumably) 90-minute movie, no matter how well-constructed, could borrow that sense of narrative exploration on a mainstream scale. Ward, who has shown a penchant for video games more than traditional storytelling (he wrote an “Adventure Time” game and provided some voice work for the recent adventure game “Broken Age”) excels at building his world incrementally, in the same way that player might casually explore the sandbox of a virtual environment.
However, with the right team in place, “Adventure Time” could at least survey some of the more appealing side characters (BMO! Cinnamon Bun! Billy’s ghost!) while launching Finn and Jake on some freewheeling odyssey or another. Writers could borrow from “The Simpsons Movie” with its neatly-designed premise that brings all the show’s characters into one place. They might also look to “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut,” which pushes the more extreme comedic aspects of the show (the vulgarity and the musical sequences) to create a robust package of its strongest attributes. But if they’re truly daring, they could try to follow the path of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters,” which fully captures the sheer lunacy of the Adult Swim program.
But “Movie Film for Theaters” was an independently-produced feature with a limited release; “Adventure Time” will be a studio production with presumably more of a formulaic approach to its story. If that ends up being the case, there’s still no immediate cause for dismay. “Adventure Time” offers plenty of epic hooks that haven’t yet been fully explored, including the struggles of various survivors in the immediate aftermath of the fabled “Mushroom War” that left the Land of Ooo in disarray, and the cryptic story behind Finn’s birth — which involves the still-mysterious identity of his mother. “Adventure Time” keeps expanding outward with new revelations, but many details remain murky at best. Any one of them could technically carry a single movie.
Even so, “Adventure Time” derives most of its appeal from individual moments — bittersweet songs, charming internal monologues — more than any given plot details. A movie may or may not include some of these same ingredients, but either way, it won’t change the degree to which the show has already left a mark.