Feature: The Universal Appeal
What is it about certain forms of entertainment that find themselves resting comfortably in an almost impossibly universally appealing state? It’s a kind of grey area that bridges the ground between adult and child. Films, television, games, books that can be enjoyed equally and are as rich for each person, regardless of age, gender, and sometimes even culture. Recently, Netflix added a treasure trove of classic animation, mainly from Cartoon Network (In the US, at least, but of course we wouldn’t be circumventing any type of location-based restrictions, no sir). These are shows that a certain generation will remember very fondly: Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, and more. As warm and fuzzy the nostalgic feelings for these shows may be, they don’t quite fall into the magic all zone. Along with these additions, a current Cartoon Network animation: Adventure Time. Even the name itself has a sort of almost immediately understood meaning. Children think of the adventures they go about every day in their imaginations and adults are reminded of a time when they themselves embarked on similar mind-bending quests during their the own childhood years. But beneath the surface, there’s so much more.
Perhaps the key element in such entertainment is the optionality of depth. Disney and Pixar could arguably be viewed as the grandmasters of the all-encompassing drama: Toy Story, Wall-E, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Aladdin, The Lion King… the list goes on. What makes these films classics and why they are so loved by a wider than normal demographic is in their ability to give very different people very different experiences. There is something for everyone but crucially, not to the detriment of any other individual aspect; it’s an even spread, with quantity and quality, so that satisfaction is ensured for both the five-year-old who is dazzled by the creative visuals and the fifty-five-year-old who is touched and moved by the narrative and themes explored.
Adventure Time takes this philosophy and distills into tiny, easily digestible chunks rather masterfully. It’s reminiscent of early SpongeBob in this regard. The conceit is so simple; Finn, a twelve-year-old human boy, and his faithful shape-shifting dog, Jake, adventure across the Land of Ooo, a post-apocalyptic landscape set a thousand years after ‘The Great Mushroom War’, where magic has returned to the world. And of course there’s a host of colourful allies and villains too, like the Hot Dog Princess, who is a literal hot dog with, legs, a face, and a crown. So simple, but so genius.
The eleven minute running time of each episode keeps filler to an absolute minimum and gives the viewer a sense of instant gratification; there’s no waiting for the good stuff, it’s just always there. That’s an important element of a show like this; generally children have shorter attention spans and need both an immediate and ever present hook to keep them reeled in. For adults, it’s greatly refreshing; the slow burn has its place, for sure, but every now and then, how nice it can be to step into something different that sucks you in, chews you up, and spits you out again before you’ve even realised it, because the journey is such a relentless rush. Adventure Time has that process down to a fine art.
‘Those blasted youths and the terrible cartoons of today. Back in my day, cartoons were cartoons!’. It’s easy to dismiss this as rose-tinted drivel but there’s some truth hidden in there too. The visual nature of cartoons has changed dramatically in last ten years or so. Just look at The Simpsons now and compare it to its glory days. The difference is staggering. As they began to use digital animation more and more, so much of the show’s visual charisma was lost; the personality of the hand drawn approach was overcome by the cold precision of digitalisation. And a lot of other cartoons can’t even called such any more, opting for a fully computer-generated approach which more often than not looks painfully generic. How much more remarkably striking is Adventure Time’s appearance then in this context. Positively bursting with colour and charm, it stands out in a sea of increasingly unambitious and derivative artistic styles, the reported nine month completion period per episode so worth the extra meticulous effort of hand drawn animation. The effect of this is that it inflames the imagination much more; its creativity is contagious, and you feel as though you’ve witnessed something truly unique. It is joy in motion in a way that is seldom true for animated series nowadays.
As we grow older, we find ourselves more concerned with reality and less in touch with a world that doesn’t exist, yet can often seem so much more interesting. A show like Adventure Time, even purely on an optic level, is like gateway into that realm, a break from everyday drudgery. Escapism is one of the most basic reasons for fiction of any type in any media to exist and what better way to escape the confines of reality than diving into something totally bizarre, impossible, and as far from the familiar as possible?
Of course, there is a degree of optional depth required in order to capture an older audience, and Adventure Time certainly succeeds in this area too. The scene-to-scene dialogue is full of snap and wit that never fails to amuse. The plots of many of the episodes are pretty typical coming-of-age lessons. While they may be stories that have been told time and time again, they’re presented with such sheer weirdness, often with dark or sinister undertones, that it becomes difficult not to get immersed. Its cult following on the internet is no doubt helped by the many references to all corners of nerdom, from Dungeons and Dragons to chiptune.
There really aren’t many who can claim to exist in this sweet spot. The best of Pixar and Disney, as mentioned, are probably the most immediately obvious other occupants. Studio Ghibli are great at it too. It isn’t just in film and television though; Nintendo have also mastered the all-ages market. Their success is for very much the same reasons although translated into video games terms; they create worlds that are immediately appealing to younger audiences that seem simple but go on to provide a level of mechanical mastery that is, at its best, unmatched in its design and proficiency.
Maybe the best thing about all of these is in their ability to bring people together. Something powerful is constructed in a shared experience, something that transcends generations and the many other barriers of society; connections that allow us to better understand each other. And that’s a very valuable thing indeed.