Like Golden Age science fiction pulp, Adventure Time (2010) is brave and goofy but rough around the edges as it presses into the dark unknown of American animation. It takes familiar elements in cartoons and video games — a hero that saves princesses and a confirmed post-apocalyptic Earth — and infuses them with its own energy and random humor. It also refuses to cater to the lowest common denominator. Cartoon Network’s newest show, Steven Universe, promises to do the same.
Adventure Time radiates a fun, cool weirdness. In the episode “Her Parents,” the benign mother and father of Lady Rainicorn (Niki Yang) reveal a casual hunger for human flesh. “Hug Wolf” has Finn transform into a were-creature that seeks to be sated by “hugs, bro!” In the recent “James Baxter the Horse,” the gender-fluid video game console BMO (Yang again) bursts into tears upon watching his (her) pretend egg-baby “killed” via butterfly. Openly, show creator Pendleton Ward transgresses against cartoon animation norms by turning something cute or strange into something dark and a little disturbing. Also, episodes often and aggressively refuse to have morals, ending on awkward segueways more often than not.
Other shows have attempted to emulate this randomness with mixed success. In The Problem Solverz (2011), three friends, including a part-dog, part-anteater, part-human, solve problems in their crudely drawn world. In Regular Show (2011), a blue jay and a raccoon spend their time making references to the eighties while taking care of a park under the instruction of a sentient gumball machine.
Neither of these shows really feels as revolutionary as Adventure Time. Acts of random dark-cuteness are woven into the show’s fabric. These elements are casual, fluid, and well-developed in Adventure Time and the remains a beacon. It’s an animation seed in the public imagination that will bear fruit for generations of entertainment to come.
That obvious outgrowth can be found in the pilot episode of Steven Universe. Created by Adventure Time writer and storyboard artist Rebecca Sugar, this new show both honors the provocative weirdness of its predecessor while allowing it to evolve. It originally leaked on the Cartoon Network website and has since been removed.
Pudgy tween Steven Universe is an aspiring member of the Crystal Gems, a magical girl super group. In the seven-and-a-half minute pilot, his attempts to impress his older teammates Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, include writing a theme song on the ukulele. Pearl scorns him in response while Garnet and Amethyst express pity. The rest of the episode involves Steven coming to terms with his perceived weakness in the group while learning the secrets of time traveling through comeback lines. It’s a perfectly synthesized pilot, full of promise, allusions to Sailor Moon, an intelligent plot, and an emotional core.
The incongruous concept — boy aspires to be a magical girl — feels like a one-off joke on Adventure Time. In execution, though, it’s a bolt of lightning, profound and unfiltered Rebecca Sugar. It’s thoughtful, funny, and embodies Adventure Time at its best and most provocative. It even promises to surpass it.
The artist Rebecca Sugar first pinged on my radar a few years ago with her now-defunct LiveJournal. The blog boasted carefully rendered life drawings and delightful sketches of dancing couples, one of which was made into the short below. Green Grassface (2009) shows Sugar’s talent for music and quirky visuals, both of which are seen in her first Adventure Time episode, “It Came from the Nightosphere,” where Marceline the Vampire Queen reveals the tension she has with her Hell king father through a song about french fries.
There’s a sense of wonder and strangeness that must have attracted Adventure Time to Sugar. Her short film, Johnny Noodleneck (2009), shows a society of people happily living in hot air balloons.
Balanced with this whimsy, though, is a real sense of drama and emotional investment. She also wrote and drew a tragi-funny comic about a brain trauma victim who can only communicate with his brother by quoting The Simpsons, a story called, Don’t Cry For Me I’m Already Dead. Tissues definitely needed: http://dawolfey.wordpress.com/2011/05/13….-rebecca-sugar/
This particular balance of humor and raw emotion appear when she turned heads three years ago in the animation community with her somber student film, Singles:
Her art style is goofy, her characters are vulnerable, and her work is always playful.
Looking at her varied history, there’s no doubt why Rebecca Sugar has directed Adventure Time at its best. Her episodes are memorable and have a sort of gravity. These include the gender-swap alternate universe “Fionna and Cake,” where female-Finn struggles with her concept of femininity, the heart string-yanking “I Remember You” that explores the relationship between Marceline and Ice King, and its follow-up, “Simon and Marcy,” which depicts life in the early years of the post-apocalypse.
Adventure Time, on its own, is funny and strange, but with Sugar, it has depth. She utilizes Pendleton Ward’s wackiness and turns it into something moving. I feel like Problem Solverz and Regular Show mimic a wacky surface but stumble when attempting to find depth.
I deeply regret making Adventure Time such a huge part of this article as it casts Steven Universe further in its shadow. Rebecca Sugar is obviously talented in her own right. Maybe I’m just excited because Steven Universe looks so cool just from the pilot, but I really do think, based on Sugar’s other work, it has more potential.
Her work has a maturity to it. Even in the pilot, we see odd double meanings, like the way Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl’s personalities all seem to represent Steven’s superego, id, and ego, respectively. The girls in question also have different body types, bucking the trend of animation that represents multiple female characters with the same body shape. It’s a show that already displays a great deal of intelligence.
Adventure Time’s legacy isn’t found in Regular Show. It’s not in other lol!random Cartoon Network programming. This legacy is in works that refuse to cater to the lowest common denominator, that move you as they move animation forward.