2:54am

Mon June 17, 2013
Monkey See

An 'Adventure' For Kids And Maybe For Their Parents, Too

Originally published on Mon June 17, 2013 1:27 pm

Count plenty of grown-ups among the millions of fans of Adventure Time, a kids' show on Cartoon Network. Some are surely Emmy voters. (It's won three.) Others are very possibly stoners. Still others are intellectuals. Lev Grossman falls in the last category. He wrote two best-selling novels, The Magicians and The Magician King, and he's Time's senior book critic.

Grossman's critique of Adventure Time? "It's soooo smart! It's sooo intelligent!"

Hang on. He's just getting started.

"I am a little bit obsessed with it," Grossman continues. "It's rich and complicated the way Balzac's work is, which is a funny thing to say about a cartoon."

For the uninitiated, Adventure Time is set in a surreally pastel post-apocalyptic kingdom crawling with mutated candy creatures, bizarre princesses — think Slime Princess and Lumpy Space Princess — and our two heroes. They're Finn and Jake, a gangly human boy and his moon-eyed yellow dog.

The show's creator, Pendleton Ward, modeled Jake partly after Bill Murray's sardonic camp counselor in the 1979 movie Meatballs, a cooler-than-cool older-brother figure who can laugh at his charges without being mean and whose teachable moments are anything but cloying.

"Jake sees his own death in one episode," says Ward. "And Finn has to deal with that. Jake's a hip guy. He can watch his own death, and he's comfortable with it, and that's a weird thing, especially for Finn, who's superyoung, and it's really hard on him."

In the episode, called "New Frontier," Jake experiences a vision during which he's taken to an afterlife of stars and darkness by a little bananalike creature (voiced by Weird Al Yankovic).

"When I die, I'm gonna be all around you," Jake reassures Finn. "In your nose. And your dreams. And socks! I'll be a part of you in your earth mind. It's gonna be great!"

"That episode was really tough to tackle, writing it for a children's television show," Ward remembers. "It was hard for us to really not make it so sad and scary that you feel really sad and scared watching it."

Adventure Time insists on emotional honesty — even in its bad guys, usually depicted as cardboard villains in kids' cartoons.

Grossman offers the shrill, socially maladapted Earl of Lemongrab as an example. An unlikable character, his story is movingly explored and raises questions nearly every kid has wondered about: Why do I seem weird to other people? Why do I seem weird to myself?

Or take the buffoonish, bandy-legged and morally compromised Ice King. "[He's] psychologically plausible," Grossman observes. "He's an old lecherous man who has a magical crown. It's made him into this strange, awful individual who goes around capturing princesses."

The king's crown wiped his mind and warped his body. He'll die if he takes it off.

"Which is this rather moving tension, and he doesn't remember who he used to be, but other people do," Grossman says. "It's very affecting. My dad has been going through having Alzheimer's, and he's forgotten so much about who he used to be. And I look at him and think this cartoon is about my father dying."

In spite of the critical admiration, the warm feelings of fans and the prestigious awards, Adventure Time nearly never aired. "It actually felt like a great risk," says Rob Sorcher, the Cartoon Network's chief content officer. "It's not slick. It doesn't feel manufactured for kids, so who's it for?"

Um, perhaps partly for the kind of grown-up who might watch Yo Gabba Gabba with a little chemical assist?

"For me, it doesn't come from that place," says Ward. "For me, it comes from my childhood, wandering in my mind. You can't really go anywhere when you're a kid. I don't have a car, I don't have anything. I just have my backyard and my brain. And that's where I'm coming from when I'm writing it." He pauses. "I can't speak for all the writers on the show."

Ward and his mother used to watch cartoons together when he was a kid, but he claims today he's not writing specifically for a co-viewing audience of parents and kids. Still, author Grossman says Adventure Time works for him and his 8-year-old daughter, Lily, equally.

"It's really important for us to have something we can enjoy together and talk about together. It gives us in some ways a common language for talking about more important issues," he says.

Adventure Time's world used to be our world. Then it was destroyed by a war. It's strewn with detritus such as old computers, VHS tapes and video games from the 1980s.

"It takes my childhood, the shattered pieces of it, and builds it into something new, which is now part of Lily's childhood," he says, almost in wonder.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURE TIME")

JEREMY SHADA: (as Finn) You know what time it is, buddy?

JOHN DIMAGGIO: (as Jake) Adventure time?

SHADA: (as Finn) Yeah, man!

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah, man. "Adventure Time" is a kids' cartoon with over three million regular viewers, including many grown-ups. It has won multiple Emmy awards. And to find out the attraction, why don't we spend some time in the land of Ooo? That's where "Adventure Time" takes place. It's part of our month-long focus on media for kids. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, the show's adult fans run the gamut from intellectuals to stoners.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Let's start with an intellectual.

LEV GROSSMAN: It's so smart. It's so intelligent.

ULABY: Lev Grossman is the author of the best-selling novel "The Magicians," and he's senior book critic for Time Magazine.

GROSSMAN: I am a little bit obsessed with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: He compares this cartoon, "Adventure Time," to one of the greatest writers in Western literature.

GROSSMAN: It's rich and complicated the way Balzac's work is, which is a funny thing to say about a cartoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: "Adventure Time" is set in a flattened-out, pastel post-apocalyptic kingdom. It teems with surreal creatures, like mutants made out of candy, bizarre bugs with teeth and princesses, like Slime Princess and Toast Princess. Then there's our two main heroes.

GROSSMAN: Finn. He's a boy who goes on adventures. He's got a sword. He likes to punch things.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUNCHING)

GROSSMAN: And he's got his best friend Jake, who's a dog who can change shape.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURE TIME")

SHADA: (as Finn) What are you doing, Jake?

DIMAGGIO: (as Jake) Ah! Sleds are for suckers. Just ride on my gut.

(as Finn) OK.

ULABY: Maybe that sounds like typical kids' fare. But "Adventure Time" ventures into dark, twisty terrain, says its creator Pendleton Ward.

PENDLETON WARD: Jake sees his own death in one episode, and Finn has to deal with that.

ULABY: The stubby yellow dog with moon-shaped eyes is seized by a vision of stars and darkness and an afterlife.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURE TIME")

DIMAGGIO: (as Jake) Finn. Finn, it was amazing.

ULABY: He's convinced his vision is on the verge of coming true.

WARD: Jake's a hip guy. He can watch his own death, and he's comfortable with it. And that's a weird thing, especially for Finn, who's super-young. And it's really hard on him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURE TIME")

SHADA: (as Finn) I don't want you to die. I'm your best friend.

DIMAGGIO: (as Jake) Finn, when I die, I'm going to be all around you, in your nose and your dreams and socks. I'll be a part of you in your earth mind. It's going to be great.

SHADA: (as Finn) Dude, stop saying all this crazy nonsense. It's making me messed up. I'm 13. You're messing me up.

WARD: And that episode was really tough to tackle, writing it for a children's television show. It was hard for us to really not make it so sad and scary that you feel really sad and scared watching it.

ULABY: "Adventure Time" insists on emotional honesty, even in its bad guys. That's rare in kid's cartoons, says novelist Lev Grossman.

GROSSMAN: Usually, they're just caricatures. They're just cardboard villains.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURE TIME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Announcing the arrival of the Earl of Lemongrab.

ULABY: Like a strident bully literally made from lemons.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURE TIME")

JUSTIN ROILAND: (as Lemongrab) This castle is in unacceptable condition. Unacceptable.

GROSSMAN: He's desperately antisocial, and nobody can stand him. But they went back to him and explored who he was and what it was like to be Lemongrab. Lemongrab was made by Princess Bubblegum, who's another of the heroes, and she's a scientist. She likes to mess around in her laboratory.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURE TIME")

HYNDEN WALCH: (as Princess Bubblegum) He was the first one of my experiments gone wrong.

GROSSMAN: And he returns and confronts her, and says: Why did you make me in this way, that nobody can stand me? Why am I so different from everybody else?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURE TIME")

ROILAND: (as Lemongrab) No one, no one understands. I am alone, and you made me like this. You made me.

ULABY: Lemongrab's story raises universal questions. Why do I seem weird to other people? Why do I seem weird to myself?

GROSSMAN: It's an incredibly moving story. I've watched that episode a lot of times.

ULABY: Lev Grossman also found himself captivated by the morally compromised Ice King, buffoonish, bandy-legged and...

GROSSMAN: Psychologically plausible. He's an old, lecherous man who has a magical crown. It's made him into this strange, awful individual who goes around capturing princesses.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURE TIME")

SHADA: (as Finn) Ice King, don't do this. Just let the girls go. They don't want to be here.

TOM KENNY: (as Ice King) Of course they do. I would have killed them already if they didn't want to be here. Right, ladies?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yes.

ULABY: The King used to be normal, just a guy who loved strange artifacts. The magic crown wiped his mind and warped his body. He'll die if he takes it off.

GROSSMAN: Which is this rather moving tension, and he doesn't remember who he used to be, but other people do.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURE TIME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You don't remember anything, do you Simon?

KENNY: (as Ice King) What, man?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Why do you even come see me when you don't remember me? You don't even know who you are.

GROSSMAN: It's very affecting. My dad has been going through Alzheimer's, and he's forgotten so much about who he used to be. And I look at him and think: This cartoon is about my father dying.

ULABY: In spite of the critical admiration, the warm feelings of fans and the prestigious awards, the Cartoon Network nearly passed on "Adventure Time," says its chief content officer.

ROB SORCHER: It actually felt like a great risk.

ULABY: Rob Sorcher says the show's unexpected success paved the way for other idiosyncratic, artist-driven cartoons. But executives are still amazed it ever found an audience.

SORCHER: It's not slick. It doesn't feel manufactured for kids. So who's it for?

ULABY: Perhaps partly for certain grownups who might watch "Teletubbies" or "Yo Gabba Gabba" with a little chemical assist.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURE TIME")

SHADA: (as Finn) Ha, ha! This is cool!

DIMAGGIO: (as Jake) Yeah!

ULABY: "Adventure Time's" creator, Pendleton Ward.

WARD: For me, it doesn't come from that place. For me, it comes from my childhood, wandering in my mind. You can't really go anywhere when you're a kid. You don't, you know, I don't have a car. I don't have anything. I just have my backyard and my brain. And that's where I'm coming from when I'm writing it. I can't speak for all the writers on the show.

ULABY: Ward and his mom used to watch cartoons together when he was a kid. And he claims today he's not writing specifically for a co-viewing audience of parents and kids. But author Lev Grossman says "Adventure Time" works for him and his eight-year-old daughter Lily.

GROSSMAN: It's really important to us to have something we can enjoy together and talk about together. It gives us, in some ways, a kind of common language for talking about more important issues.

ULABY: "Adventure Time" is set in a world that used to be our world. Then it was decimated by a war. It's strangely familiar, strewn with old computers, VHS tapes, video games from the 1980s.

GROSSMAN: It takes my childhood, the shattered pieces of it, and builds them into something new, which is now part of Lily's childhood.

ULABY: Part of a childhood for lots of people. And part of an adulthood, too. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.