Originally a Nickelodeon short that rocketed to wide critical acclaim through viral exposure, Adventure Time has rightfully solidified itself as a Cartoon Network primetime staple and a genuine cult sensation within the last year. When Tyler, the Creator raps, “This ain't no V-Tech shit or Columbine/But after bowling I went home for some damn Adventure Time,” on his single “Yonkers,” it's not only a clever, generation-defining lyric, but a message for scribes and spectators alike within the meme-tastic blogosphere who aren't already fans of Pendleton Ward's playfully bizarre animated series to climb aboard the cool crowd bandwagon.
The now twice Emmy-nominated Adventure Time scores relatively high marks for storytelling, artwork, music, voice acting, and realization with its neatly wrapped, 11-minute packages of multicolored awesomeness. The way each chapter plays out is comfortably dreamlike in structure, flowing from one delightfully peculiar sequence to the next with a consistently spirited pace that currently has no rival on kid-targeted television (though its time-slot companion, J.G. Quintel's Regular Show, comes close). Casey James Basichis's 8-bit, chiptune-drenched score never contradicts the show's distinctly hand-drawn aesthetic, and does an exemplary job of generating proper atmosphere without being distracting.
The endeavors of Finn the Human (Jeremy Shada) and Jake the Dog (John DiMaggio, employing a vocal performance as elastic as the character he plays, slightly resembling Futurama's Bender turned down several notches on the temperamental scale) span across the ever-evolving Land of Ooo, a world where each character introduced is an enchanting new kingdom discovered. From the criminally adorable Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch) and innocently brooding Marceline the Vampire Queen (Olivia Olson) to the constantly misunderstood quasi-antagonist Ice King (Tom Kenny, in one of his most noteworthy roles to date), Adventure Time's characters are remarkably original in design and execution without being overly showy. The voice acting uniformly finds a delicate balance between steadfast cuteness and flashes of volatility, ultimately contributing to a well-oiled machine, a product being produced for the unadulterated satisfaction of its audience rather than a reliable cash cow for its parent company.
What's so charming about Ward's creation is that it scarcely appears to be trying too hard to attract attention, yet it does just that. Now in its third season, Adventure Time has its time-tested, viewership-approved formula down pat. That formula, ironically, is to avoid a specific formula. Unpredictable without being random, and rarely relying on arbitrary gross-out jokes or brainless, hackneyed violence, this is a show you can theoretically enjoy with the volume muted; the craftsmanship is just that appealing. Its characters, even the intentionally annoying ones, are difficult to despise once you've spent some quality time with them. For example, Lumpy Space Princess, voiced by Ward himself, is a floating mass of extraterrestrial fluff who speaks in a cloyingly sarcastic, spoiled-mallrat teenage-girl accent. Early in the show's run, it was arduous to tolerate her; she seemed like too much of a gimmick for a series with such a fully realized cast of characters. Yet in the season opener, “Conquest of Cuteness,” LSP redeems herself in a hilarious scene involving the staging of her own death following a faux love affair with one of the not-so-threatening enemy Cute King's minions, all taking place in the confines of roughly two minutes.
The short-form format leaves some emotional substance to be desired, but this isn't a show with a perpetual tugging of heartstrings on its to-do list, and as the lovely closing credits (featuring Ashley Eriksson's “Island Song”) abruptly roll, I find myself clamoring for the next installment, forgetting any moral I may have learned. In season three's fourth episode, “Hitman,” Ice King reveals his soft spot for adversaries Finn and Jake, hiring a “hitman hitman” to dispose of the assassin he formerly appointed to literally hit, not kill, our protagonists. It's a great misunderstanding-style storyline, but because the conclusion arrives so suddenly after a rousing action montage, it becomes problematic to process Ice King's substantial bit of character maturation in deciding to aid his perpetual thwarters in their time of need (he unexpectedly dramatizes their demise by freezing them before a hellish slaying could occur at the hands of fire-wielding mummy-esque mercenary Scorcher). This is truly a minor complaint; for a convivial quarter hour each week we're whisked away from the countless quandaries of everyday existence into a universe where princesses are made of otherworldly clouds and man's best friend stretches for miles and miles, as far as the mind's eye can see.