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A powerful Adventure Time explores how art enlightens personal change

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Adventure Time

"Abstract"

Season 8 , Episode 8

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To live is to change, but how do you accept the changes you don’t want or expect? Jake is dealing with this question in “Abstract,” the first new Adventure Time episode since the conclusion of the Elements miniseries. That event ended with Jake being transformed into a blue, five-eyed form reminiscent of his shape-shifting demon parent (for more on Jake’s background, check out season 6’s “Joshua And Martha Investigations”), and despite his efforts to act like everything is normal, everything is very obviously the opposite.

Finn and BMO can see that their old dog friend is now a weird demon-thing with unpredictable abilities, and while Finn is trying to play it as cool as he can, BMO is freaking out about Jake’s new look. The design for the new Jake is especially effective at reinforcing how he’s become an other in this world, with his smooth, rounded dog look being replaced by a giant blue alien design that feels out of place in this environment. Jake tries to find some comfort at the local bar with Dirt Beer Guy and Lady Rainicorn, but it just draws more attention to his change. (Dirt Beer Guy doesn’t even realize he’s talking to Jake while telling him that he’s still the same guy.) Jake can’t fight his new nature after an ominous, surreal dream, and he embarks on a quest to get some answers by finding his brother Jermaine, who is tucked away in the mountains pursuing a new career path as an abstract painter.

Written and storyboarded by Graham Falk and Laura Knetzger, “Abstract” uses Jake’s experience to tell a bigger story about how artists evolve over time, commenting on how Adventure Time itself has changed dramatically from where it started. This comes through in Jermaine’s story and his explanation for why he’s embraced abstract art after focusing on more literal landscape painting. After drawing landscapes for years, he’s become less interested in the general picture and wants to explore the individual shapes at the core of these images. Why do those shapes make him feel different emotions? Can those feelings be evoked in art that doesn’t strive to recreate what the eye sees? Adventure Time isn’t an abstract series at its core, but over time it has embraced abstract elements to enrich the storytelling by inviting viewers to bring their own personal interpretation to what is happening on screen.

Sometimes those experiments work and sometimes they don’t, but I’m always fascinated by this series’ willingness to venture outside the children’s cartoon norm. From an educational perspective, “Abstract” does a great job explaining the value of abstract art to minds that may have difficulty grasping why “meaningless shapes” can be art in the right hands, and in exposing himself to his brother’s work, Jake has a breakthrough regarding his own current state of flux. As he looks at Jermaine’s different paintings, Jake has a revelation: “The shapes are always changing. Changing is their normal state. Like us. Even if we’re not changing on the outside, we’re changing on the inside constantly.” This motivates him to look deeper at his new appearance, realizing that there has always been something frightening inside of him that he’s never confronted.

But change doesn’t have to be scary. There’s happiness in realizing that, after all these changes, the fundamental shape of your soul is still in tact. Seeing that fundamental shape can be difficult in the midst of a chaotic transition, but by looking at Jermaine’s art, Jake gains a deeper understanding of his sense of self. Great art speaks to you on a spiritual level that is difficult to describe in words, and appreciating that art means opening yourself up to that dialogue. If you write off all abstract art is junk that a four-year-old can create, you’ll never be able to understand how the relationships between shapes and colors can inspire deep emotions. But if you’re willing to engage on a deeper level, your whole perspective of the world can change. Jake comes to accept his external change by absorbing Jermaine’s art, and when he returns home, he’s back to his usual self.

This episode resonates with me in a profound way because I just got back from a two-week fellowship where a handful of critics from around the country were exposed to different art, reviewed it, and evaluated each other’s writing. That experience forced me to look at how I’ve changed as a writer since I started reviewing, and how my priorities have shifted in terms of what I’m evaluating in different media. Adventure Time has been a constant in the last five years of my life, and while there have definitely been times when I got burned out on writing about this 10-minute cartoon, the show always found ways to get me engaged again by experimenting with form and bringing in bold new creative voices. In my early days reviewing Adventure Time (and most TV shows), I focused much more on the story being told rather than how it was being told. But once you realize the overall shape of the picture, it becomes more interesting to break down its parts and look at how creative choices inform the storytelling and the emotional impact of the narrative.

I don’t watch and review Adventure Time because I need to know what happens to the characters. I certainly care about Finn, Jake, and the rest of the cast, but I keep coming back because I want to see how different animators take this show in new directions both in terms of story and design. It’s a long-running property that has remained fresh by embracing experimentation, and as someone that spends a lot of time reviewing long-running properties (hello, superhero comics), I admire how this show isn’t afraid to shake things up. Watching the first episode, you’d never expect Jake to be the offspring of a dog bitten by a shape-shifting demon, but taking the character in that direction introduces a slew of new conflicts, both internal and external.

Stray observations

  • There are some very fun cameos in this episode. I’m always happy to see more of Dirt Beer Guy (formerly Root Beer Guy), and while I’m not as enamored with James, the ice cream sandwich guardian of the wastelands, I really like his design.
  • This episode sets up a revelatory conversation between Joshua and Jake, which I’m expecting will happen soon. It’s time for Jake to learn the truth about where he came from.
  • “I can kinda taste the toast’s emotions or somethin’. Gettin’ ground into flour and turned into bread really did a number on this wheat’s sense of self.”
  • “A lot of people are different these days. Dirt Beer Guy, you’re practically a zombie. How do you deal with it?”
  • Dirt Beer Guy: “You’re the same person as before.” Jake: “Heck yeah! I’m still the same ole’ Jake on the inside.” Dirt Beer Guy: “Wait, you’re Jake?! Uh, pardon me. Oh dear oh dear, that’s really something.”
  • “Jermaine hates abstract art. He would never paint something non-representational!”