‘Come Along with Me’: Adventure Time’s Invitation for Imaginative Complexity
In September 2018, after ten seasons following a human boy named Finn, his adoptive brother, a shape-shifting, talking dog named Jake (Fig.1), and their zany hijinks, quests, and adventures in the post-nuclear apocalyptic land of Ooo, cult-pop cartoon series Adventure Time (Pendleton Ward, 2010-2018) finally drew to a close. With themes of temporality, cyclicality, the apocalypse, and growing up, the narrative of Adventure Time seems to be in direct conversation with its time-constricted episodic television format, as well as the time-and-physics-bending medium of animation. Adventure Time takes advantage of the very non-reality of its animated form by incorporating fantastical and musical sequences, elements that might stand out from a live-action show that, by nature of its physicality in the real world, cannot as easily convince viewers to suspend all notions of rationality. Using Jason Mittell’s notion of narrative complexity as a lens, this post will identify how a seemingly unobtrusive children’s cartoon managed to maximise the use of its narrative tools and its exemption from the logic of reality to create a story that transcends all categorisation. With special attention to Adventure Time’s use of music and fascination with time, the series finale, ‘Come Along with Me,’ acts as a concluding argument to a 283-episode long thesis. By pairing musical sequences with short, episodic stories that complexly reflect on notions of temporality, Adventure Time makes its own argument that animated fantasy can function as the perfect vehicle for encouraging active, fantastic, and imaginative viewer engagement with their world.
Despite most episodes spanning only eleven minutes, Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time has an ability to ‘interplay between the demands of episodic and serial storytelling’, which manages to create ‘narratively complex television’ (Mittell 2006: 33, 38). The concept of narrative complexity derives from Mittell’s analysis of genre-bending television that deftly ‘oscillate[s] between long-term arc storytelling and stand-alone episodes’ and uses an exceptionally high level of ‘storytelling devices’ (2006: 33, 36). Mittell’s distinction usefully parses out the various elements of the programme and explains why their particular uses in narratively-complex media elicit certain results. While Mittell notes that these devices, such as ‘alterations in chronology’ and ‘fantasy sequences’ are not unique to narratively complex television, their heightened use integrates such occurrences into the show so as to ultimately blur the distinction between in-show fantasy and reality, as well as diegetic and non-diegetic narration (2006: 36, 37). ‘Come Along With Me’ perfectly exemplifies Adventure Time’s narrative complexity. Using animated musical sequences as a primary narrative device, the finale encourages viewers to ‘actively engage at the level of form’ (animation) as well the level of plot (Mittell 2006: 38). This active engagement is essential to Adventure Time’s success. In addition to its fantasy setting (the land of Ooo), Adventure Time emphatically presents full songs, montages, and in-world fictional sequences that require viewers to relinquish their grasp of rationality to more fully immerse themselves in, and consequentially more fully enjoy, the fantasy of the story.
As an animated fantasy, Adventure Time’s engagement with its own diegesis and external reality helps the programme operate under Mittell’s definition of narrative complexity. Paul Wells notes that in animation, like in fantasy, laws of reality are substituted for the ‘nonliteral, non-objective, [and] non-conditional’ and thereby such animation ‘advances the idea that cause and effect may be fluid and unpredictable’ (2015: 6). The flexibility of animation allows for the fantastic to flourish as its own form of reality. For instance, in the Adventure Time episode ‘Puhoy’ (season five, episode 16), Finn enters Pillow World and lives an entire lifetime, complete with marrying and having children and dying, before reemerging from the pillow fort only a few hours after he first entered, with no memory of his pillow life. Unlike some other episodes, where major life changes have lasting consequences in the show, Finn’s pillow family is never brought up again, throwing the timeline of ‘Puhoy’ into question, and suggesting that anything could be possible within the Adventure Time universe (Fig. 2). As Mittell highlights in his analysis of narratively complex television, many viewers of such programmes ‘find themselves both drawn into a compelling diegesis (as with all effective stories) and focused on the discursive processes of storytelling needed to achieve each show’s complexity and mystery. Thus these programs convert many viewers to amateur narratologists, noting usage and violations of convention, chronicling chronologies, and highlighting both inconsistencies and continuities across episodes and even series’ (2006: 38). This engagement with violation was crucial to Adventure Time’s success, and viewers who paid attention to the seemingly innocuous details were rewarded with entire plot arcs revolving around background characters easily overlooked in earlier episodes. Indeed, Adventure Time’s very interrogation of animation and fantasy allows viewers to reassess the forms of the medium they previously took for granted. Music and sound effects, often used to ‘prompt the maximum of suggestion in the minimum of imagery’ (Wells 2015: 12) in animation, here become diegetic tools for characters and audience members to interact with. By naming its series finale, ‘Come Along with Me’ after the end credits theme song, Adventure Time’s production team implied that the meshing of diegesis and storytelling devices inherent to narratively complex television would be the focal point of the episode.
These features of complex storytelling present throughout Adventure Time are exemplified within the finale of the programme, allowing the episode to continue to disrupt conventions of temporal storytelling. ‘Come Away with Me’ is framed by BMO telling its story 1,000 years in the future to two young creatures, Shermy and Beth. Although BMO proclaims this story is the end of Ooo, he later reveals that it was just the end of the story. Finn, Jake, and everyone else continue ‘living their lives.’ BMO’s nonchalance is a funny and characteristic misunderstanding of normal conversational conventions, but this admittance positions the medium of animated storytelling in confrontation with imagination. Can the relationships formed through Adventure Time’s episodes and its viewers be sustained beyond the lifespan of a television show? This question speaks to the heart of ‘Come Along with Me’ and Adventure Time as a whole. With its dreamlike colour scheme, fantastical roots, and wide array of diverse, ever-surprising characters, Adventure Time is a manifestation of the possibilities of the fantastic imagination. Considering how many of the 283 episodes contemplate themes of reincarnation, growth, and life after destruction, it seems like Adventure Time has been preparing viewers for the end all along.
The crux of ‘Come Along with Me’ – the moment where the elements of storytelling, and time most pointedly intertwine – occurs when Betty summons GOLB, god of discord, who wreaks havoc and disharmony upon Ooo. Princess Bubblegum gets hurt, BMO’s screen is shattered, and Finn and Jake’s treehouse is destroyed. A notable marker of Finn and Jake’s imaginative adventures, the destruction of the treehouse signifies the potential loss of innocence many viewers expected Finn to undergo during this final transformative episode. Even Jake, Finn’s older brother and protector, is completely shaken by the structural loss. As Jake shrinks into a miniscule foetal position (notably on a fallen clock face), BMO, who usually is presented as the most childlike of the group, sings a lullaby to Jake that functions as a way to stop GOLB from further destruction, while also functioning as a reflection on the both the machinations of Adventure Time’s production as well as its overarching message (Fig. 3).
Characters across Ooo from seasons past sing together in an effort to harmonize the GOLB’s chaos. This literal manifestation of music’s role in Adventure Time’s world brings music’s usefulness as a storytelling device and as a mode of collective and active engagement to the forefront. Titled ‘Time Adventure’ by songwriter Rebecca Sugar, the song uses the wordplay Adventure Time is known for (i.e. transforming ‘mathematical’ into an exclamation of excitement), as well as the montage of characters it weaves, to exemplify Adventure Time’s liminal relationship with temporality, musicality, and storytelling. The characters sing that even though time ‘seems unforgiving when a good thing ends, you and I will always be back then, singing “Will happen, happening, happened.”’ Sugar’s lyrics express that although the way we tell time, through clocks and linguistic tenses, are constructs to help us understand the world around us, the passage of time evokes real experiences of love and loss. Following Adventure Time’s penchant for meta-textual commentary, through ‘Time Adventure’ the characters (and the show) acknowledge the artifice of their own animated medium and world, yet simultaneously suggest that viewers’ imaginative engagements and emotional responses to the stories have allowed for the events of Adventure Time to really happen on some level. In keeping with its narratively complex genre, the name of the song, a reversal of the title Adventure Time, deconstructs the viewer’s recognition of the episode itself. While the title of the song is not revealed in the episode, its wordplay suggests that the song’s scene, while functioning in the story as a literal tool to save the day, is also a non-diegetic narrative construct, merely a title of another adventure in the life of Finn, Jake, and the rest of the characters.
In a final reflection of its own work, Adventure Time sets the last scene of ‘Come Along with Me’ with Finn and Jake discussing the merits of music on the grass next to the music hole (a pit in the ground that plays music). In addition to its non-diegetic properties of narrative compression outlined in this article, Jake remarks that music ‘speaks to a primal pit in our brains’ that makes us want to get up and dance. This admission is vital to the nature of Adventure Time. In addition to the narrative complexity created through clever technical tricks and intersections, viewers can experience the show on a simple level of pure enjoyment. The music hole agrees, indicating that such enjoyment and complexity are not mutually exclusive by playing a song that is ‘about a really specific feeling that’s hard to describe.’ The song is ‘The Island Song,’ Adventure Time’s ending credits theme from which the episode takes its name. Using the song to describe an indescribable feeling, Adventure Time recontextualizes its closing credits theme on multiple levels. By transitioning from a non-diegetic sequence to a diegetic narrative element, the instantly recognizable ‘Island Song’ creates a pleasing sense of confusion for the viewer. As Mittell reveals, at its core, narratively complex television activates viewers’ ‘desire to be both actively engaged in the story and successfully surprised through storytelling manipulations…we want to enjoy the machine’s result while also marveling at how it works’ (2006: 38). As viewers reorient their perception of the ending credits theme through its inclusion in the finale’s plot, Adventure Time successfully combines animation and music to signify a different sort of end – one that is actually full of continuities and beginnings. Indeed, as the music hole sings, the viewer is presented with a montage of characters growing up, starting new careers, and spending time together.
With the singer’s beckoning to join them on their adventure, ‘The Island Song’ suggests that although there may not be more stories of Finn and Jake, there will always be more adventures to be had. As the song finishes, the montage flashes to the future, where Beth and Shermy find the new tree that Finn planted in the plot where his treehouse used to be – signifying that his life in the old treehouse really did end, but that something new has grown in its stead. Shermy and Beth pull a sword from the top a branch and hoist it, glinting in the air, mirroring Finn and Jake at the end of the opening credits, thereby establishing themselves as the next heroes of Ooo. Whereas the opening credits sequence, like the closing credits, is typically understood as a non-diegetic scene – we never see Finn and Jake recreate that pose with a sword in an episode even without the title banner above them – Shermy and Beth very intentionally strike the same poses and look directly into the camera (Fig. 4).
In these final moments ‘Come Along with Me’ takes one more shot at meta-textualizing the viewers’ relationship with the medium of animation, the format of television, and the fantasy of time. Like with ‘Time Adventure,’ the restructuring of these opening and closing sequences points viewers both to the abstractness of time, but also to the reality of its passage. Using the fluid mutability of the animated world and the emotional compression of song, Adventure Time creates an enchanting and wistful time and space where the laws of reality meet the impossibilities of the fantastic to tell viewers: yes, things you love will come to an end, and yes you will miss them, but you were part of something meaningful and important, and that will always be with you. Through the narratively complex engagement and interactions between animation and the fantastic, ‘Come Along with Me’ manages to close the book on Finn and Jake while still encouraging viewers to make time for their own imaginative adventures.
Mittell, Jason. “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television, The Velvet Light Trap 58 (2006): 29-40.
Wells, Paul. ‘Wonderlands, Slumberlands & Plunderlands: Fantasy in the Animated Film’ presented at the Fantasy/Animation Conference (London: Kings College, 2015).
Hanna Greenblott is an editor, writer, and researcher. She received her MLitt in Fantasy from the University of Glasgow. Her research explores the relationship between the Romantic sublime and the fantastic.