Sunday, June 14, 2009
Adventure Time vs. Anxiety Time
Most everyone agrees that "Adventure Time" by Pen Ward (pictured above, and created for Frederator's Nickelodeon shorts initiative Random Cartoons) was one of the best animated pilots in recent memory. The resulting "Adventure Time" series eventually found a home at Nick rival Cartoon Network after the original network failed to understand the short's potential. I know what you're thinking: Familiar situation. Another case of shortsighted development executives not understanding something good right under their noses. But, in this case, there's one big problem with that theory—development executives were not alone in their concern about the series. In fact, they had unlikely allies: animation artists. Once it became known that Cartoon Network was launching an "Adventure Time" series, I heard many animators remark online and in conversation, "That will be very hard to write," or, "That won't translate to a series." There must have been Nickelodeon executives who felt the same. This begs the question, What about "Adventure Time" made people question being able to make it a series? I think the quickest way to answer that is to first discuss what it had in common with other series.
Since 1991 (and the launch of Nicktoons), TV animation has been mostly a creator-driven affair. The whole point is that each creator will have a unique vision for their series, characters, and world they are creating. The creator-driven series is really a character-driven beast since characters are the reason we keep tuning in to watch episode after episode. On the creator-driven character-based front, Pen Ward had it covered. He had a unique vision that was clearly in support of his main characters, Pen and Jake. On this first criterion, "Adventure Time" is business-as-usual, and that's a good thing!
But, characters are only interesting if stories come from them. In theory, a story line used on "Codename: Kids Next Door" should not work for "SpongeBob SquarePants." Stories need to come from the character's own idiosyncrasies or specific interactions with the other characters or aspects of their world. Of course, there are only a few basic story premises in the world, but within the animated episodic cartoon series there can be an infinite amount of clever variation on those stories. These variations will inevitably come from character. Again, "Adventure Time" fits this mold.
On the surface, Pen Ward's short might seem as if it’s one non sequitur after another, randomly breezing through its plot. In actuality, the characters work within a basic time-tested structure: we meet the characters and get to know them, they become involved in a problem or a quest, they go off on their journey, they encounter obstacles, the hero confronts the villain, the day is saved, and things leave off ready for another adventure to begin. Just because characters have interesting speech patterns or quirky phrases such as, "Algebraic," it doesn't mean that the short doesn't have a structure or leave a path subsequent episodes can follow.
Finally, the short was funny, cartoony, action-packed, skewed towards boys without alienating girls, and was popular with its target audience (kids ages 8-12), while capturing the interest of older viewers. Those are all things that most cartoon-making networks CLAIM to be interested in.
So, what was so different about "Adventure Time" that had some development executives and animation artists doubting its ability to transition from successful short to successful series?
I'm not certain I know the answer to this. Aesthetically, "Adventure Time" had a modern outsider look that had more in common with indie comics than it did with the retro-modern UPA-meets-Cal Arts style that we have seen in shows from "The Power Puff Girls" to "The Fairly Odd Parents." But, perhaps the most significant feature of "Adventure Time" is that its characters live in a semi-surreal landscape inhabited by an Ice King, a Princess, and a Rainicorn (a combination of a rainbow and a unicorn). Oh, and there's a moment of physic connection between Pen and Abe Lincoln on Mars.
Development executives and like-minded animation artists may have noticed that in "Adventure Time" we don't have the NORMAL kid-context for the main character, Pen. Does he go to school? Does he live at home with a family? Most middle of the road cartoons use both as a familiar anchor. In fact, I've often wondered if the boating school that SpongeBob attends wasn't the result of a network executive insisting that SpongeBob have some kind of school experience, even though the yellow sponge was a "adult," living alone and working a full-time job.
On school and home-life, I'm certain that Pen and his crew (in expanding his show to series) must have figured out at least a home base for the two characters, even if it isn't a traditional home. But, the key point of this blog entry is that development executives and animation artists who have expressed doubt about "Adventure Time" ought to know better. All the important shows on television ("Seinfeld," "MadMen," "The Simpsons," etc.) brought a touch of new perspective to otherwise familiar formulas of episodic television. Consider the NEW element in "Adventure Time" to be the creator's vision of a sweetly exciting semi-surreal world of adventure. After that, to corrupt a phrase by Bill Clinton, "It's the characters, stupid."