There are a lot of great shows on TV, but it's increasingly rare to find something truly unique; something so singular in execution and artistic voice that it almost defies description. 'Adventure Time' is one of those shows. In fact, Pendleton Ward's utterly bizarre and irresistibly charming Cartoon Network animated children's program just might be one of the best shows on TV. No, really. I mean it. Heavily inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, anime, videogames, fairy tales, and classic adventure plotting, the series is an explosion of unbridled creativity and delirious wit that's unlike anything else on television, creating a world of limitless possibilities and off-beat humor that manages to appeal to audiences of all ages.
The show tells the story of a heroic twelve year old boy, Finn the human (Jeremy Shada), and his best friend, Jake the dog (John DiMaggio), who can talk and happens to have magical stretching powers (think Mr. Fantastic but with paws). The pair live in a surreal fantasy world called Ooo which may in fact be a post-apocalyptic, distant future version of Earth. Throughout the twenty six episodes that comprise the first season, the duo of adventurers fight evil, save princesses, and get into a whole mess of trouble, usually under increasingly bizarre and random circumstances.
Like its name implies, the core of the series really couldn't be any simpler. This is a show about adventure –- big and small. Each eleven minute episode features a new tale that sees Finn and Jake tackle various challenges like fighting off a horde of zombie candy creatures, training to be wizards, tracking down legendary items, or continually thwarting the devious Ice King's repeated attempts to kidnap potential brides. Throughout it all, the writers play with various genre tropes and archetypes, taking heavy inspiration from role playing games to form a fun, frequently nonsensical and manic questing logic all their own. To this end, the show doesn't play by conventional narrative rules, and many episodes end rather abruptly with seemingly unfinished threads. Though that might sound potentially irritating, this occasionally incomplete feel only helps to enhance the show's quirky and surreal comedic voice.
Blending overt absurdism, sharp wit, goofy sight gags, juvenile jokes, and atypical vocal performances, the writers engender a multilayered sense of humor that plays equally strong to kids and adults. Actually, at times it might even play stronger to adults. Fantastical situations are often undercut by mundane reactions or problems, placing a hilariously ordinary spin on the show's larger-than-life scenarios. Non sequiturs and silly observations are the norm, and under the writers' careful hands, even immature gags involving farts and pee somehow seem intelligent. Well, almost intelligent. There's even a faintly risque and subversive undertone to some of the comedy and situations (particularly the romantic ones) and the series can get a little dark and borderline disturbing in some instances -- but the creators approach to this potentially adult material is so endearingly innocent and harmless in execution that the show never becomes inappropriate.
Complementing all the clever word play and comedy is a simple but beautifully realized hand drawn animation style that evokes an endearing sense of crude innocence and magical charm. Though not especially detailed, the cartoon visuals are still very dynamic and expressive, and the animators frequently create comedic and dramatic emphasis through extreme, intricate close-ups that provide a stark contrast to the usually modest character designs. Likewise, backgrounds are often layered with subtle details in the environments that add another level to the settings' sense of character. This all comes together to form a totally immersive atmosphere that fully brings the land of Ooo and its eccentric inhabitants to life.
Speaking of eccentric inhabitants, the cast of characters is absolutely brimming with personality, and the voice actors are all top notch and pitch perfect in their roles. Jeremy Shada gives Finn just the right amount of naivety, immaturity, and staunch bravery. The character has a strong moral code and embodies true heroism, but at the same time he's still just an inexperienced little boy prone to normal kid problems and behavior. As Jake the dog, John DiMaggio is the ultimate best friend. His laid back, fun-loving attitude is infectious, and the core friendship between the canine and his human companion becomes the crux of the show.
Special note must also go to Tom Kenny who plays Finn's most prevalent foe, the Ice King. Despite being a frequent antagonist to the show's heroes, the frosty wizard really isn't a bad guy –- he's just incredibly pathetic and lonely, and often goes about trying to find love and companionship in the worst (and most hilarious) ways. Kenny's vocal work is simply superb, and he goes on to craft one of the series' most complex and oddly likeable characters. A lot of the show's irregular comedy beats end up resting wholly on the performances, and the nuances in the cast's line readings are perfectly attuned to the eccentric style of comedy.
As with any series with such a distinct voice, the show's very specific sensibilities might not be everyone's cup of tea, and its random, unconventional storytelling rhythms and strange sense of humor could prove annoying or pointless to some. With that said, I couldn't be more enamored by the imagination on display here. Like Pixar, the series' writers have found a perfect equilibrium between kid-targeted fun and surprisingly intelligent humor –- but unlike Pixar's decidedly mainstream approach, the tone here is much more offbeat and idiosyncratic. This is high quality short attention span storytelling at its best, proving that the ADD generation of kid's cartoons can still offer a few genuine gems. Though simple and seemingly random on the surface, there are real layers of depth here that go on to further develop an exceedingly rich mythology in future seasons. But even in its earliest stages, 'Adventure Time' is weird and wondrous in all the right ways, taking viewers on a truly magical journey that is oddly funny, heart warming, absurd, and compulsively entertaining.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Bros. brings 'Adventure Time: The Complete First Season' to Blu-ray on a single BD-50 disc that comes housed in a keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. In a fun little design choice the slipcover is shaped to look like Finn's trademark animal hat with a cutout circle exposing his face on the cover art underneath. When the slipcover is removed, the full cover art exposes the character's luscious blond locks. A code for an UltraViolet digital copy is also included. After some skippable trailers, the screen transitions to a standard menu.
The show is provided with a series of 1080p/VC-1 MPEG-4 transfers in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Simple but wonderfully creative and vibrant, the animation style absolutely sparkles on Blu-ray.
With the exception of some extremely faint horizontal banding, the digital source is clean and pristine with no distracting artifacts. There is a slight roughness to the outline edges of characters but this seems to be inherent to the animation and not a result of aliasing. The show's modest but imaginative style is preserved beautifully, bringing all the wondrous characters and locations to life, and though there isn't a lot of detail in the traditional sense, the cartoon images pop with personality. Colors are bold and vibrant offering rich primaries that soak up the screen in cheery fantasy hues. Contrast levels are nicely balanced with bright whites and deep blacks.
Outside of some negligible banding there really isn't anything to complain about here. The show looks quite lovely in high definition and fans should be very pleased.
The series is presented with English Dolby Digital 2.0 audio along with optional English SDH subtitles. While it's a bit disappointing that the show doesn't get a surround or lossless presentation, these lossy 2.0 mixes actually sound pretty good.
All the characters' witty and absurd dialogue comes through cleanly with crisp fidelity, making sure that the all the nuances in the voice actors' delivery is preserved. Effects work and music are nicely spread throughout the two channel presentation with pleasing directionality that sends various sword slashes, magic spells, and explosions to the left and right when called for. Though the tracks are certainly limited by the 2.0 presentation, the audio still offers a decent sense of space with what it has to work with, adding some auditory energy to the show's plucky spirit. Dynamic range is solid and there is some slight low frequency rumble to the show's action heavy moments. The series' frequent diversions into song are also nicely realized with no technical problems to speak of.
Yes, it is a shame that the show hasn't been given a multichannel or, at the very least, lossless treatment, but the results are still rather effective, and to be honest, I never really felt like I was missing out on anything.
Warner Bros has put together an appropriately odd but entertaining collection of supplements, including commentaries and behind the scenes featurettes. All of the special features are presented in 720p with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio unless noted otherwise.
'Adventure Time: The Complete First Season' offers viewers a strange, hilarious, and effortlessly delightful introduction to one of the most unique and entertaining shows on TV. Fun for both kids and adults, the series appeals to all ages and is full of quirky creativity, wondrous imagination, and offbeat humor. The video transfers are very strong with great pop and bright colors, and while not lossless, the audio mixes are actually very effective. The included supplements are all appropriately strange, and while real insights into the show's production aren't as comprehensive as I would have liked, fans should be pleased with the silly extras. With fantastic stories, amusing special features, and a great technical presentation, this is a wonderful release for the cult favorite cartoon. Highly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.