Adventure Time: Islands

Please note: This review contains potential spoilers for the television programme Adventure Time. Read on at your own discretion.

Picture courtesy of Cartoon Network
Promotional artwork for the Adventure Time mini-series Islands.

Of all the quality children’s programmes currently airing, none has quite the prestige that Adventure Time has. Initially gaining attention for its vibrant animation, fantastic voice-cast and wacky, offbeat humour, the series has since evolved into a deep, intelligent narrative about finding one’s identity in a diverse and complex world… to the detriment of its younger viewers.

Conversely, this has allowed Adventure Time to gain a number of adult followers, drawing them into the thoughtful storylines that often go over kids’ heads. It’s these same followers that have allowed the show to become as big as it has, keeping them entertained despite all its foibles, but even the most diehard fans of the programme could not anticipate the brilliance of the Islands mini-series.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of Islands, it is worth summarising Adventure Time for those unfamiliar with its premise. Set in the post-apocalyptic land of Ooo, the show follows the escapades of human teenager Finn (Jeremy Shada) and his best friend Jake (John DiMaggio), a dog with magical shape-shifting abilities. Over the past seven years and 200-odd episodes, the duo have saved kingdoms from destruction, battled monsters large and small, befriended former foes and been smitten by Ooo’s female inhabitants.

Islands begins with an unidentified flying object intimidating the citizens of the Candy Kingdom, a threat which is swiftly thwarted by Finn and Jake. Analysis from the Candy Kingdom’s leader and resident scientist, Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch) asserts that the mysterious craft is human-made, which comes as a surprise – humans were supposed to have died out during the nuclear wars of years earlier, with Finn believed to be the last of the species.

Of course, avid viewers of Adventure Time know that Finn isn’t the last human, with the Season 7 finale (“Reboot”) revealing that Finn and Jake’s friend Susan Strong (Jackie Buscarino) is also human. Hospitalised after the events in “Reboot”, Susan is visited by Finn, asking her to take a look at the supposedly human-made machine. Upon examining said machine, Susan seems to find it familiar, having flashbacks of piloting a very similar vehicle…

By accessing the on-board computer, Princess Bubblegum is able to locate the machine’s point-of-origin, which is discovered to be a series of islands far from the coast of Ooo. Finn is determined to travel to said islands – he may find other humans should he head there or, worst case scenario, discover why they died out. And so, having lent Bubblegum’s yacht – and with their sentient video-game console BMO (Niki Yang) as a stowaway – Finn, Jake and Susan set sail for the far-away islands, oblivious as to what they’ll encounter on their journey.

Courtesy of Cartoon Network.
Susan Strong , Finn, Jake and BMO in the opening title sequence of Adventure Time: Islands.

Islands is not the first mini-series to be aired by the Adventure Time crew. That honour belongs to Stakes, which focused on Adventure Time’s most popular character, Marceline the Vampire Queen (Olivia Olson). Stakes was a ratings winner for Cartoon Network upon its first screening, and fans responded favourably to the episodes. This reviewer was less enthused, taking particular issue with the ending, which seemed to undo all the greatness that Adventure Time had established at that point.

This was made more frustrating by the fact that, for the most part, Stakes’ main focus was Marceline herself, and its efforts to unite it with the Adventure Time narrative felt mediocre at best. There are no such complaints to be had with Islands, which firmly establishes its connection with the main series early on. Better yet, the eight episodes in the mini-series address some of the show’s greatest mysteries, many of which were left open-ended in “Reboot”.

As well as the aforementioned saga about the last humans, Islands focuses on the most intriguing character in Adventure Time – Susan. From her introduction in the second season, she has carried an aura of mystery about her, which only grew after “Reboot”. She is given the opportunity to lead and shine in the mini-series, with the episode “Hide and Seek” taking time to reveal her backstory. Detailing her friendship with Freida (Jasika Nicole), it’s one of the most touching moments in a narrative which is filled with emotion.

Taken from
Susan Strong, in a still from the episode “Hide and Seek”.

Adventure Time fans are no doubt used to the twists and revelations the series has thrown at them, but in Islands the producers have really outdone themselves. The surprises come when they’re least expected, leaving the viewer no choice but to become ever more invested. Unfortunately, not every twist is resolved by the eighth and final episode, but there are answers to the key questions that fans have been asking themselves for years, which gives Islands a satisfying (though not perfect) ending.

Before Islands came about, there was a sense that Adventure Time would never again reach its creative peak. Many of the conflicts it introduced had gone unaddressed, leaving many to wonder whether they would ever be resolved. It’s a feeling reflected in the programme’s ratings, which have been at an all-time low for the past year – even I have felt fatigued by the show’s opaque approach. But Islands has given me the reassurance that there is some creativity left in the series, and left me excited for the episodes still to come.

Providing Adventure Time with some of its most enjoyable episodes in recent months, Islands addresses one of the most probing questions that the programme has been building up to for so many years. It knows just how to keep the viewer intrigued, with a feeling of renewal that should help to maintain interest in the show until its eventual end in 2018. And kudos to the writers for giving Susan Strong a chance to take centre stage.

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