What time is it?
Time for answers.
In the eight-part miniseries Adventure Time: Islands, released on DVD January 24 and airing on Cartoon Networking starting January 30, Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward and the diverse writers and artists behind the scenes tie together years of the series’ makeshift mythology while examining just how far the series and its characters have come. It’s fan service writ large, one that will prove immensely satisfying for long-term fans of the series as it begins its march to its 2018 finale.
Less self-contained than the previous Adventure Time miniseries “Stakes,” Islands spins out of the two-part season seven finale “Preboot/Reboot,” where Finn the Human encountered mysterious forces that mind-controlled the enigmatic Susan Strong as a “Seeker.” More of these forces arrive in the Land of Ooo at the miniseries’ start, revealing a map to a series of islands - prompting Finn, Jake, Susan, and a stowaway BMO to set out on a voyage to discover their source…and maybe where Finn came from as well.
The miniseries isn’t terribly accessible to Adventure Time newcomers, but as a payoff to many of the show’s longtime mysteries and character development, it offers longtime fans a veritable feast. In interviews, Pendleton Ward has discussed how much of Adventure Time’s mythology and backstory came about spontaneously early on, with the creative team adding new elements to each episode that other writers and artists could pick up later on. The result has gradually expanded the horizon of what was initially a lighthearted surreal fantasy; the Land of Ooo was gradually revealed to be a post-apocalyptic Earth, while Finn was, like DC Comics’ Kamandi, possibly the last boy on Earth.
That backstory has already added layers to many Adventure Time characters, from Ice King’s tragic past as the scientist Simon Petrikov to Marceline the Vampire Queen’s harrowing origin in “Stakes.” But Islands puts the focus squarely on Finn (and later Susan, with a stop-off for BMO), exploring their need to understand themselves and connect with their roots.
Finn admits he’s happy in Ooo, but still hasn’t come to terms with the abandonment that left him sitting in his own boom boom before Jake’s parents found him. The character has matured greatly since the hyperactive kid of the original shorts, and part of the emotional crux of the story is how he’s been hardened by his adventures without losing his fundamental desire to help others.
The miniseries is a bit looser than “Stakes;” the first half features more self-contained stories, such as an encounter with a friendly-but-annoying water dragon, a meditative piece with Finn stuck on an island with a non-English-speaking human, and a riff on MMORPGs by Graham Falk and Ward himself where BMO gets a chance to grow up and run a dance club (it’s mostly an excuse for some of the most surreal designs this series has ever featured, and that’s saying something).
But the back half contains some of the series’ densest backstory, as Susan Strong’s shockingly tragic past is revealed, and the circumstances that led Finn to Ooo are finally revealed (it’s spoiling little to say his awful father Martin was involved).
If there’s a complaint with Islands, it’s that there’s enough rich emotional material once the voyagers reach their destination that it feels like more time could be spent there - though viewers will likely find a new major ‘shipping couple, and fans of the Amazon series Catastrophe will be particularly pleased with a bit of voice-casting.
Yet it’s Finn’s story in the end, and the miniseries gives the sense that the character, who suffered major heartbreak over the last few seasons of Adventure Time, has truly grown up over the course of the series. It’s also satisfying that the miniseries puts heavy focus on both new and established female characters, whose emotional arcs and goals are complex and meaningful without being completely defined by their relationship to Finn (it also begs for the return of Lennon Parham’s Dr. Gross, whose backstory here implies she could be the greatest threat Finn and company have ever faced).
There’s liberal hommges to a variety of classic SF imagery, including a gratuitous shout-out to Mothra early on and images that evoke such anime as Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan, a major influence on former Adventure Time writer/artist and Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar. Though there are a few outright fantasy elements, much of Islands has the feel of an old-school post-apocalyptic SF saga - a journey through a devastated-but-wondrous world, with a sense of danger and mystery detached from the Land of Ooo.
Since the series began, Adventure Time has subtly evolved into a story about growing up - becoming a world where the Ice King can go from arch-enemy to sort-of friend, Cinnamon Bun can go from goofball to noble knight, where even an undead evil like the Lich can get a do-over of sorts. The emotional impact of Islands comes from understanding where the characters have been, and how their discoveries impact them. In the end, it’s a tale of discovering a lost past, while also coming to terms with that past, and being able to move forward.
With the series due to end in 2018, it’s an appropriate winding-down – with the hint that still more adventures await back in Ooo.