Adventure time’s 15-minute episodes have always been a point of contention among critics and audiences alike. While some see this as a restraint, stopping a great show from exploring more of its world and trying deeper, more complex stories, others see it as a feature allowing the show to feel stuffed to the brim with action, adventure, and feels (lots of feels) without having to try to fill episodes with unnecessary filler. Adventure Time has tried longer forms of media, exploring multi-part episodes (“Finn the Human/Jake the Dog” or “Wake Up/ Escape from the Citadel”) and miniseries (Stakes) to much success and acclaim. This is why I was surprised that Adventure Time Islands, Adventure Time’s most recent miniseries doesn’t seem to stand up to its predecessors. Not to say that it is bad (far from it), but it is certainly the weakest entry into their long-form stories.
With all of their previous long-form media, they all followed the same rules; tell one long cohesive story over multiple episodes. Islands strays away from this rule allowing for multiple stories from multiple perspectives and includes several time skips which are especially jarring if you are watching them back-to-back as intended. The biggest problem with Islands is that it just does not feel cohesive. It feels scatter-brained, trying to shoehorn in as much as they can in as little time as possible. Instead of a 2 hour long epic (like Stakes) we end up with one 30-minute episode and six 15-minute episodes. To that end, it is not a mini-series, just a collection of episodes in a new location. With all that being said, Adventure Time: Islands has some incredible episodes that stand out from the rest.
The 1st episode, “The Invitation,” does a great job of setting the stakes high right off the bat with an unknown enemy from a faraway land and a revelation of an island that may still inhabit some humans. The conversation between Finn and Fern about being a hero was heavy and showed us a vulnerable Finn who is unsure of what exactly his future has in store. But nothing was as impactful as the small moment between Finn and Princess Bubblegum where Finn finds himself unable to promise to PB that he will come back to the land of Ooo. Finn is in a complicated state, a crossroads between staying in Ooo, where he has lived all of his life, or living with his own kind, possibly even his family, on a faraway island.
Episodes 2 and 3 are filler and are otherwise unremarkable but the 4th episode, “Imaginary Resources,” is unique in that it is the only episode in the miniseries written and storyboarded by Pendleton Ward (the creator of the show). Finn, Jake, and BMO find themselves in a virtual reality world with hundreds of other users. These users seem to live in a Matrix-esque world, abandoning their real bodies for the virtual avatars they made (or bought). The matrix allusions continue with VR world Moderator BMOs speech questioning the difference between VR and reality. Getting kids to engage in deep philosophical questions through easy-to-digest, bite-sized problems like this is one of the big draws to Adventure Time; it certainly works here.
The 5th episode, “Hide and Seek,” brings us flashbacks to a dystopian world. One in which humans have sacrificed their own free will to ensure the safety of the species. It also gives us the background for Susan Strong and how she fits into the story. The episode is seeping with tragedy and heartbreak as Susan tries to remember her past through walking about the crumbling ruins of her old home. This is by far the best episode of this series and one of the strongest throughout the show’s 8-year run.
The last three episodes are spoiler heavy, but I do want to discuss them, so readers be warned.
Episode 6, “Min & Marty,” is a touching story of how Finn’s parents met and gives us our first look into Finn’s mother, Minerva. It’s a good episode that gives Minerva some backstory and answers the remaining questions about Finn’s origins.
Episode 7 and 8 is where I have my biggest gripes with this series and with the format of Adventure Time as a whole. These two episodes form a 30-minute episode in which Finn finally meets his mother and the rest of humanity on the island. The writers speed through the remaining plot at a dizzying pace, never letting the characters or setting develop. There seems to be a severe lack of subtlety in exchange for speed in these last episodes, which is so uncharacteristic for this show. Unfortunately, it leads to moments that are supposed to be shocking but end up feeling expected.
The revelation that Minerva is a computer program is literally told to us in exposition by a townsperson. The time it takes Finn to see Minerva go from a loving and caring mother/leader to a misguided overlord is literally 2 minutes and 37 seconds. Seriously. I counted. There’s not enough time to explore this interesting and unique world or its relationships to make any of this stick. The most troubling, though, was the final scene where Finn meets his mother in VR. Why are we rushing back to Ooo so fast? Why did he wait until just now, as he is leaving for possibly ever to meet her in the virtual world? Can we not spend more time with your mother, WHO YOU HAVE LITERALLY JUST MET FOR THE FIRST TIME HOURS AGO? It is maddening, and the answer is clear; they didn’t have enough time.
Which is a shame because the concept of these two episodes is great, and the set pieces are all there, but the pace at which we are expected to follow this story is just too much of a burden. There needed to be more time on the island to learn more about its history and its inhabitants, more time to develop the Minerva-Finn relationship both before and after the revelation of Minerva’s overlordiness, and more time for the Susan-Frieda relationships to see how Frieda’s life had changed after that day long, long ago.
Which brings us back to the opening question: Is the 15-minute run-time a constraint on the writer’s creativity or a prominent feature of the unique storytelling? In the case of Adventure Time Islands, I would argue the former.