Adventure Time might be the hippest cartoon on television. The art and animation are the stuff of dreams, the writing is witty (sometimes hilarious), but those two givens are only the beginning.
Amid the zany adventures are moments of adolescent angst and parental regret, and sublimely understated songs that display a talent for lyrics, melody, and musicianship. The duet between Marceline and Ice King in season five’s “I Remember You,” is more stunningly poignant than any Disney movie song I can think of. And check out where Marceline could have been strumming the guitar, but someone made the unusual decision to make it a subtle jazz bass riff.
The people behind Adventure Time also know a thing or two about the literary experiments of counterculture movements like The Beats, the jazz poets, and Hip Hop. In “Thanks for the Crabapples, Giuseppe” (the thirteenth episode of the sixth season), Ice King and a band of misfit wizards take a road trip in a bus with the goal of creating their own secret society. The bus driver asserts that this trip will be “a destiny will guide us kind of thing.” That, and the wacky assortment of characters on the bus, made me think of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (1967), which, in turn, was inspired by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, whose mission in the mid-sixties was to drive across the United States in a multi-color, hand-painted bus, spreading peace, love, music, and psychedelic shenanigans wherever they went. Check out the three Nymphs, whose bodies seem to be made of flowing water. It is a beautifully trippy effect.
At one point, the bus stops and all the passengers engage in writing poetry on rolls of toilet paper, which I take as a reference the continuous scroll of paper that Jack Kerouac used to write On the Road so his words could flow like improvisational jazz. The character known as Abracadaniel says, “Let’s all write down arcane, cryptic words in unexpected new combinations and patterns.” Kerouac’s friend, William S. Burroughs, was known for recombining words with the “cut up” technique invented by Brion Gysin.
Notice that these wizard activities involve writing. Writer Alan Moore has said, “In all of magic, there is an incredibly large linguistic component.” When Peter Bebergal interviewed Moore for The Believer magazine, Moore said, “I don’t think there’s really any difference between art—or writing, or music—and magic. I particularly draw the link between magic and writing. I think that they are profoundly connected” and “The central art of enchantment is weaving a web of words around somebody.”
Several episodes on Adventure Time feature characters rapping, beatboxing, and dancing. Finn does a beatbox rhythm to keep the beat for a song sung by Marceline in It Cames From the Nightosphere (Season 2, Episode 1). In “Billy’s Bucket List” (from the fifth season) Finn and Rap Bear compete in an onstage “rap battle.” Even the shows that don’t include rap and beatboxing are informed by a kind of Hip Hop vibe. Characters say “That’s how we roll” and “let’s bust it” and various other slang terms like “I’ma,” meaning “I’m going to,” as when the Ice King is angry about not being invited to a party. He says, “They’re gonna do me like that? So I’ma do them like this!” (From “Princess Potluck,” the eighteenth episode in the fifth season).
I’m sure Adventure Time isn’t the only animated series that meets my description of “hip,” with its postmodern approach and heartfelt enthusiasm, but to me, its the best one.