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DVD Watch: 'Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake'

Cartoon Network's surrealist fantasy does crossplay
Richard Whittaker, 8:00am, Sat. Feb. 23, 2013

Try to sum up Cartoon Network's series Adventure Time, or even explain it. Can't be done. It's like asking why Muppets are furry, or how come Wile E. Coyote gets that kick-ass delivery service in the middle of the desert.

Let's just say that, after an unspoken apocalypse that knocked a big chunk off the Earth, a boy called Finn (Jeremy Shada) and his adopted brother, a shape-changing dog called Jake (Futurama's John DiMaggio), roam in a world of sentient candy, random wizards, and the Ice King, an incompetent lunatic with evil penguin sidekicks. Magic has replaced science, and it's not even clear how

Look, just go with it. You'll be glad you did.

Except that in the first episode of this collection, Jake is a cat called Cake and Finn is Fionna. The whole story is an adventure in crossplay, in giving the female fans their own Jake moment ((its narrative counterpart, the Princess Bubblegum-centric "Lady and Peeples", is also included on this disc). And that pay-off for why this all happened explains exactly how strange and wonderful Pendleton Ward's creation is. Recreating the awkwardly pubescent Finn as the awkwardly tomboyish Fionna taps into the show's universality, and its respect for the audience. It can turn its own warped rules on their head and you'll still understand its delicious and dark and charming and obtuse appeal.

And it can get dark. It may be pastel-shaded animation, but each of the 16 episodes included here has a moment of tragic levity, like Princess Bubblegum explaining that some tarts must be delivered – or she'll be decapitated. That's pretty serious, especially since there's an emotional investment in a show where Finn's up-and-down romantic life is as heavy-laden as the odd trip through zombie-invested caves.

So why is "Fionna and Cake" the headliner story here? It's not just because it features the dulcet tones of Neil Patrick Harris as Prince Gumball. It's because Ward and company know that their target audience – kids breaking loose of childhood and contending with adolescence, and adults with a resilient but dented sense of wonder (after all, this is a show that earned itself a coveted Mondo Gallery show). They're ones who will understand fan fiction, cosplay and, more importantly, crossplay. That's where cosplayers dress up as a character of another gender: Providing a female analog design for Jake, and keeping her strong but emotionally vulnerable, completes the circle. This is a show about best friends, about falling for someone new every five minutes, about accidentally seeing your bass-playing vampire princess crush naked. That's how the show really makes sense: In the heart, if not the head.

If there's a problem with this disc, it's the traditional one about anthologies: You know the whole series is going to come out in time, so loyalists will wait for everything to become available. From a selection viewpoint, why just throw in one of the Flame Princess stories? Fans as loyal to the duo as Jake is to Finn know that the whole Flame Princess cycle is as tragic and beautiful as the show gets, so just teasing it with "Incendium" and not throwing "Hot to the Touch"/"Burning Low" on there seems kinda cheap.

Full episode listing: "Fionna and Cake" "Storytelling" "The Other Tarts" "The Silent King" "Death in Bloom" "Still" "Wizard Battle" "What Went Wrong" "From Bad to Worse" "Marceline's Closet" "Ghost Princess", "Incendium" "Card Wars" "Princess Cookie" "Lady and Peebles" "You Made Me"

Also Out This Week

Sinister (Summit) Not only is this demonic shocker a SXSW 2012 veteran, but the disc is worth the price just to hear for the commentary track featuring the un-Harrisian dulcet tones of scripter C. Robert Cargill, aka Ain't it Cool News' original Massawyrm. Read our review here and find out what Cargill had to say at the premiere here.

Game of Thrones: The Complete Second Season (HBO) High fantasy the way it was meant to be: Bloody, muddy, and filled with intrigue.

Argo (Warner Home Video) If you run, you can pick up Ben Affleck's true-life tale of wild CIA plans against the background of the Iranian revolution before it wins/gets snubbed at the Oscars. Spies, fake sci-fi movies and global politics: Trust us, John Goodman walking for a plane was never so tense. Read our review here.

Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome (Universal) How did Commander Adama become the crusty tactical genius of the rebooted SyFy series? The unrated collected web series goes behind the growl and the scars to find the green Ensign Adama beneath.

Prison (Shout! Factory) The long-forgotten low-budget shocker that launched the careers of Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings, Eastern Promise) and Renny Harlin (Speed, Die Hard 2 and now a directing regular on USA's Burn Notice).

Undefeated (Anchor Bay) Another SXSW veteran: The Oscar-winning documentary tracks three Memphis high school football players struggling to break out from under everything that grinds them down. Read our review here.

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