Fionna and Cake is Adventure Time’s most impressive transformation yet

Watching Fionna and Cake is kind of like watching a surprisingly game 80-year-old ball with her grandkids. They’re comparatively limber, but she’s holding her own — and you realize most of what they know they must have learned from her, and while little Billy and Jessica were playing, she was up in the stands learning from them, too.

In the 13 years since Adventure Time’s first episode, the world of fantastical adventure-comedy cartoons for kids has radically changed — and Adventure Time created room for many of the biggest changemakers in that niche, one way or another. What Fionna and Cake proves is that the venerable series can still go toe-to-toe with its competition, playing with its old themes in the expanded ways its younger counterparts created when they borrowed them. What’s more, and perhaps most impressively, it can do it while reinventing itself for its adult fans. Not just by leveling up, but by growing up, and without losing any of its charm in the process.

But then Adventure Time has always been about squaring the circle between endless repetition of the form and endless reinvention of the work. The series is a 283-episode colossus standing astride the gap between the short, episodic action-comedy fare that defined the biggest successes of American Saturday-morning cartoons in the ’80s and ’90s, and the long-form, world-building, wiki-spawning epics that define that niche now.

Adventure Time began with Pendleton Ward’s student work about a princess-rescuing boy adventurer with a sword, a talking dog, and an ice-slinging nemesis. But thanks to Ward’s creative generosity, it gradually morphed into television’s equivalent of an exquisite corpse — and a truly exquisite one at that. By season 3, the show discovered how gratifying it was to build out expansive backstories for its secondary characters, but not for any overarching plot, just ’cause it was fun. Season 5 went cosmic for the first time, and was also when Ward stepped down as showrunner; season 7 started experimenting with the setting’s ancient history; season 9 with radical changes to the world; season 10 with the apocalypse. Miraculously, the show never lost coherence as it yes, and-ed itself into a story that appeared repetitive, but was deep down about striving to embrace change.

The franchise’s post-finale continuations (released on HBO Max, and later Max) have been an evolution of a new kind, giving Adventure Time that rarified status — achieved by Star Trek, Doctor Who, Law & Order, and others — where the appeal of a franchise’s setting and themes becomes as much of a draw as its original main characters. Since the close of Adventure Time proper in 2018, executive producer Adam Muto and company have gone fully independent from Finn and Jake — except for the exception that proves the rule, the Adventure Time: Distant Lands episode “Together Again,” which is, without spoiling too much, the final Finn-and-Jake story there could ever possibly be. Adventure Time has relegated its original bro duo to cameo status in their own franchise, and in doing so taught an audience aging along with it to embrace the change it had always talked about.

[embedded content]

So it makes sense that its next stop would be something familiar, viewed from a different angle: the franchise’s infamous sister duo.

Created by Adventure Time storyboard artist Natasha Allegri (Bee and Puppycat) as genderbent fan art, Fionna and Cake were eventually given several of their own actual episodes of Adventure Time. Their nebulous state of “canon” was cheekily loaded into the show itself: See, the thing about Fionna and Cake is that they aren’t “real” Adventure Time characters. They’re the Ice King’s fanfiction about his frenemies Finn and Jake. They’re familiar, but different! They still go on adventures, but there’s more smooching, and dates, and trying to figure out whether that bad boy actually means it when he flirts with you or if he’s just being kind of a bully — you know, because it’s fanfiction!

And if Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake — a story about Fionna and Cake’s entire universe coming under threat of deletion for being (twist!) the accidental fanfiction of a cosmic being that was written on company time using company equipment — says anything, it’s that Muto and co. have been thinking a lot about the unintentional subtext of Fionna and Cake.

[Ed. note: The rest of this piece contains spoilers for Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake up through its final episodes.]

It’s a little weird, after all, for a show with boy leads and male showrunners in a male-dominated industry to position the creations of one of its female employees as non-canonical. Fionna-and-Cake episodes of Adventure Time were much anticipated and much beloved, featuring some of the series’ biggest guest performers, like Donald Glover and Neil Patrick Harris. Each one was a clear effort on the part of Adventure Time’s creators to use the alternate setting to experiment in character design, tone, and format. In hindsight, their use of awkward teenage romantic melodrama alongside fantastical action hijinks looks rather predictive of Adventure Time’s successors. But Fionna and Cake’s status as fictional distaff counterparts of Finn and Jake made them an accidental statement on “girl stuff.” And their origin in the mind of Adventure Time’s saddest creep made them an accidental statement on “stuff that’s icky.”

The Ice King plays his buttcheeks like bongos in his messy bedroom with underwear on the floor and a drum set that says #1 BABE on the bass drum. Image: Cartoon Network

Fionna and Cake is here to take Adventure Time’s watery flaws and turn them into wine — not vengefully, but with the same yes, and enthusiasm on which the show has always operated. With the rescue of Fionna and Cake’s world, a franchise once locked into its buddy-bro leads gives their gender-swapped counterparts an enduring legitimacy. With the attention paid to Gary and Marshall Lee’s romance (and vampire world’s Bubblegum and Marcy’s electric rivalry), a franchise once imprisoned by heteronormative censorship gave its fan-beloved queer couple multiversal staying power.

And lest you get the sense that all of this is taken on as a dire mea culpa, Fionna and Cake also closes the loop on Adventure Time’s most pathetic and complex character, Simon Petrikov, with the reveal that his relationship with his soulmate, Betty, was never as perfect as they both thought — and that’s OK. Just because we realized we made a few mistakes while doing it doesn’t mean we have to hate that it happened, says Fionna and Cake.

A young Simon Petrikov grasps Betty’s hand as she stands at a bus stop holding a briefcase. Image: Max

It’s a grown-up message about a grown-up experience of regret — just another part of how Adventure Time continues to change, and asks its viewers to change with it. Fionna and Cake is a series speaking explicitly to an older audience that’s ready to receive different messages from a familiar source. And it’s a series learning from the series that learned from it: Adventure Time helped carve out a space for comedic, long-form cartoon fantasy that shows like Gravity Falls and The Owl House gleefully occupied. And now Adventure Time has a show about adults yearning for the return of the fantastical to their unchangeably mundane lives.

At the end of the series, Fionna chooses to preserve her own mundane version of Ooo, with crappy minimum wage jobs and post offices and rent protests — but it’s slowly rebuilt with touches of fantasy, derived from the more “fictional” worlds she and Cake visited over the series. Kids might not see the appeal in settling for anything less than Narnia. But Adventure Time’s adult fans have been served a show about how fiction supports and enlivens reality, with a finale about the vital human experience of finding the meaning and excitement of the fantastic in mundane life.

The magic in something familiar, viewed from a different angle.