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The Ancient Psychic Tandem War Elephant: Adventure Time and Existentialism

by Ethan Tussey

by Lawrence Musante for IN MEDIA RES

From Camus to Sartre to Dostoevsky, big name existential philosophers and artists alike have mulled over the "adult" problem of human existence in a careless and unforgiving world. Although it's common in our postmodern world to see Woody Allen or Louis C.K.. help us laugh at the paranoia of a meaningless existence, we would be slightly taken aback to hear it from SpongeBob Squarepants or Dora the Explorer. Why, then, is it such a huge part of Pendleton Ward's Adventure Time? The possible meaninglessness of existence crops up multiple times in the show. Finn has to face the literal nothingness of the Lich, his own loneliness after breaking up with Princess Bubblegum and Flame Princess, and Jake's contemplation of and comfort with his own death in "The New Frontier" (S03E18). An even bigger question to ask, then, is why is this such a integral part of a kid's show? Adventure Time faces the problems of existentialism head on in "Something Big" (S06E10). The episode focuses on existential issues of The Psychic Tandem War Elephant and his epiphany of sorts led by the insight of the Sun (see clip to the left for a taste of the episode) and concludes that he will be "the match AND the candle" of his existence. Adventure Time bundles this existential crisis and insight between the humor of the Finn's inability to explain "meaning" in life and a fallen leaf that exclaims "well, this isn't how I saw things going." What is fascinating about the shows approach to the topic of existentialism, however, is how it doesn't seem argumentative, forced, or out of place within the show itself and STILL manages to be funny. It's not "dumbed down" for a children, nor does it pull any punches. How, then, should we read such an odd (yet not totally out of place) moment in Adventure Time? In this sense, I would argue that Adventure Time provides not only an interesting humorous examination of the meaning of life, but a forward thinking, non-patronizing questioning of life on its own cartoon-y terms. Adventure Time refuses to skip over the difficultly of "large" issues (death, existentialism, absent parents, mental illness, war, love, etc.) in order to give an easy, clean-cut payoff. It makes you earn your insights. For a show that is ostensibly for kids, that's pretty awesome and unique.

Adventure Time and Existentialism

A clip from Adventure Time

from Adventure Time (2010)
Creator: Pendleton Ward
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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