So hey, we’re doing reviews of Adventure Time now! Isn’t that great? I think it’s great.
“Little Brother,” last night’s episode of the show, is a good demonstration of how Adventure Time has managed to stay great despite producing 167 episodes over less than five years. Last week, the story was about a witch and a giant treant laying siege to a kingdom and being defeated by a psychic war elephant, after which said elephant had an existential crisis. This week, it’s about a worm’s butt going on a quest in some tree roots. This is a series that very rarely settles into any groove, and which is unafraid of constantly introducing new characters to shake things up.
The latest addition to the ginormous cast is Butty Butterson, or “Kent” (voiced by Thurop Van Orman, a producer and writer for the show who also created The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjacks). Kent is created when Shelby the worm accidentally cuts off his back end during a parkour mishap at a party. Shelby is confused about what to do with a little brother, so he consults Jake, who advises him to send Kent off with a sword to fight bad guys. Armed with a plastic toothpick sword, Kent descends into the root system of the tree that holds up Jake and Finn’s house, where he encounters the Rat King, who has been gnawing on the roots and preventing the tree from blooming for years. The initial fight does not go well for Kent, but he’s saved by other denizens of the roots (I immediately thought “Leafbeard” when I saw his savior and was so very delighted to learn that was actually his name). From then on, he must go on a quest to gather the times needed to forge a new sword so that he can go another round with the Rat King.
Something I love about this show is that the plot of any given 11-minute episode could easily fill a Hollywood blockbuster. And yet this one episode breezes through so much incident, while still containing plenty of breathing room for quieter moments, and still feels totally satisfactory. Kent goes through a complete arc in the episode, starting out as a curious newborn living thing and ending up as a dashing hero. Shelby changes as well, as he starts out eager to send Kent off, since he’s envious of the abilities he has (like growing arms and legs on a whim), but comes to regret it as he feel’s Kent’s absence.
Kent goes through a riff on common fable motifs during his quest. Each time he encounters a bit of the material he needs, he is confronted with a temptation which he must deny in order to obtain it. In order, he rejects riches, then love, then eternal life. And when he fights the Rat King a second time, he turns down power. It’s like a Grail Quest undertaken by one of the knights of the Round Table, but you know, with a diminutive worm. Like a lot of things in the series, it’s a treat for anyone familiar with the tropes of fantasy stories, though it also stands perfectly on its own.
That final obstacle on the quest, the Rat King, deserves special attention. He’s a marvelously designed villain, and the reveal of his true nature is a well-executed bit of revulsion. Adventure Time has always had a dark undercurrent to its cheery surface (“Someday, you’ll be Kent’s food!” Kent brightly tells Jake. Memento mori, kids!), and the horrifying nature of the Rat King, a controlling figurehead on a seething mass of rats, is the latest great example. The animation also kicks up a notch when the swarm falls away and regroups beneath Kent’s sword. Great stuff.
After Kent has vanquished the beast and reunites with Shelby, the episode concludes on a nice bit of pathos, as he must return to the roots, compelled to by the fact that he ate their food (another geeky detail cribbed from folklore). Or maybe, Shelby wonders, he’s just grown accustomed to having his own life, and wants to spare Shelby’s feelings. Both brothers have changed, but their new situations are not compatible with them getting to stay together. It’s a simple but effective sad note. And it’s uplifted by the very end, as it turns out that Kent’s actions have allowed the tree to bloom for the first time in years. Symbolism in nature makes for a pleasant period on the episode.