Experimental Animation: The Guest Animators of Adventure Time

Last night’s episode of Adventure Time, “Water Park Prank,” marked the fourth guest-animated episode in the series, and continues to push the animated envelope as others did before it.

It’s definitely a tradition that I’d love to see expanded into the future, as the guest episodes are some of the series’ strangest departures, which is saying a lot; as its fanbase knows, Adventure Time continually pushes boundaries in every direction. Hence, these episodes are experiments within an already experimental show, and so I wanted to spend more time delving into these creators, who held the series’ reins for a day.

David Ferguson

Episode – “Water Park Prank”

The latest of the guest-created episodes sees Finn and Jake on a day off at a waterpark, of course converted from an old chemical plant (yikes). Along the way, Finn helps Orangutan Princess rid herself of toxic Daddy Sad Heads, that feed off of tears and render their victims helpless with sadness. Afterwards, he’s off to meet Jake at the park, where they spend a lovely day making the Ice King miserable.

Contribution to the series:

David Ferguson’s episode is undoubtedly the strangest of the guest entries so far, but not for the reasons you’d expect. It isn’t mind-blowing like “Food Chain” or snarky like “A Glitch is a Glitch”–in fact, it doesn’t play like an Adventure Time episode at all, which makes it the most ambitious of the guest episode in a way. The visual style is a much further departure from the usual look than we’re used to, with its highly stylized, paper cut-out design and adventurous transition animations. But to the annoyance of some fans, the episode also didn’t really read like an Adventure Time episode either–it was whimsical as the show had never been before, focusing not on some grandiose meditation, but on pure absurdity for its own sake. At times the voice actors don’t even sound like themselves as they perform the lines, which shows just how far Ferguson wanted to fall from the apple tree. While it didn’t smooth over for the whole fandom, “Water Park Prank” is, without a doubt, unlike anything the series had yet seen.

Other Works:

“Water Park Prank” is basically a typical day out for David Ferguson, which means you probably know what to expect from Ferguson: wildly inventive animation and absurdist plots. Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward has long been a fan of the animator’s work, and you can view tons of his mesmerizing shorts over at his Youtube channel, featuring favorites like “House Viewing with Ringo and Paul” and “Funny Fish Finger Friends fall in the pond.” These shorts display his penchant for foregoing standard plotlines entirely, in favor of the strangeness of an alien scenario.

Masaaki Yuasa

Episode – “Food Chain”

“Food Chain” is far and away my favorite of the Adventure Time guest episodes; in it, Finn and Jake accompany the Candy Kingdom children to the science museum, where they couldn’t care less about Princess Bubblegum’s lectures about the wonders of the food chain. Enter the Magic Man, who sends them on a hallucinogenic journey spanning lifetimes as they reincarnate and die again and again as different animals in the food chain, from birds to worms to bacteria and on and on, until all tragedies and triumphs become single frames in a never-ending show.

Contribution to the show:

“Food Chain” melded exceedingly well with the tone of the series. Masaaki’s freewheeling animation style suited Finn and Jake’s childlike dynamism perfectly; the animator’s known for his insane frame angling and movement, which collectively wreak beautiful havoc on your sense of perspective by turning simple character movements into nebulae of blinding motion. “Food Chain” sits comfortably in that box containing Adventure Time’s stranger, more challenging episodes–reincarnation and the realization of all life as one continuum, vast in scale and beautiful in variegation, is thematically consistent with other episodes like “Astral Plane” and “Puhoy,” which explore a similar sense of the breadth of existence.

What else should I watch?

If you dug the freewheeling color and motion of Masaaki’s work, I’d heartily recommend the anime Ping Pong, which he directed himself, and which transforms the little game of balls and paddles into a devastating visual spectacle in a way that only he can. Literally every frame of that work could be a print of its own, which is arguably true of most of his works. You can also check out Kemonozume, which pits cannibal ogres against the swordsmen who hunt them, a premise that seems run-of-the-mill in terms of anime, but gives me goosebumps knowing Masaaki helmed it

James Baxter

Episode: “James Baxter the Horse”

The episode features a horse named James Baxter, who cheers people up by dancing atop a beach ball and repeating his name in a horse-y manner. Finn and Jake try to emulate his act with their own derivation of it, developed after much brainstorming, research, and rehearsal, in a brilliant send-up of experimental artists and their creative process. After a disastrous showdown with a milk-spitting giant skeleton, James Baxter appears once again to bail them out with his inexplicably delightful performance.

Contribution to the show:

“James Baxter” was incredibly memorable not only for its quiet playfulness, but also for the emotional connection between the writers and the subject matter. The episode was meant as a tribute to James Baxter the Man, for his incredible work with Disney and Dreamworks. As a result, there’s a permeating sense of awe towards the arts as a positive force, and a celebration of the whole process of hero worship, emulation, and finding oneself as an artist. Finn and Jake are placeholders for the series’ staff, and this episode is their homage to the craft of animation itself.

What else should I watch?

If you were watching cartoons in the 90s into the 2000s, you’ve already seen James Baxter’s (it feels right to say the whole name) work. He was either character animator or supervising animator for so many iconic characters, from The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel, to Rafiki of Lion King, Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and most recently he was the animation director for The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. For a better sense of how insanely talented Baxter was, he was working on Who Framed Roger Rabbit at the age of 20, and became a supervising animator at 23 for Beauty and the Beast. It’s really no surprise he’s considered a living boddhisatva of animators today.

David O’Reilly

Episode – “A Glitch is a Glitch”

In the second CGI-animated episode of the series, the Ice King unleashes a virus upon the source code of the universe, which will slowly delete everything out of reality except for Princess Bubblegum and himself. Fourth-wall hi-jinks and mind-bending animations ensue, as Finn and Jake journey to the source code to stop the virus, encountering a melting reality and the raw circuitry of all existence along the way.

Contribution to the series:

Like “Food Chain,” “A Glitch is a Glitch” is another out-there episode that fits perfectly alongside the series’ other existential conjectures, although this time with a much more light-hearted approach. As with “Food Chain” and unlike “James Baxter the Horse,” David O’Reilly was given complete creative control over his episode, and replicated the series’ sense of humor and thematic content very well; so well that I wonder why it was even necessary to declare the episode ‘non-canonical.’ It makes sense in “Food Chain” wherein Finn hits an enlightened state, but here we have your basic Ice King-chasing-PB plot, with hilarious interactions between the two (PB opting to kiss her hand softly for all eternity, instead of the Ice King) The universal source code and all of its malfunctionings were rendered fantastically, and takes its place amongst the series’ imaginative visual metaphors of our reality.

What else should I watch?

David O’Reilly is known for taking 3D animation and breaking it into little bits until the ribcage hangs out, thereby making it fun again. He sort of rescued the style from its more ‘serious’ usages in 90s shows like Beast Wars (no offense, I love me some Beast Wars but it’s a tough re-watch nowadays) and ReBoot, as a pioneer of the ‘glitch’ look and for his usage of internet memes to up the subversiveness of his work. His short film The External World has won something like forty different awards for animation, has the added bonus of being ‘banned from exhibition’ in China, and is ostensibly about a boy learning to play the piano.

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