Monomyths and Cute Overload in Adventure Time’s “Little Brother”

On last night’s episode of Adventure Time, “Little Brother,” Shelby accidentally cuts off his tail in an attempt to parkour, and ends up with a little brother in the process, courtesy of worm regenerative powers. After some characteristically bad big-brother advice from Jake, Shelby sends his new bro Kent off into the world to fight bad guys and make his own way. It’s the eponymous time again!

Longtime AT fans know the show goes through cycles of levity and gravity, and last week’s episode “Something Big” definitely falls in that latter category–Lovecraft-style ancients were revealed, the Candy Kingdom faced a mortal threat that very nearly succeeded, a somewhat beloved character died (RIP Rootbeer Guy–bingo bango on, my friend), and Ancient Psychic Tandem War Elephant went on an existential journey for the ages. Which means, of course, “Little Brother” fulfills the role of the ‘breather’ or ‘fluff’ episode, like “James II,” which followed the season’s 2-part, daddy-discovering premiere.

Many viewers, I notice, tend to dismiss these as mere filler due to their relatively inconsequential plotlines and lighthearted feel, an attitude I find completely naive; these lighter episodes let Adventure Time retain its spontaneity and pursue  unexpected narratives without having to stick predictably to a single plotline. And what’s more, what these episodes lack in OMGlobity, they make up for in charm; “James II” had slapstick sequences that referenced the dynamic style of classic cartoons like Felix the Cat and Steamboat Willie-era Mickey Mouse, and “Little Brother” is no exception–it’s an intensely cute episode, full of tender moments between Shelby and Kent (cripes, just saying their names together gives me cooties), adorable NPCs like LeafBeard, and a satisfying tale about innocence, aging, and the inherent strengths of fresh-faced inexperience.

This is the first episode to focus on Shelby, the sarcastic worm that lives inside Jake’s viola. While partying inside said viola, Shelby gets insecure about his dance moves, seeing as how he has no limbs. He compensates with some amateurish parkour moves, which result in him falling on a taut string and cutting off his butt-tail. When he awakes, he finds that the severed tail has grown into a separate worm-buddy shaped like the tip of a thumb. Shelby names him Kent.

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As a big brother, Shelby finds himself just as bewildered as the newborn Kent, and goes to Jake for advice on the ins and outs of little brother-rearing. It’s endearing to hear Jake talk about himself as Finn’s big guardian brother, who watches over the human boy as he learns to be a warrior, and who steps in when adventures get out of hand (even though it rarely works out that way–Jake’s actions are often as naive and poorly thought-out as Finn’s). It’s a brotherly role that he rarely adopts, as opposed to his usual ‘bro’ status. True to his character, Jake gives terrible advice: “You just give’em something sharp and get’em to fight bad guys. You might have to stretch all big if he gets into real trouble, though.” Shelby leaves with his head full of a pretty bad idea, and Kent tells Jake that he’ll be feasting on the dog’s dead body some day, and runs away giggling.

Sure enough, Shelby gives Kent a small plastic cocktail sword and sends him into the crevices that lead to the Treehouse’s innards. It’s a world we’ve seen before back in “Shh!”, full of whimsical tidbits like a family of mice sleeping in identical beds, a sad writer mashing away on a typewriter, and an Egyptian sarcophagus. In no time Kent locates what looks like pretty good ‘bad guy’ material in the form of a deranged-looking rat chewing on the Tree’s guts. Kent pursues the little miscreant but runs headlong into a shadow full of eyes, like Han Solo charging into the stormtrooper barracks. He awakes covered in bruises in the home of the aptly-named LeafBeard.

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Aaaaand LeafBeard is crazy cute: “But if you drink of our dewdrops, it’ll fix allll your ouchies.” D’aww. From LeafBeard and the blacksmith, Kent learns that the rat he encountered was the Rat King, a malevolent force that gnaws at the roots of the Tree, which is home to a whole community of tiny, green, cute people, as well as Finn and Jake. In order to defeat the Rat King, the blacksmith informs Kent that he’ll need a sword harder than his fangs, which is craftable if Kent gathers three specific materials. The gnawing tidbit and later plot details reference popular mythological tropes, and Kent’s quest itself is modeled after Arthurian-style tales, which have their contemporary referent in RPGs. The world tree Yggdrasil in Norse mythology is eternally gnawed from underneath by a serpent, and it’s later revealed that Kent must dwell primarily in the ‘Underworld’ as it’s called, because he’d drunken LeafBeard’s dewdrop–a story similar to the Greek myth of Persephone trapped in Hades’ realm after consuming a pommegranate seed. All these elements combined belie “Little Brother’s” status as mere filler–it’s an episode intimately tied to Adventure Time‘s primary themes of childhood, or specifically in this case, how childish inexperience can be empowering, and serve as a model of purity of action.

Kent undergoes three trials to collect the materials necessary for his sword, and each time, he easily overcomes the temptations thanks to the fact that he was born just a few hours before. The keeper of the first cavern, a rat encased in a floating emerald, offers him a fortune in gems, enough to live his days in luxury. All of which is meaningless to young Kent: “Naw, I just don’t care about money.” He’s completely oblivious as to what money is used for, and so were Finn and Jake, for that matter. The second keeper, a swordsman rat with a Buster sword, offers Kent one of his daughters in marriage, to live the rest of his days in the throes of true love–and once again, Kent turns him down: “All I care about’s fighting bad guys!” It’s the same story with the final keeper, a ninja rat that offers the waters of eternal life, and Kent refuses again: “I was born earlier today, so I don’t really got a sense of my own mortality.” You just can’t argue with that.

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Ironically, Shelby’s hastily delivered advice ends up working in Kent’s favor. It’s an arbitrary life goal for sure, as meaningless as the rest of Jake’s nuggets of wisdom, and yet it anchors him completely, which calls into question the objective rightness of any goal–it isn’t really about what you do, but whether you do it faithfully, and that’s just so much easier with youth.

With all the ingredients combined, the blacksmith forges Kent’s brand new sword, which he dubs: PunchParty. I like it better than ‘Heart-Eater’ anyway. Thusly armed, Kent seeks out the Rat King and confronts him in his cosmically-decorated lair. It’s the final temptation, as the King asks Kent who he really fights for, and offers him the status of a king in the underworld, and once again, this boon is meaningless to the hours-old earthworm butt.

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Meanwhile, Shelby’s been trying to regrow his tail, and worries about Kent constantly as he watches Finn and Jake being best buds outside. He starts to think maybe it wasn’t such a great idea sending his infant brother to battle evil wherever it might be found, but most of all, he just wants his little brother around again. Luckily he doesn’t have to wait long: as Shelby starts his first musical number, the returning Kent joins him:

No one can compare,
Together we could probably fight a bear
So if you’re ever sad slash lonely,
Don’t be, ’cause I’ll be right here next to you
Right here next to you,
‘Cause that’s what little brothers are supposed to do

Once again: d’awww. At home, Kent tells Shelby all about his adventures, and that he must return to the Underworld eventually, having drunk the healing dewdrop. The episode closes with Shelby’s narrative, and the Willow Tree in full bloom now that the Rat King is toothless and unable to gnaw.

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