Adventure Time: Distant Lands — ‘Wizard City’ Review

Review of: Adventure Time: Distant Lands — ‘Wizard City’

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Rating:
3.5
On September 1, 2021
Last modified:September 1, 2021

Summary:

'Wizard City' is an odd choice for an ending to the Distant Lands anthology, and leaves me feeling ambivalent over the current state of Adventure Time.

Adventure Time: Distant Lands — ‘Wizard City’

Adventure Time is ending again. The final episode of Distant Lands, a four-part anthology miniseries, airs tomorrow.

As the finale of the series, “Wizard City” has felt like an odd choice. Why not, as many fans have asked, conclude with what was advertised as Finn and Jake’s last adventure? After watching, I’m left wondering what to make of the series as a whole.

The road to ‘Wizard City’

Distant Lands Adventure Time
Image via HBO Max

The original 10 seasons of Adventure Time are marked by several notable miniseries, each revolving around a specific quest or characters. The most famous is probably Stakes, which detailed Marceline’s vampiric backstory and pushed her character forward in profound ways by contending with her immortality. As the show was released in increasingly sporadic increments toward its end, the miniseries format made new episodes an event to catch every night of the week before waiting months for the next drop.

But Distant Lands departs from Adventure Time in several notable ways. Its subtle changes to the show’s distinctive art style are more apparent in this finale. And the connections between these different specials remain about as apparent as an episode of graybles. Only one character appears in as many as three of the four episodes, a side character whose appearances amount to cameos. Each installment has been presented non-linearly, with gaps in chronology large and small.

Some of the decisions, from which stories were chosen to art direction, feel like responses to changes in the medium. Western animation is now firmly in a period defined in posterity to Adventure Time. Rick & Morty and Steven Universe—itself spawned from series writer Rebecca Sugar—emerged during the series’ run and concluded around the same time, each drastically altering what fans expected. While Adventure Time ended as a contemporary to these shows, its start cemented the groundwork for everything from queer representation to zany speculative fiction in mainstream animation.

Adventure Time’s bold art style touted a gestalt of colored geometry coming together to form iconic characters and lush landscapes, giving it a distinct appearance among its cohorts. The show often played with the medium on a level beyond narrative as well. Distant Lands adopts the solid colors, bolder lines, and rounder bodies of contemporary animation for an altogether cleaner look. When BMO navigates an interstellar space port (fighting against an allegory for Elon Musk and tech bros writ large) in the series’ first episode, its setting strongly invokes the sci-fi futures of Rick & Morty. Meanwhile, “Obsidian” explicitly reckons with Marceline and Bubblegum’s romantic relationship in a deserved payoff for fans. The episode felt like a love letter from the show’s writers, who were at odds with the more conservative Cartoon Network of the early 2010s.

The third entry to Distant Lands, “Together Again,” stands alone as an altogether more retrospective series looking back on Adventure Time and the characters we met. It extends the themes of the series’ finale, and seeing Finn and Jake on their great time adventure was a truly heartwarming goodbye. The two adventurers don’t return here, though “Wizard City” sets the clock back several decades.

After a Fionna and Cake spinoff series was announced for HBO Max in August, the whole of the franchise seems to be looming over “Wizard City.” It raises the question: What does this end mean for Adventure Time?

Swimming in the Loomy Gloom

Image via HBO Max

Compared to the rest of Distant Lands, “Wizard City” is more in conversation with the cohort that follows Adventure Time and its late contemporaries. Wizard fashion opens the doors for original and weird character designs, while the academic setting unavoidably evokes The Owl House.

We enter Wizard City following Pep (formerly Peppermint Butler), voiced by Mace Montgomery Miskel. After losing his collected knowledge and maturity to Gumbald’s Dum Dum Juice in season 10, basically reverting into a child, Pep lost not only the ability to speak but also his mastery of dark magic. The candy has begun to grow up again, now a young teen, and he’s set out to learn magic at the academy in Wizard City.

Looming over the episode is Pep’s brief appearance in “Together Again,” where we see him fully grown, looking like we knew him before. His interest in the weird and eerie is on display, and so is his magical prowess. Knowing this, the stakes of Wizard City could never be particularly great, and instead rely on the cast of new characters and a series of mysteries.

Principle among the new cast is Pep’s roommate and fellow outcast Cadebra (Chloe Coleman). The niece of Abracadaniel, Cadebra delights in being weird and enjoys having fun with stage tricks over the more studious wizardry expected of her. This places her in the sights of the school’s hotshot, Spader (John Omohundro). The many non-human character designs lead to one of my favorite things about “Wizard City”—gender.

Gender in Adventure Time was always propitious, and “Wizard City” recognizes something that is both generative and captures the sentiment of kids the age of its characters. Take Spader’s close friend/accomplice Blaine, a one-eyed non-human with a middle part that sometimes wears a skirt, is sometimes called a boy, and is other times addressed with they/them. Voiced by Bex Taylor-Klaus, this is never really explored. If you’ve been around younger zoomers, you would know why. Blaine and all the other students express themselves like kids do. Pep and Cadebra, while gendered differently, still share a dorm room. We see characters coded in all sorts of ways wearing uniforms with pants or shorts or skirts. This is queer living, not just queer moments. By filling “Wizard City” with these unspoken details, Distant Lands feels a step ahead compared to the representation seen in The Owl House and She-Ra, even if the latter two sport headline-grabbing relationships.

What these characters get up to is less exciting than their reveals, however. There’s a mystery—several—that Pep and Cadebra have to solve, with twists and turns that would spoil the episode. It’s not bad, but it’s not profound. It’s a bit predictable, in a way the conclusion of “Together Again” was not. And that’s fine, not every episode of Adventure Time left me teary eyed. But why not this one? In ending with “Wizard City,” Distant Lands denies the opportunity for thematic closure called for in Adventure Time’s finale, and resists even the definitive goodbyes of its parallel, post-finale miniseries, Steven Universe Future.

In the series’ first finale, BMO sang that these stories “will happen, happening, happened.” While Distant Lands began as a meaningful exploration of ends that deserved more closure than was afforded by its network, it ends by leaving open the doors to an IP that will produce spinoff after spinoff, so long as they remain profitable. As such, the release order of Distant Lands feels almost like a tempering force. Adventure Time has no longer happened. It’s just happening, or will happen.

“Wizard City” is a very good episode of Adventure Time, and you should, you probably will, watch it if you’re a fan. It is also a very odd way to end Adventure Time again.

Adventure Time: Distant Lands — ‘Wizard City’
Good

'Wizard City' is an odd choice for an ending to the Distant Lands anthology, and leaves me feeling ambivalent over the current state of Adventure Time.