The great luxury of Adventure Time’s post-post-apocalyptic universe is the seemingly endless capacity of its mythos to develop. By the end of its new Elements miniseries, the show will have aired 261 11-minute episodes—by far the most ever for any Cartoon Network original series—and yet Pendleton Ward’s creation is still fleshing out the troubled history of Ooo in fresh ways. Its newest tool in the utility belt is the eight-episode story arc, first used in 2015’s Stakes and then in January’s Islands before reappearing here. Why the show has made this switch is anyone’s guess. Perhaps AT’s creative team tired of the whimsical, relaxed pace of the show’s earlier days. Perhaps there’s a drive to spit forth as much Ooo lore as possible before the series comes to an end sometime next year. But one thing is certain: Adventure Time is getting better at the miniseries as an art form. Elements is superior to and more cohesive than both Stakes and Islands, simultaneously a return to Adventure Time’s surrealist roots and an emotional step forward.
Elements picks up immediately following the conclusion of Islands, which saw Finn meet his mother and discover the lobotomized, dispirited remnants of humanity. The journey left him emotionally shaken, but Finn returned to Ooo with renewed confidence that he belongs there, that it is the proper home for an exceptional beast such as himself. There’s only one problem: The Ooo to which he returns is an out-of-balance hellscape, torn into four fragments by the recklessness of the recently revived ice Elemental, Patience St. Pim. In her attempt to bring forth the true potential of the other Elementals—Flame Princess (fire), Slime Princess (slime), and Princess Bubblegum (candy)—she’s accidentally amplified all their powers to the point that each now rules a quarter of Ooo as a world-creating goddess. Not only has everything in each Elemental’s dominion been turned to her respective element… so have all the living beings. And they’re absolutely terrifying, especially the candified denizens of Princess Bubblegum’s realm, who carry an air of sickly sweetness reminiscent of drinking antifreeze. You have to imagine the animators had a sadistic blast drawing a Tree Trunks made of melting ice cream and a certain sugary vampire queen now known as Marshmelline.
Back into this world step Finn and Jake, whose Treehouse has become a pink, gummy mess, and they are not prepared to handle the crisis. Islands had emotion, to be sure, but it felt a little stunted because Finn was not entirely capable of fitting his mother and humankind’s existence into his quasi-Nietzschean mindset: They were foreign. Ooo, however, is his home, where he has loved and lost and built his identity. And even though Finn has faced down cataclysmic threats before—the Lich and the Comet, most prominently—never before has he witnessed the aftermath of the disaster, nor has he been rendered utterly incapable of solving the problem with his fighting skills and indomitable will. What we have instead is a Finn reduced by the situation to an oft-helpless child, with Jake there trying to lighten the mood, just as things were back when the two started their adventures in 2010. “Cloudy,” the fourth episode of Elements, is the nadir of Finn’s self-efficacy, and it’s also the strongest episode of the eight—even though it consists almost entirely of a conversation between a boy and his dog atop a puffy cumulus. Not only does the episode give us flashes of the show’s old innocence; it also opens up a window into Jake’s inner life that we rarely see. The otherwise fast-paced plot of Elements gets space to breathe in “Cloudy,” and the result is a perfect blend of Adventure Time’s past and present, of its contemplative tone and its trippy visuals, of sincerity and goofiness.
Elsewhere, we see a return of Betty—the old love interest of Simon Petrikov, the man who became the Ice King—who has been in the background for a few seasons now, trying to find a way to bring back her old flame’s sanity and make him love her again. The Ice King’s tragic story has been well-documented over the years, but now the sympathies shift to the woman who has already lost part of her own rational capacity going after him. Her most recent attempt to revive their love is documented in “Bespoken For,” the miniseries’ second episode, and it’s one of Adventure Time’s better forays into romance. It leans into its weirdness, putting Ice King in a bespoke suit (and he looks… great, actually) and sending the couple on what he thinks is a first date—which means that he’s pure, unfiltered creep. Funny, yes, but creepy. But whatever efforts Betty might have made to love this senile, magical old man, they are interrupted by the chaos that overtakes Ooo. As you move through Elements, be sure to remember that this is the context under which she watches the world falls to pieces—because once the action really picks up about halfway through, it’s easy to get lost in the craziness that transpires.
And it is craziness. In my review of Islands, I noted that it sometimes didn’t know whether it wanted to be a series of related one-offs or a cohesive, 90-minute story. Episodes that could have been great as stand-alones instead interrupted the narrative flow. But that is not the case in Elements. The first two episodes, “Skyhooks” and “Bespoken For,” provide the plunge and the flashback, respectively, before the focus sets squarely upon what will need to happen for the good guys to restore Ooo (or at least reset it to its base weirdness). There’s enough hopelessness from the outset to let the characters take their time in this task; “Winter Light,” the third episode, conveys this entirely by way of its stark, chilly, haunting animation. But once the plan kicks into action, Elements moves at rapid-fire pace, as if it knows there’s been enough emotional buildup and the viewers just want to see how all four kingdoms are going to be transformed back into one harmonious continent. (And yes, of course, the crew visits all four kingdoms.)
In many ways, Elements is the flip side of Islands. It’s an external, rather than internal, challenge to Finn’s identity. It deals not in turning the spirit of living beings down to zero, but in amplifying that spirit on unhealthy orders of magnitude. And where Islands terrified with its philosophical undertones, Elements terrifies with its doomsday visuals and a visceral sense of armageddon. But the quality of the respective miniseries comes down to their emotional content, and Elements has that in spades. It’s a welcome sign of continuous vitality from Cartoon Network’s flagship show, and its urgency serves to remind us that we won’t have Adventure Time forever the way we’ll always have new episodes of The Simpsons. Cherish Ooo while it lasts.
Adventure Time: Elements premieres tonight at 7:30 p.m. on Cartoon Network.
Zach Blumenfeld is going to fail his law school finals. Follow him on Twitter.