This review contains light spoilers for the first four episodes of “Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake.”
“Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake,” a spin-off of the animated classic “Adventure Time,” has seemingly achieved the impossible: justifying its existence. In a media landscape defined by lazy reboots and thinly veiled corporate cash-grabs, “Fionna and Cake” stands apart as a surprisingly earnest reexamination of story threads long considered resolved. While it occasionally strains under the weight of its admittedly bizarre core concept, “Fionna and Cake” makes it clear that the ingredients making “Adventure Time” special haven’t gone anywhere.
The original “Adventure Time” was the jewel in the crown of Cartoon Network’s animated lineup throughout the 2010s. Following the adventures of Jake the Dog (John DiMaggio) and Finn the Human (Jeremy Shada), accompanied by a constantly growing roster of supporting characters, the series was a masterclass in layered worldbuilding and complex storytelling. Particularly memorable was the way in which “Adventure Time” slowly evolved from low-stakes episodic storytelling to serialized character and story arcs spanning multiple seasons, a transition completely unheard of for an animated series at the time. By the end of its 10-season run, creator Pendleton Ward had established an epic saga exploring nearly every facet of the fictional Land of Ooo to a fulfilling degree.
The question, then, is what “Fionna and Cake” is trying to accomplish by revisiting the same world and the same characters after all these years. Although a series of hour-long specials, “Adventure Time: Distant Lands,” provided a deeper exploration of certain characters throughout 2020 and 2021, the main story threads of the original show have been definitively wrapped since its four-part finale “Come Along with Me” in 2018. The solution posed by showrunner Adam Muto is as simple as it is elegant; this is no longer the same world, nor are these the same characters. At the heart of “Fionna and Cake” is the often-debilitating impact of time’s passage, corroding even the happiest of endings through the inherent volatility of change.
At the time of writing, the first four “Fionna and Cake” episodes (of an eventual 10) are available to watch on Max. With early exposition handled and central plot threads beginning to develop, it is already evident that this miniseries is something special. As a longtime fan of “Adventure Time,” I had high hopes for “Fionna and Cake” with regards to music, animation, and art style that were if anything surpassed by the miniseries. It is absolutely gorgeous from a visual perspective, portraying worlds both new and familiar with a noticeable eye to depth and color. Music is also a high point, with a variety of background and vocal tracks working to enhance key story moments. The only true weakness “Fionna and Cake” possesses is the initial awkwardness of its exposition.
As I mentioned earlier, the on-paper concept is a bit tricky to wrap one’s head around. The titular Fionna Campbell (Madeleine Martin) is eking out a mundane living in a world nearly identical to our own, wishing reality was a bit more magical as she shuffles between dead-end jobs and looks after her cat Cake. Her struggles with belonging mirror those of Simon Petrikov (Tom Kenny), a staple of the original series and the center of one of its most intricate character arcs.
Having been cured of the curse that turned him into the Ice King, a wizard defined by his madness and levity in equal measure, Simon is unable to find a place for himself as a normal human in a Land of Ooo set decades after the end of “Adventure Time.” Far from the noble and level-headed antiquarian we saw during “Come Along with Me,” he is jaded with the realities of his situation and decidedly crankier than one would expect, based on where he was left in the original show’s finale.
It is Simon’s attempt to magically transport himself to a more normal world that brings Fionna and Cake (now voiced by Roz Ryan) to Ooo, establishing the miniseries’ basic premise. The contrast between Fionna and Cake’s awed reactions to their new surroundings and Simon’s exhausted quips is highly entertaining and sure to be further developed as the series progresses.
“Fionna and Cake” is built upon these interactions, expertly balancing cameos of classic “Adventure Time” characters and locales with more somber undertones. The Land of Ooo feels dangerous in a way that was never fully explored during the Cartoon Network run, and there is a palpable feeling of actions having consequences that hasn’t been anywhere near this concrete until now. As a series on Max, the show is given more freedom to explore mature themes, but “Fionna and Cake” never overindulges and feels more three-dimensional as a result.
“Fionna and Cake” is a shining example of how to tell a new story in an established universe. An expertly crafted balancing act that takes no shortcuts, the miniseries stands out among Max’s current television offerings. If it continues to exercise restraint with its use of older characters, while also avoiding lengthy exposition, “Fionna and Cake” will easily stand shoulder to shoulder with “Adventure Time” and be remembered as a valuable extension of the original series’ worldbuilding and themes.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.