“Fionna and Cake” takes the cake

Oct. 8, 2023, 1:17 a.m. | By Sophia Li | 7 months, 3 weeks ago

“Adventure Time” spinoff ventures through the magic of adult existentialism

From the first episode of “Adventure Time” 13 years ago to today, “Adventure Time” lovers have matured from pre-teens to new adults – new adults facing real emotions like regret, hopelessness, and grief. “Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake” shows that the childhood classic has grown up with its fans, tackling heavy themes with the same fantastical fun as its predecessor, making it the most emotionally mature series in the “Adventure Time” saga. 

Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake (Image courtesy of Max)

As the name implies, the series features the titular characters, Fionna the Human (Madeleine Martin) and Cake the Cat (Roz Ryan). The iconic duo originated as gender-swapped, alternate versions of Finn the Human (Jeremy Shada) and Jake the Dog (John DiMaggio), and were featured in special episodes across the original series’ ten seasons. In the first episode, viewers are reintroduced to characters they know and love – with a glaringly-apparent lack of magic. Fionna Campbell perfectly encapsulates its grown-up audience – instead of swinging her sword at magical cupcakes like Finn, she lives in a “crummy apartment” in a “sad little city,” bouncing from job to job, living from paycheck to paycheck. Fionna and her friends, Gary Prince (Andrew Rannels) and Marshall Lee (Donald Glover), are painfully relatable in their mundane lives and lack of direction.

The audience is also reintroduced to Simon Petrikov (Tom Kenny) – Ice King’s human form, and also the author of Ooo’s (the Candyland-type setting of “Adventure Time”) fictional book about Fionna and Cake. Following the finale of “Adventure Time” five years ago, Simon remains in depression after the loss of his love, Betty (Felicia Day), causing him to use magic again in a fit of desperation. His magic leads to the opening of an icy, glittering portal in the human realm, which transports Fionna and Cake into the magical dimension of Ooo, where the three travel together across multiverses to cope with his loss. While it certainly can be an enjoyable watch for those missing the sentimental background lore, the heart-wrenching reflections of Simon’s grief are contextualized by his experiences and isolation in the original.

Cartoon Network Studios hops onto the multiverse trend that brought international success to critically acclaimed films, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” While each setting mainly served as a transition in the plot, the re-characterizations and designs of the multiverses add a bit of fourth-wall-breaking fun and “Adventure Time” silliness to an otherwise melancholic story. 

The familiar animation style and characterizations of “Fionna and Cake” stay consistent from multiverse to multiverse, unlike the beloved “Spider-Verse” movies’ groundbreaking use of shifting art styles and color palettes. While the lack of more artistic distinction between each multiverse is disappointing, the guest artists who do make a cameo add a sparkling sense of warmth to the few episodes they appear in. Jenny Yu added a gorgeous hand-painted watercolor background to Fionna’s enchanting dream sequence, while Louie Zong designed and animated a retro pair of 3D characters that appear in the emotional climax of the series. Combining traditional with digital, 2D with 3D, the art of “Fionna and Cake” extends far beyond the cell-shaded limits of its predecessor. 

“Fionna and Cake” isn’t nostalgia-bait either; unlike most modern reboots and spin-offs, the series’ charm doesn’t rely on the audience constantly thinking, “I remember this from the original!” Instead of cheap sentimentality, “Fionna and Cake” adds layers of dimension to familiar characters and familiar worlds and reassembles core concepts from “Adventure Time.” Even the main characters from “Adventure Time” that are featured in the series appear painfully positive compared to the realistic, contemplative attitudes of the main trio. 

Still, the series is very much targeted towards viewers who have watched the original series. It does a passable job at using flashbacks to familiarize the audience with the events of ten years passed, but it can be hard to grasp for completely new viewers. Also, there are several loose threads that are left unsatisfyingly untied, but hopefully those will be addressed in a second season.

Meshing nostalgic, familiar characters with a fun, magical take on the multiverse trend, “Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake” is a fresh addition to the “Adventure Time” canon, updating the tale of Fionna the Human and Cake the Cat for its now adult audience. Unlike its predecessor, “Fionna and Cake” deals with trauma and hope through nuanced storytelling, acknowledging that problems cannot be “magically solved” (literally), but instead need healing and growth.

“Fionna and Cake” season one is available to stream on Max now. 

Last updated: Oct. 16, 2023, 1:53 p.m.

Sophia Li. Hey, it's Sophia, SCO's blog editor and fact checker! I love eating hot pot and any other spicy foods. More »

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