Once upon a time, a boy named Finn and his magical dog Jake saved a candy princess from an evil king in the land of Ooo—and sparked a viral phenomenon. Since 2007, Adventure Time has garnered dozens of awards and 3 million viewers per episode--kids and adults in equal numbers.
I was fascinated when several Millennials told me they watch AT. What gives? Why would 20-somethings glom onto a seemingly naïve cartoon?
First, there’s the way it looks. Each episode is hand-drawn (yep, by hand) and takes months to complete. This old-school approach feels authentic for Millennials who grew up watching digital animation. Then there's the pace. It's game-ish, fast and uneven.
The humor is wacky. Finn meets Abraham Lincoln on Mars, and so forth. But here’s the weird part, this is not adult humor. The series really is about a boy, a dog and, most of all, friendship. That is Adventure Time's endearing appeal.
As Millennial performer Saro told me, “When we were kids, animation had bleak undertones. It told us to be skeptical. Adventure Time works because it doesn’t.” Not that everything is roses in Ooo. An apocalypse has occurred. Finn and Jake navigate a ruined and dangerous landscape armed primarily with childish verve and earnestness.
Why are Millennials drawn to Adventure Time? It is social commentary without barbs, a world where terrible things happen but kindness prevails, a paradigm they didn't have as kids.
At the same time, AT contains agile social commentary. Finn encounters a vicious, data-driven landlord and has a Darth Vador thing happening with his gone-bad father.
Even so, this is a long generation away from the animated series that drew adult audiences in the 80s and 90s. Bevis and Butthead were dim-witted wannabe delinquents without scruples. (Social commentary, yes, but unfailingly crass.) Ren and Stimpy spent time coughing up hairballs and whizzing on electric fences.
Meanwhile, on The Simpsons, Bart and Lisa ironically watched Itchy and Scratchy. South Park had more moral backbone, but was often violent (they kept killing Kenny) and dark.
No wonder Millennials are drawn to Adventure Time. It is social commentary without barbs, a world where terrible things happen but kindness prevails, a paradigm they never had as kids.
As generational scholar Neil Howe has observed, a boy named Christopher Robin and his Pooh helped a generation weather the Great Depression. In much the same way, Jake and Finn comfort kids and Millennials alike today.
Special thanks to amazing Millennials Liam Nilsen, Saro L-T and Evin Raney for Millennial insight on this piece!
Generational expert and keynote speaker, Amy Lynch helps the generations understand each other. She has spoken to 100s of groups from MTV and Comcast to Boeing, J&J and the staff of the U.S. Senate. Contact Amy about your next event.