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We are living in a silver age of television where the product has finally matured to a point that they can exceed the quality of many major feature films. Sitcoms no longer require laugh tracks to tell us when to laugh. Serialized dramas can bring an audience to tears while avoiding empty, repetitive sensationalism. Studios, who are now spending on budgets that rival theatrical output, aren’t afraid to gamble on unique and/or challenging subject matter. Genre shows, like Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead, are taken as seriously as costume dramas, like Downton Abbey (for better or worse). But, while most adult critics have reported heavily on this trend, they tend to overlook the leaps and bounds made in television animation over the last two decades. There has always been ‘good’ television, but television animation had been an oft-ignored ghetto for generations – built around cutting costs, placating cranky children, and selling toys. Occasionally, something clever would escape ( Rocky and Bullwinkle, for example), but there wasn’t any consistently good television animation until the 1990s, when shows like Animaniacs and Batman: The Animated Series became popular and forced the competition to step up and match production standards. Ironically enough, it seems to be nostalgia for that period of sub-par children’s entertainment has fueled this latest wave of quality television animation. It certainly makes comparison easy. Hell, even the latest incarnations of Scooby Doo and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are pretty good.

Adventure Time Seasons 1 and 2
This brings us to Cartoon Network – the first 24-hour animation television network. The studio began life as a dumping ground for the catalogue animation that the Turner Network owned and eventually found even footing with non-animation-exclusive cable channels making genuinely good, story-driven action programming, like Justice League and Samurai Jack. But Cartoon Network really exceeded the format’s expectations earlier, when it took chances with more episodic and comedic programming. Their tiny budgets and need for original content to fill the spaces between Flintstones reruns meant that the animators had a lot of creative freedom, leading to surprisingly popular shows, like Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Lab, and Courage the Cowardly Dog. These shows helped creators harvest their talents, leading to more sophisticated programming, like Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Chowder, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, and The Life and Times of Juniper Lee. The latest batch of comedies (3rd generation, perhaps?) includes Ben Bocquelet’s The Amazing World of Gumball, J.G. Quintel’s Regular Show, and, most successfully, Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time (both Quintel and Ward had previously worked on The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack).

Gumball and Regular Show are both very fun in their own unique ways, but Adventure Time has developed into a ‘next-level’ series and one of those rare cultural phenomenons that actually deserves its popular attention. Its singular sense of storytelling and humour transcend beyond entertainment into the realms of genuine art. Shows like Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life are aimed at adults while playing along with the rules set by standards and practices, while shows like Gravity Falls and Spongebob Square Pants are made for kids, but are sure to include an adult audience with off-colour gags and dated pop-culture references. Adventure Time isn’t really aimed at any specific age group – it acknowledges adult viewers with references and subtext, while engaging a younger audience with bright colours and fart jokes -– but no one is expressly placated to. Ward and his staff aren’t trying to make a crossover hit. They aren’t sticking to any preset studio notions of what will sell merchandise (though, I hear Adventure Time sells a lot of swag), they’re making an unexpected, clever, and adorable series that proves a good show will find an audience.

Adventure Time Seasons 1 and 2
There have been other shows on the network with more sophisticated graphic design – Chowder did incredible things with patterns and Foster’s Home represents the height of the super-flat style that creator Craig McCracken had been developing since Powerpuff Girls – but Adventure Time’s images are stylistically assured, yet simple enough for child viewers to mimic them, making for a perfect blend of distinguished and super-simple aesthetics. Computer-assisted paint practices and other digital enhancements have definitely made it easier for television animation to maintain consistency in character models, but inconsistent character models sort of define the look of Adventure Time’s characters. It is at first sort of disconcerting, but, once acclimated, this sort of fluid look adds a nice layer of rubbery whimsy otherwise missing from the harshly-lined Flash-style animation that has become the norm on Adult Swim’s programming.

Adventure Time didn’t come out swinging with perfect, instant-classic type episodes. Like most television shows, especially animated ones, it took some time for it to develop into the super-special thing it is today. Still, in comparison to even other ‘special’ shows, the first season is a strong enough showing to have been a distinguished one-off if it hadn’t been a hit. It’s also the ideal introduction to the series’ weirdo universe. At first, Ward and the writers seem to be picking events at random for the sake of being odd. It turns out that they actually had a plan and many of the eccentricities turn out to be clues to the environmental history of Ooo. The rhythm is definitely a bit off throughout the earliest episodes and some of the vocal performances aren’t quite ‘in line’ with where they end up, but in all it only takes about two or three episodes before the quality is mostly consistent.

Adventure Time Seasons 1 and 2

Video


Sometimes, it’s hard being a grown-ass man and a fan of a show supposedly aimed at children. One side effect is that I care about the image quality of said show, while most parents and wee ones are content with a cheaply-priced, standard definition release. Over the years, I have received (unsolicited) copies of Adventure Time episodes on DVD, but haven’t bothered reviewing them, because they really did look that bad. The colours were dull, the textures were washed out, and the edges were slathered in haloes. Earlier this year, the first season appeared on Netflix in HD and the image quality is nice, better than those DVD copies, but the edges are noticeably fuzzy and the image is very clearly interlaced. It is a little disconcerting that all 26 11-minute episodes have been crammed onto a single disc, but 286 minutes isn’t an excessive amount of material for a 50GB disc and the final product looks pretty spectacular. For the most part, there just isn’t that much information on-screen at any given time, so a lower bitrate doesn’t make too much difference in terms of macro-blocking/low-level noise effects or jagged edges (definite problems for the original HD broadcasts), aside from some of the strongest background reds ( It Came From the Nightosphere, for example). I imagine that if the image was blown up enough, there might be some noticeable aliasing effects or edge haloes, but I’m not seeing them here (most banding effects are intended stylistic flourishes). The really, really early episodes (particularly the pilot) are a smidge blown-out and washy, at least compared to the others. As the episodes progress, the image quality becomes more consistent.

Adventure Time Seasons 1 and 2

Audio


The HD video quality is well worth the upgrade over those disappointing DVDs and even the episodes currently on Netflix, but the audio on this Blu-ray is a disappointment. Instead of a lossless 5.1 DTS-HD or Dolby TrueHD track Cartoon Network has saved themselves disc space with a lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 (192kbps) soundtrack. Like many (if not most) animated shows prepared for HD broadcast, Adventure Time is mixed for and airs in Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. I haven’t had access to cable TV for some time now, but can compare this 2.0 track to the 5.1 encoded track that accompanies the Netflix streams of season one (along with a handful of iTunes episodes). The Netflix tracks are compressed, but the discrete channels make a noticeable difference, especially when it comes to the spread of ambient noise. On the Blu-ray the rear channels are comparatively very quiet and the ghost center channel clearly bleeds into the stereo channels. The music, by composers Casey James Basichis & Tim Kiefer, is very eclectic and includes classical, string folk, and various electronic types. Some episodes have particularly loud and layered music, making the missing LFE channel an extra bummer. For the record, those even more disappointing DVDs also featured stereo only soundtracks. Most people aren’t going to really notice the compressed qualities of these tracks, since they won’t know what they’re missing in terms of immersion, so, in the end, this isn’t enough of a reason to avoid these collections, unless they’ve already purchased each season on iTunes or something.

Adventure Time Seasons 1 and 2

Extras


Season one’s extras (which match the season one DVD extras) begin with a series of commentary tracks. Trouble in Lumpy Space and Prisoners of Love features Ward with actors John DiMaggio, Jeremy Shada, and Tom Kenny; Tree Trunks features Ward’s mom, Bettie, and actress Polly Lou Livingston; and Ricardio the Heart Guy features Ward with actors Kenny, Shada, Hayden Walch, and George Takei. This is followed by animatic versions of Slumber Party Panic, The Enchiridion!, Dungeon, and Rainy Day Daydream, each with commentary from Ward, creative director Pat Michale, storyboard artist Adam Muto, and executive producer Derek Drymon (there is no option to not listen to the commentary, but you can still hear the temp voice track in the background, including BMO’s original voice).

The season one disc also features a behind the scenes video shot by Ward on a camera phone (9:40, HD), a ‘behind-the-scenes of the behind-the-scenes’ featurette (2:30, HD), Adventure Time Music with Casey + Tim (10:20, HD), a music video (1:50, HD), Finndemonium promo (2:00, HD), and The Wand short (2:10).

Season two ups the ante with a commentary track for every single one of the 26 episodes. The participants vary, based on episode, but include Ward, storyboard artists Muto, Kent Osborne, Benton Connor, Cole Sanchez, Ako Castuera, Tom Herpich, Rebecca Sugar, Jesse Moynihan, Steve Wolfhard, and Ian Jones-Quartey. If you play all of the commentaries, the first episode opens with a title card from Ward explaining that the commentaries were recorded at his house and that he cut out some of the ‘dips’ in conversation (often clearly not kid-friendly). They have been replaced with music. Season two also features interviews with the crew conducted by Ward (6:20, HD), including storyboard artists Sanchez, Osborne, Sugar, Castuera, Muto, Herpich, Moynihan, and Andy Ristaino, animatics timer Oliver Akuin, clean-up artist Alex Campos, animation scanner Tammy List, background designers Santino Lascano and Derek Hunter, background painter Martin Ansolabehere, art director Nick Jennings, production assistants Joe Game and Patrick Seery, production manager Keith Mack, production coordinator Dick Grunert, sheet timer Don Judge, dialogue editor Drandal Crews, character designers Phil Rynda, Michelle Xin, and Matt Forsythe, producer Kelly Crews, and production manager Scott Malchus. The ‘interview’ mostly involves showing them a really gassy-sounding clip (we don’t see it) on Ward’s computer.

Adventure Time Seasons 1 and 2

Overall


Adventure Time is overflowing with more unbridled, unpredictable imagination than anything else on TV right now. Maybe ever. Like I said before, it’s a rare cultural phenomenon that actually earns this status as something special. These Blu-ray releases of season one and two are a mixed blessing: the video quality is surprisingly strong, better than its HD TV or Netflix versions, considering how many episodes have been crammed on a single disc (26 per), but the compression has backfired with a weak, 192kbps Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. The season two extras are a bit better, considering every single episode has a commentary track, but I’m afraid they aren’t any different from the DVD release.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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