„Three whole pennies! Think you can make me that kind of money?“
Adventure Time is back for one of its more silly episodes – but unlike „James II„, „Sad Face“ does it with grace. The episode sidelines Finn’s struggles with his right arm for an imaginative exploration of what happens when Jake sleepwalks. The episode is driven by a strong idea, its execution is good but not great.
Once a month, Jake’s tail takes on a life of its own: while Jake sleeps, his tail sleepcrawls off to a circus to perform as a clown. If that’s not one of the best episode loglines I’ve ever read, I don’t know what to think.
Spoilers from here onwards.
There are a few different categories of Adventure Time episodes: there are episodes heavy on mythology, there are jolly fun and bright ones, and every once in a while, there are episodes that have a somewhat more sombre note to them underneath their surface. These distinctions are all but clear-cut, yet I would classify „Sad Face“ as one of the latter. Every once in a while, an Adventure Time episode includes or consists of sequences that mostly eschew dialogue, and with the protagonist of „Sad Face“ being unable to speak (since Jake’s tail a.k.a. „Blue Nose“ does not have a mouth, obviously), the show lets the visuals tell the story – one whose limited narrative options necessitate a more thoughtful approach by the writers.
There’s magic to that formula. The „show, don’t tell“ mantra is well-known among storytellers, and scenes without dialogue are a great way to achieve that. Admittedly, „Sad Face“ has its fair share of dialogue as well, but it all stems from secondary characters. Neither the tail nor the chipmunk ever speak, and Blue Nose does not even have facial expressions. Figuring out the character’s state of mind is left to us, and having our minds do this extra-curricular work is intellectually stimulating. I may be biased here, because my favourite show of all time (Kaiba) features long sequences in which the main character is stuck in a body incapable of facial expressions, but Blue Nose makes for a great main character precisely because guessing as to what he is thinking is a real challenge.
Take, for instance, Blue Nose’s original performance. No matter how I wrap my head around it, I can’t quite make sense of his performance – why exactly does his bee puppet die? Or why does it even hide within the oranges? However, what is clear (at least to those who really try to look for it) is that Blue Nose is an artist who struggles to reach an audience with a (somewhat) emotionally charged performance, whereas all the other attractions – blind-folded needle throwing, a snail leaping into a far too small bucket, and a Godzilla-sized chipmunk named Goralina – bank on thrill and excitement. „Too much hearty, not enough farty“, complains the circus director when the audience predictably does not respond well.
What the audience members do like, ironically, is watching Blue Nose sabotage his own act and flip off the circus. When Blue Nose strikes a deal to buy Goralina’s freedom for delivering a money-grabbing performance, he starts out with one of the lamest jokes imaginable: „accidentally“ sitting on a whoopie cushion. It’s sort of a protest to the director as well – is this how low you want me to fall? Adventure Time has great fun staging it as goofy as possible, and infuriatingly, the audience loves it. Hurt in his pride, Blue Nose begins to demolish his record player, chase after the director and generally cause a ruckus – which the audience find a hoot, throwing several pennies into the arena. It’s the death of art for the sake of low-bro humour, and as such is most probably Blue Nose’s final performance.
However, „Sad Face“ is far from being a somber story, highlighted by its, let’s not beat around the bush here, ridiculous premise. That is something the episode luckily does not lose sight of – even when it pretends it does. There are a lot of moments in which the tail’s movements make little sense or are just downright nonsensical: there is just no way for a tail to carry a bag and a stack, for instance, and if you look closely you see it just randomly attached to the tail, with nothing that’s actually holding it. But in actual fact, it’s all part of the act, as the episode’s „going home“ montage assures us: the premise needn’t be taken all to seriously, instead being a constant source for humour. Blue Nose trying to run away from the circus, for instance, is absolutely hilarious, since it is physically still attached to Jake – which makes for an amazing sight gag, as it visits each and every location the episode has taken place in while recoiling.
All in all, however, I have the nagging feeling that the episode could have done even better with its amazing premise. I thought the Goralina storyline was not quite up to Adventure Time’s usual standard of imagination, and while a few gags were a real hoot – I particularly love how the ants carry these giant pennies with them to the circus – the whole idea of it all being set in a small world was not developed all too well. „Sad Face“ is wittier than funny, but still proves to be a great breath of relief from the events of „Escape from the Citadel„. It certainly is an episode that I can proudly point to and say: look, this is how imaginative Adventure Time can be.
Even more bla:
– Shouldn’t Sad Face be blind, too? Just saying…
– I love Blue Nose’s makeup. I think the re-painting of his face is very ham-fisted in order to see him smile as he is leaving it all behind, but acknowledge that it probably had to be done, since it also emphasizes the sad smile in the first part of the story. The sad face is a great visual cue that alternately underlines or juxtaposes what the tail feels, and during his clown performance has even another layer in that it should stimulate juxtaposing feelings within the ant audience, but then turns real when the audience does not respond to the artsy show. Great stuff! Oh, and it also looks dorky.
– Usually I don’t take easily to goofy humour, but for some reason, the audience throwing stuff at Blue Nose after his first performance looks oddly adorable.
– Loved the sound the hat made whenever it was stylishly flipped. Great use of SFX!
– A rather irritating goof, and surprisingly prominent: the size of the bee puppet changes significantly from shot to shot.
– I don’t get what Jake sniffing the blue colour should imply. Any guesses?
– I’d like to reiterate what I expressed in my review of „The Tower„: the opening sequence has started to deeply move me. Seeing kid Finn fist-bump his buddy with his right hand, holding on to the long-legged Jake with both hands, and just seeing good old jolly Finn be a happy kid – it now feels like the end of his arm symbolizes the end of Finn’s childhood altogether.
Rating: 7,0 out of 10 points.
„Sad Face“ is a great showcase for what Adventure Time can do with its surreal setting. It does not tell the most engrossing story in the world, but it sure is witty, funny and shows some real depth.