„Hey, have you noticed we are birds now?“
Adventure Time has never shied away from experimenting, and „Food Chain“ is a good example of that. Handed off to guest director Masaaki Yuasa (Mind Games), this non-canonical episode has its own unique vision and style, both animation- and story-wise. „Food Chain“ is less „out there“ than, say, David OReilly’s „5.15 A Glitch is a Glitch„, but luckily still feels like a true Adventure Time episode.
Finn and Jake visit the museum of natural history, in which Princess Bubblegum teaches the candy children about the circle of life, for some reason. But then Magic Man shows up and transforms Finn and Jake into birds – now all of a sudden thirsty for caterpillars, and prey to bigger birds…
Spoilers from here onwards.
When I tell people that Adventure Time is a kids‘ show that has tons of subtext for adults to pick up, they immediately ask: „Oh, so, like The Simpsons?“ „Well, no“, I answer, „The Simpsons is primarily aimed at adults while attracting children as well, while Adventure Time works the other way round.“ „Food Chain“ is the kind of episode that reminds us of the show’s primary role on Cartoon Network, as it is clearly designed to more directly appeal to children. While the show frequently has messages attached to its episodes, they are often somewhat difficult to decipher and implicit. Not so „Food Chain„, which has its lesson – how the circle of life works – front and center. So much in fact that it becomes a little distracting.
Sure, it is going to work for the younger audience, but I soon felt tired of the repetitive nature of the episode, despite being aware that this is of course part of the episode’s message itself. And by message I don’t mean an explicitly phrased „lesson learned“ as is the case on South Park, for instance; but „Food Chain“ could really have been a meatier episode. I was delving for a deeper meaning within the episode – a reason for sending Finn and Jake on this journey as characters; a reason the episode exists other than being trippy and showing off just how trippy it can get. Call me pretentious (because I sort of am), but I do try to look for subtext within Adventure Time episodes because that is exactly what I enjoy wrapping my head around in a show like this, and also the reason I watch Adventure Time in the first place. The show is, after all, a children’s show, so it has to be a little more than just that to attract an audience like me. This is not to say „Food Chain“ is a bad episode, but I feel like I am part of the audience this episode is not aimed at.
The episode harkens back to the show’s early days by design, of course, and I am not just talking about the fact that it is one of the few standalone episodes in Adventure Time’s recent track record. Take the episode’s beginning, for instance, which is pure, unadulterated, child-like fun. The way the candy children bumble through the caterpillar tunnels is a great example of how the animation manages to capture that spirit of the joy of child play. Or take the (almost) classical music piece to which Finn and Jake begin to transform into birds – at a moment’s notice, the show kicks into a higher gear in unexpected ways. And the frantic energy with which the episode steams through its plot is done in an energetic way that is classic Adventure Time material.
Visually, the episode is mostly a stunner. Mostly, because not every shot looks great. I was almost put off by the shot in which Finn and Jake walk down the hallway to the snack bar, for instance, right before Magic Man’s spell sets the plot in motion – the walls sliding by is such a cool effect, so why do the walls look so incredibly bland? But while „Food Chain“ is in parts a little sketchy on detailed animation, it makes up for it by original designs, certainly one of the advantages of the show outsourcing an entire episode. Personally, I was wowed by the flower sequence with its day-and-night rhythm and the slow-motion song, but on the other hand found the Big Bird Finn rather off-putting – but while the animation is a matter opinion, it can’t be denied that it brought some new juice to the show. (Not that the show would have needed it, but I’m not complaining!)
The story is a little more contrived than usual – in actual fact, Magic Man has little reason to jinx our two protagonists, and I think that any episode that mostly consists of a dream is rather weak on the story-side, since the storyteller can justify any deus ex machina they like. I think flashing in Magic Man with the words „CHANGE“ for a few frames is as cheap as a contrivance can get, and while most of Finn and Jake’s transformations made somewhat sense, the switch from flower to caterpillar was rather unmotivated (because unlike their previous forms, Flower-Finn and -Jake do not die when their leaves are being eaten). I realize any complaint about story logic is somewhat vain in such a balls-to-the-wall episode, but it does matter whether an episode can at least maintain the illusion of telling a story that bends and twists organically, and „Food Chain“ can’t quite maintain that coherence – in large parts to how jumpy it is, never sticking with a single story thread, and thus never really bestowing any sense of importance on, say, the female caterpillar Finn falls in love with. That entire storyline left me pretty cold.
However, what the episode does manage is to pull all its strings together at the end. While I disliked the Showman-Finn explaining the circle of life yet again, I enjoyed how the show played out the sentiment of more than just the food chain going in circles. „Eeeh, so what, let’s go play!“, is the kids‘ reaction to Finn’s fabulous presentation, and they indeed go back to playing as they were at the beginning of the episode. In a sense, the episode is shooting down and defeating its own purpose here: it tries to teach children how the food chain works by illustrating it with its main characters, then acknowledges the fact that children are in for the ride simply because the episode is bright and jolly and fun. In that way, „Food Chain“ becomes a metaphor for Adventure Time in itself – children watch it to be entertained, while the show’s creators hope some of the show’s bigger ideas and themes stay with the kids on a subconscious level. „Food Chain“ tries to make sure of that by repeating its core concept repeatedly, but thereby leaves out its adult audience a little.
Even more bla:
– I love how the „You guys are caterpillar – let’s try to get eaten!“ is ever so slightly creepy. And I love how it says „Congrats!“ at the end of the tunnel, so cute!
– This episode’s placement in the show’s chronology is not quite ideal. While it’s great to see Jake after a long absence in a central role once again, it does not go with Finn’s state of mind of the previous episode at all. I’ll let it slide for being non-canonical, but that’s a fact I’m not too thrilled either.
– Finn’s unhappy face about seeing the various caterpillar family members is a neat beat. I’m surprised the episode did not elaborate on the caterpillar family any further, though.
– Note how the circle of life makes absolutely no sense in the candy kingdom – or does it?
– „Yo, Princess Bubblegum, do birds play football?“ I love that line. It’s one of that obnoxious kids that only cares about their favorite hobby, and whenever they are confronted with another topic, they immediately try to change it back to their favorite.
– It’s a sweet idea to summarize the part of the food chain where bigger animals eat smaller ones with „the big bird eats the small bird“, particularly because the picture of the small bird being in the beak of the bigger bird is just too funny.
– Opinion time! You may love this episode, and here’s why: not every Adventure Time episode has to be all gloomy and layered as „Breezy„, not every episode needs major character growth or an exploration of the show’s mythology. Sometimes this show is just meant to be mindless fun, and I do not deny this episode achieves that with some really wacky events (Finn splitting into billions of bacteria comes to mind, or then blooming into a flower). But I personally do not take so lightly to that approach, because I prefer my television shows to be audacious and move me – and I know Adventure Time can do it. Alas, „Food Chain“ did not try to. That does not make it a bad episode per se, but it fails to appeal to me.
Rating: 6,0 out of 10 points.
„Food Chain“ is a reminder of Adventure Time’s early days – no intense character development or study, but instead tells a vivid and imaginative story that most certainly supports the show’s title.