„Having a brother looks kind of fun.“
What Adventure Time does so well time and time again are stories that are entirely centered around a guest character that explores a part of Ooo Finn and Jake would not have access to, thereby completely sidelining the show’s actual protagonists. „Little Brother“ is one of those episodes, and does a fine job in fleshing out a character while telling a compelling story.
Shelby the worm accidentally cuts himself in half, and is surprised to see his cut-off bottom come to life – he’s got a little brother now! Shelby tries his best to be a good brother to the newly named Kent, but struggles with the fact that his brother seems to be more talented than himself…
Spoilers from here onwards.
The story of the little brother outshining the bigger is as old as life, but I very much enjoy Adventure Time’s take on it. The show’s tight time frame of an episode lasting a mere 11 minutes has often been a bit of a hindrance for telling complex stories, but episodes like „Little Brother“ really spotlight that constriction’s strength: through its conciseness, „Little Brother“ averts becoming too much of a morality tale by not going on about Shelby’s state of mind for too long, despite it being the episode’s emotional core. We still receive several glimpses of Shelby’s frustration about his own shortcomings, but they are short but sweet: just how sad is it to see Shelby try hard to grow limbs when it comes effortlessly to Kent?
Shelby’s predicament is compelling because it rings so true thanks to one of the show’s smoothest real life metaphors to date. At first, Shelby is a little unsure what to make of this new companion, but is swept up by the baby’s charm and goes to seek council about how to be a good brother. Soon, however, he notices just how gifted Kent turns out to be, doing things Shelby just can’t. Kent doesn’t know how he managed to grow arms and legs – he is just naturally talented, whereas Shelby cannot do it even when he puts his mind to it. Kent is destined (or rather: is being destined) to fight bad guys and conquer the world, while Shelby will just remain Shelby, friend and brother.
However, Shelby has at least one thing going for him: wisdom. I am thinking of the episode’s beautiful ending, of course, in which he wistfully reflects upon his brother’s existence and deeds, but also of the fact that he comes to accept his fate as a worm, focusing on being a good mentor. Of course he is saddened by being outshone by his brother in every respect, but such is life – and Shelby has different qualities. It is no use to measure his worth by his brother’s achievements – and vice versa. Kent will wander through the tree’s root system and fight bad guys, Shelby will remain a loyal friend to Finn and Jake. And despite those differences, the brothers manage to bond at the end of the episode, singing their (unfortunately rather lackluster) song. They are different as can be and go different ways, but neither of these things get in the way of their brotherly love. In the end, Shelby has one more thing going for him: he is the greater man, able to take a step back and have someone else be in the spotlight.
The show reminds us of the parallel to Finn and Jake, who are brothers in all but name (and race, I guess). I particularly love the brief, goofy depiction of Finn playfully hitting Jake’s head, which Shelby comments with a sighed „Dang. Having a brother looks kind of fun.“ It does, in a beautifully random but true moment. It’s not just about going off on adventures with your best buddy, but also about just goofing off with your brother in the most innocuous way, about just hanging out, about just being there for another. And despite the show having pretty much relegated Jake to a more recurring role in the past 20 episodes or so, Finn and Jake’s playful banter reminds us that their friendship is still the show’s core relationship. Puberty or not – Finn and Jake will play games and go on adventures until the end of Adventure Time.
That said, I sometimes wonder how much self-reflection Jake is capable of, being the bigger brother that wants to protect his baby brother. It’s not the first time that Jake is being asked for advice, and instead of really considering the inquirer’s situation, Jake suggests solutions that are only applicable to overpowered magical dogs, yet the advice seeking parties take at face value. Is he japing or really that oblivious? Neither seems likely, since Jake appears both wistful and sincere about his piece of advice. Or is Adventure Time sacrificing consistent characterization for an admittedly funny joke? By sheer (predictable) luck, his advice for Kent to explore the world and fight bad guys turns out to be just what Kent was meant to do, after all, but one day Jake’s luck may run out.
The other half of the episode is dedicated to a fun adventure that plays out like a computer game: Kent ventures deep into the tree house’s root system, but in order to slay the Rat King, he must first assemble a powerful sword. To have it forged (after meeting the resident mystical weapon smith, of course), he must procure three just as mystical ingredients, for which he has to resist three temptations. The show has a lot of fun with this stereotypical story trope, which it plays out with the perfect mix of goofiness and sincerity – albeit making the episode meander a little. The rats make for interesting and funny baddies (gnawing at roots isn’t a crime, but you can see they’re evil by the green-ish smell they omit – thanks, Adventure Time!), while the Rat King is a wild combination of various stereotypical villainy qualities: tries to turn Kent to the dark side, is difficult to defeat, and lifts a curse upon his death(?).
What I particularly love is the payoff of the Rat King’s defeat – from now on, expect the tree house to bloom in the springs. I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff, because it not only validates Kent’s status as a hero, but also makes the episode matter in Adventure Time’s bigger context. Sure, the tree house looking different won’t change a whole lot (or more probably: nothing at all) about the show or where its story is headed, but just adding the visual reminder of the show’s past is always such a treat, and I am really, really looking forward to see the willow tree blossom in the spring, reminding me of lil‘ Kent’s heroic defeat of the Rat King. It goes to show that what happens in this show means something to its future, which in turn makes it mean more to me as a viewer.
Even more bla:
– „Nah, I just don’t care about money.“
– Always a very lovely gag when we are dealing with tiny protagonists: objects from the big world that take on an entirely new context in the tiny one. A coin serves as tray, and a bottle cap as one of the sword’s materials.
– Dancing Bug, now officially abbreviated as ‚DB‘, is back! The dancing millipede isn’t bad, either. Bit disappointing to see this part of the episode going nowhere, though – Shelby not fitting in, but willing himself to do so („Hardcore!“) does not really relate to the brothers-theme, as far as I can see.
– So, any ideas why Shelby calls him Kent? Is there a joke I’m missing?
– Still so sad the show went back on the amputation of Finn’s arm, but actually a little bewildered the thorn we briefly saw stick out from Finn’s hand in „Breezy“ is not being tackled, nor even shown. Was it just a fluke? Is it a story element that’s actually not that important? Or is it coincidence we have had five episodes in a row without it being mentioned? Either way, I’m not too thrilled.
– I’ve mentioned it above: I really don’t dig the song Shelby and Kent sang. The lyrics were terrible („together we could probably fight a bear“ – huh?), the voices not great, and the melody not really compelling. I feel like the show has been trying to emulate Rebecca Sugar’s music style every once in a while ever since she left the show in season 4, but instead of appearing lovable, the songs more often than not just fall flat.
– „Beautiful daughters“ is a bit of a misnomer – what freaks me out the most is that they all look the same, robotic and lifeless. Also, I’ve read Maus recently, a comic book about the holocaust, and the daughters this rat offered looked eerily similar to the comic’s depiction of Jews. Doubt the similarity is intentional, though.
– Apologies for there not being a review on last week’s episode, „Something Big„, I wish I had more time for this. To summarize: I wasn’t too thrilled with the episode, being particularly critical of Darren’s characterization – the baddie not knowing what feelings are is a trope I’m not too thrilled with, and Darren was a particularly one-dimensional take on it. I also the episode was all over the place and instead should have focused on the battle itself, which was kind of thrilling. Although I was saddened to see Root Beer Guy die off-screen (or not see, I guess), I was impressed by how it was handled: the pool of Root Beer Guy ingredients is a compelling visual, and I particularly loved the one shot in which the pool stayed a pool whereas Darren’s other victims were revived – eerily reminiscent of the way Finn’s arm stump grew a flower instead of a hand in „Escape from the Citadel„.
Rating: 7,5 out of 10 stars.
„Little Brother“ is a very cute, funny, theme-centered episode. The story meanders a little, but the episode makes up for it with a surprisingly wistful ending.