Upon returning to Ooo after the exceptional Adventure Time: Islands miniseries, Finn (Jeremy Shada) and Jake (John DiMaggio) find themselves in the middle of yet another long story that needs its own separate miniseries for the telling. Unlike the last one, Adventure Time: Elements doesn’t offer answers to questions that have been lingering since the start of the series or speak significantly to current social and political issues. It’s a much simpler plot about a ragtag group working together to stop overwhelming opposition, and while it’s certainly entertaining, Elements isn’t as sharp or thoughtful as Islands.
Ooo has become a total mess since the heroes left to discover the truth behind what happened to the humans. The four elementals (Princess Bubblegum, Slime Princess, Flame Princess, and Patience St. Pim) have taken over after having their powers amplified by magic, and the world is split evenly into four realms dominated by a different element. Finn went on a long journey, got back in touch with his roots, and returns home to an environment that has dramatically changed. It’s a common story in adolescent fiction because so much of what changes is the main character’s view of the world, and while that’s certainly a metaphor at play here, this is still Adventure Time, so that metaphor is actually very literal and the world really has changed.
The first chapter, “Skyhooks,” gives viewers a smooth introduction to this new status quo as Finn and Jake slowly discover the new look of their old surroundings, and writers/storyboard artists Sam Alden and Polly Guo take the time to let viewers really feel the scope of these changes. That opening episode is also a delightful showcase of this show’s candy design. The Candy Kingdom and its inhabitants have always featured very imaginative designs, and that aesthetic is exaggerated as candy takes over all the characters and environments in that section of Ooo. Each elemental quadrant has its own distinct style that dominates anyone in that territory, and it’s fun to see how the established characters are changed by the elementals, like Marshmalline in the Candy Kingdom and Lady Flameicorn in the Flame Kingdom.
Finn and Jake team up with Ice King (Tom Kenny) and his former girlfriend, Betty (Felicia Day, who replaces Lena Dunham), to get everything back to normal, and the most engaging chapters find ways to tell personal stories about these pairs within the spectacular context. The second episode, “Bespoken For,” explores Ice King and Betty’s relationship as it recounts events leading up to the Elemental takeover of Ooo, and the viewer gets a strong impression of that couple’s dynamic because Ice King is very bad at getting to the important information.
Ice King and Betty’s relationship is one of the big emotional through-lines of Elements, and given the heaviness of some of the previous episodes exploring Ice King’s tragic past, I expected there to be more weight in Betty and Ice King’s plot. Their early episodes have an effective bittersweetness to them, but the resolution of their story is frustratingly flat. That could be intentional given the frustration experienced by Betty as she tries to restore Ice King’s memory of her, and while frustration isn’t an especially satisfying emotion to end on, it’s one that works for this character.
There are some big changes for Jake at the end of Elements, and the miniseries does great work reinforcing how important Finn and Jake’s friendship is for both of them. The fourth episode, “Cloudy,” is a major break from the action that is entirely focused on Finn and Jake expressing their personal fears and worries to each other when they’re stuck on a cloud, and it’s the simplest, quietest, and most affecting chapter of the entire miniseries. Not every episode should be like “Cloudy,” but including a story like this in the middle does a lot of heavy lifting to strengthen the emotional content. Jake is later replaced by Lumpy Space Princess as Finn’s sidekick; LSP’s frantic energy is a refreshing addition to the story, and taking Jake away from Finn ultimately reveals how much Finn relies on his magical canine companion.
The back half of the miniseries switches into a generic plot where the heroes have to collect assorted items in order to stop the Elementals, and it starts to get more repetitive with each chapter. That basic fantasy video game conceit lessens the miniseries’ momentum, though the first episode in the Flame Kingdom, “Happy Warrior,” cleverly uses that video game influence to heighten the atmosphere of aggression and fury. Chiptune music and backgrounds filled with characters smacking each other around make the episode feel like a lost level from a Super Nintendo beat-’em-up game, but like those games, the action starts to get monotonous.
Elements works well as a tour of a new Ooo and reconfigures the central relationship of the series in the wake of Islands’ major events. There’s a pretty huge cliffhanger involving Jake, and it’s a powerful ending because the story gives so much attention to their characters. Shada and Dimaggio bring a lot of heart to that relationship in their voice work, and in addition to the usual Adventure Time players, Islands also features an impressive roster of returning guest stars, including Lauren Lapkus, Cameron Esposito, John Hodgman, Andy Samberg, and Andy Daly. The miniseries feels big, but it’s at its best when it thinks small and looks at how these sweeping events impact the characters’ personal relationships.