Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake Review - IGN (2024)

Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake premieres on Max August 31.

How do you recapture the magic of a series with an ending as perfect as Adventure Time’s? If you’re Fionna and Cake showrunner Adam Muto, you don’t. Sure, the mirthful-yet-more-melancholic limited series reintroduces recognizable faces and settings. But Fionna and Cake isn’t about trotting out references to score cheap “Remember this?” points. Instead, the spin-off focusing on alternate versions of Finn the Human and Jake the Dog reflects on the act of revisiting stories. It ponders how the complex characters may have changed since we last saw them and, in recurring meta interjections, how its creators may have changed themselves.

The delightful duo of Fionna the Human and Cake the Cat are fitting entry points for this exploration: They were, after all, the subjects of in-universe fanfiction created by Simon Petrikov (a.k.a. Adventure Time antagonist Ice King).When we meet Fionna, Cake, and Simon again, they’re each stuck in a rut. There’s a more persistent somberness to their return, and amidst all the joyful sight gags and jokes, it feels like Adventure Time has grown up as well.

For Fionna, this is felt in the painfully relatable grind of hustling to survive. As expressed in a cheery yet dark song, she spends her days cycling through dead-end jobs; at night, she dreams of a magical world that recalls My Neighbor Totoro. There’s a weariness in Fionna’s voice (provided once more by Madeline Martin) and a yearning for something magical that’s forever unreachable. Simon, voiced by SpongeBob’s Tom Kenny at his most understated, has a stranger job that is no less draining: He works from home, where he is made into a living exhibit of a bygone era. Though he is in The Land of Ooo and Fionna lives in a world more like our own, both face the casual agonies of being lost in life – as well as the grim fact that the only thing on TV is Cheers reruns.

That punchline is indicative of Fionna and Cake’s skepticism toward nostalgia. When Simon goes to an actual bar in the second episode, he’s told by the persistent bartender about how beloved his old stories are, despite his clear discomfort with the conversation. The troubled writer doesn’t want to talk about his past work, and, to hammer this home even more explicitly, confesses that he “can’t relate to any of this anymore – this world, these people.” That notion is gleefully turned on its head when Fionna and Cake burst free from the cranium of their reluctant creator, materializing in Ooo.

The way Fionna and Cake sidesteps mawkishness and embraces a distinctly unsentimental tone is invigorating.

It might all become too self-indulgent if Fionna and Cake weren’t willing to push itself to try new things. Darkness has always been a part of Adventure Time – especially with The Lich storyline – but we peer far deeper into it here. Some of this is expressed in unexpectedly bloody moments, like an expedition of healing that turns damaging for Simon. It’s also baked into a broader adventure that takes us across the Adventure Time multiverse, involving a magical item with immense power and a tragic history – though this thread is less interesting and incisive than its underlying thematic interests.

Yes, this is yet another attempt to shake up a familiar franchise by giving it an Into the Spider-Verse to call its own. But Fionna and Cake’s parallel realities are merely a means to an engaging end that transcends any trappings it gets occasionally tangled up in. There is a rougher texture to the experience, made more haunting without ever losing sight of its sharper sense of humor. When Cake gains the ability to speak, the joy of hearing Roz Ryan reprise the role is undercut by the feisty feline’s confusion about where she is and what harm she may be causing there.

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The way Fionna and Cake sidesteps mawkishness and embraces a distinctly unsentimental tone is invigorating. The all-seeing Prismo (Sean Rohani stepping in for Kumail Nanjiani) brings this into focus: The wish-granting being has tired of those in need of his services; after so much time spent working for others, he begins to wonder what it would be like to make something for himself. When we see what he chooses to create, the series cheekily calls attention to its own artificiality, ensuring it is then able to break free of it.

It’s rote exposition, but it feeds into the central throughline: Some storytelling magic can’t be captured a second time. Adventure Time was lightning in a bottle, and Fionna and Cake understands that. The past is past and any attempt to recapture that would be the equivalent of running in a circle, something the duo do while shouting out a classic catchphrase, only to find themselves right back where they started from. The series becomes more boldly daring once it rips this solid-yet safe ground out from under Fionna and Cake, sending them on their way to distant lands.

By exploring these new worlds, the charming characters as well as the writers and animators begin teasing out some magic of their own. Fionna and Cake manages to assemble pieces of what we’ve seen before into something new. It is vibrant and often visceral, with no obligation to crowd-pleasing or callbacks for callbacks’ sake. It isn’t as consistently “good” as the original Adventure Time, but it knows that’s a high bar to clear and takes the bold leaps necessary to grow into something contemplative and comedic. It won’t prevent Simon from being asked about his old stories, but there’s a good chance even he’d be happy with how this one came out.

Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake Review - IGN (2024)
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