“Gold Stars” Review

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Original Airdate: January 29, 2015

Written & Storyboarded by: Seo Kim & Somvilay Xayaphone

This is Sweet Pig Trunks’ (or, Sweet P. for short) first appearance since his faux-debut in Escape From the Citadel, and the episode doesn’t stray away from from the biggest topic on everyone’s mind: if the Lich still has power within Sweet P.’s psyche. While Gold Stars confirms this theory in a chilling and impactful way, the rest of the episode… meanders. It’s not completely awful, but it suffers from being a bit unoriginal and has bits of lazy writing throughout.

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I think one of the main struggles of the episode is that Sweet P. himself is not an inherently interesting character. His connection to the Lich certainly makes him interesting and makes me care for him, but Sweet P. in general doesn’t really have a ton to his character as an individual. He’s sweet, sensitive, and kind… and that’s practically it. And this is about as harsh as I could possibly be on this blog, but his voice actor, Ethan Maher, gives an entirely stilted performance. Obviously it’s not the kid’s fault, he’s only seven years old! I’m sure he was trying as hard as he possibly could to read the lines given to him in a convincing way. But it really is just a result of pretty much every young child actor that’s ever existed not having enough experience in the field to know what exactly makes a good performance. I’m not blaming or criticizing his voice actor at all, but I do think it also hinders Sweet P. from feeling like he’s more than just a blank slate, because every line that comes from him is monotonous. Where these monotone lines do work, however, is anytime when Sweet P. is allowed to act creepy or threatening, which only really comes into play by the end of the episode.

I liked Finn and Jake taking Sweet P. to school with the squadron of Candy Kingdom military force surrounding them, though it really makes me wonder: why the fuck would they give Sweet P. to Tree Trunks and Mr. Pig in the first place if they were so concerned about his unnatural state of being? I mean, it’s proven in this one that TT and Mr. P are far from being the best parents, so how did they ever think such an idea was a good one? Seems to be a cautionary action that’s too little, too late. I actually like how Tree Trunks and Mr. Pig’s negligence is portrayed as mostly harmless and doesn’t really make them come off as shitty people. I mean, they’re not very responsible parents, that’s clear, but it kind of comes from their own naivety rather than them being terrible or anything. It does make me wonder, though, do these two even know that their son is the Lich? I truly wonder if anyone told them, and my guess is no. But that makes it somewhat more bothersome, because why would they put this temperamental child in the hands of two senile, old coots? As more pieces come together, I struggle to make sense of this decision.

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Though, Sweet P. isn’t the only character who takes center stage in this one, as King of Ooo returns once more after his debut in Apple Wedding. It’s good to see him again; I enjoy the King of Ooo’s tendencies of being an obvious swindler, yet one that still has charm, much like Martin’s character. And it’s cool to see Toronto finally included in this one after his first appearance was cut out from Apple Wedding. The two are presented as enjoyable assholes throughout the episode’s run, though I’m not the first person to feel like the episode treads similar territory to PinocchioAdventure Time has followed the outline of already-done stories before, such as Puhoy did, though that episode was subversive in nature and took a unique spin on the source material. This one seems to be a bit too much like a rip-off, but it’s not an element that particularly bothered me in any which way because I like the story of Pinocchio a ton, and it’s fun seeing it represented through these characters. I guess it’s more so the fact that it’s entirely predictable where exactly this story is going, which makes it less fun, especially on a first viewing. It always struck me as weird that King of Ooo and Toronto steal from people while they’re hysterically laughing… wouldn’t it make more sense and be less risky to just charge people for Sweet P.’s circus act? I guess that’s part of the joke, but I dunno, I didn’t really go along with it. Sweet P.’s truffle shuffle in general is just kind of… awkward, I guess? It’s something that’s funny to the characters in the show, but not necessarily funny to the audience. Which makes it sort of hard to believe in terms of relatability. I mean, the dance practically puts everyone in a trance, and it’s largely ineffective as a comedy device for any of us watching at home. Granted, I’m sure it would be legitimately funny to see a giant baby-man wiggling his tummy around in real life, but it gets so much focus in the actual episode and never comes off as humorous, even from the first time it’s utilized. I wouldn’t have so much of a problem with it, but it’s an episode that’s relatively devoid of humor otherwise, so I wish there could have been something with a bit more substance carrying the actual laughs.

As I mentioned in my first paragraph, this episode suffers from some pretty lazy writing in certain areas. There’s parts that feel almost entirely like padding, such as when Toronto is trying to trying to convince King of Ooo that Sweet P. has talent. It goes on and on and on, and is yet another instance of Somvilay’s writing style slowing down the pacing of the episode. But I can’t put all the blame on Somvilay, because Seo’s bits feel equally uninspired in their dialogue. The scene where King of Ooo and Toronto openly discuss how they’re deceiving Sweet P. is unbelievably dumb. I mean, seriously, this couldn’t have been carried across in any other way? Toronto’s line of “what does it matter? None of it was good!” somewhat makes up for it, but it still feels lazy in its execution regardless. It’s also somewhat jarring to see King of Ooo go from this manipulative con man into someone who’s legitimately violent and aggressive, and I don’t think it’s handled in a natural way. I guess it makes sense because his identity as a “hero” was in jeopardy, but in that case, should he really be openly stealing from others? Wouldn’t that potentially harm his career as Ooo’s savior? And how does burning down Sweet P.’s house “take care of him”? Wouldn’t that bring more attention to the situation? I have so many questions, purely because this entire scenario just feels completely absurd.

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Regardless, it does lead up to the best moment in the episode: the Lich being summoned. I absolutely love this entire bit; the way that the reflection of KOO’s fire shifts to a green flame in Sweet P.’s eye is a purely awesome transitional moment, and the dialogue that mixes between Mayer’s voice and Ron Perlman’s voice is chilling to the bone.

“Stop. I have learned much from you. Thank you, my teachers. And now for your education. Before there was time, before there was anything, there was nothing. And before there was nothing, there were monsters. Here’s your gold star!”

It’s awesome how difficult it is for the series to make a Lich monologue fail, and it helps that they’re used quite sparingly. The way everything goes silent, dark, and then fades into the Lich’s realm of monsters, sets an extremely off-putting atmosphere that once again builds on Adventure Time‘s lore and is pretty awesome in its own right. It’s cool to once again confirm that the Lich has existed for as long as time itself, and that he is likely the oldest being in the existence of this world. The designs of the monsters are all grotesque, yet aesthetically pleasing, along with a cameo from a little guy who we will be meeting shortly. The only thing more disturbing than the actual speech is Sweet P.’s remark that it was “just a dream,” mirroring his line earlier. The Lich is horrifying enough as it is, but connecting him to the life and being of this innocent child makes things even more terrifying. Really leaves a bad feeling in my gut every time I see it.

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However, it still leaves for a relatively happy ending, as Sweet P. is truly a kind kid by nature. Even after being bullied by others, he chooses to laugh along and not let others bother him, rather than channel into his own self-conscious fears and darker tendencies. It’s a bit telling for what kind of a character he is, and plays into his development later on.

As is, this one is mainly mediocre, with some bits I think are really just plain bad. The Lich’s speech at the end surely justifies Gold Stars‘ existence, but the rest of the episode is coated with poorly written dialogue, a predictable story, and a pretty sub-par main character at the helm. It really doesn’t help that it’d be a whopping 82 episodes before we would even get a follow-up of this story, which decreased my investment in this actual arc as time went on. Granted, this is not a fault of the episode, but Gold Stars has many other issues worth noting, with one gem moment that at least helps it stand out.

Favorite line: “Did your grandma knit your clothes?” “Yeah, and she’s my mom!”

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