“Stakes” Miniseries Review

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Stakes is the first of the Adventure Time miniseries, and it was certainly a risky move for the series in general. While the show has been experimenting more and more with serialization as it has gone on, this was the first set of episodes that are exclusively built to have an interconnected story, and after the failure of the AT TV movie, it was hard to imagine this concept working out as an entirely coherent bundle. In addition to that, AT‘s ratings dropped somewhat dramatically with the beginning of the seventh season, so if this ended up tanking, I’m not sure if there’d actually be more miniseries to come. Granted, the show had already been renewed for an eighth season by this point, so I’m speaking entirely theoretically when discussing the commercial success of Stakes. But, working off of what really drew people into Adventure Time to begin with, and following the successful programming practice that Over the Garden Wall laid the groundwork for, Stakes ended up being a big hit and worked particularly well with the format offered to it. Personally, however, it’s my least favorite of the three Adventure Time miniseries. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, by any means necessary, but it definitely has a decent hodgepodge of lackluster moments that weigh it down in particular.

I’ll start first by talking about the custom opening for Stakes, which is all-around pretty awesome. The way Marceline jams through that classic opening tune sounds great, and the foreboding instrumental that leads up to it is perfectly fitting for this ominous miniseries. There’s also plenty of great smaller details throughout, such as the King of Ooo finally flying on a giant mushroom (wonder who got him this one?) and Toronto appropriately taking the place of Gingerbread Muto. This opening sequence was boarded by Tom Herpich, and was animated by Science SARU, Masaaki Yuasa’s animation company. While Yuasa’s work looked lovely in Food Chain, it was pretty clear to the eye that it was animated in Flash and looked just a bit distracting from what we’re typically used to in the world of Adventure Time (though, many might argue that it was the point). The animation within the Stakes intro isn’t noticeable in the slightest, and still utilizes Yuasa’s expertise skills with Flash to make every movement executed in the most fluid way possible. Stakes also comes equipped with a custom outro, which has a nice little instrumental version of “Everything Stays.”

The overarching story of Stakes was actually pretty well-executed. I felt as though it stayed compelling throughout its eight episode run, and only ever lost focus in its final episode, but still held onto its thematic tone throughout. The Dark Cloud was a pretty solid episode in its own right, but when comparing it to everything else within the miniseries, it’s pretty dumb to think that this miniseries started on as a big, tense vampire hunt that battled with the ideas of good vs. evil, and all ended with Marceline and the gang fighting a cloud monster that has virtually no role other than to be an exceedingly difficult foe to beat. Thus, I still wouldn’t say the last episode is bad, but the miniseries itself really loses steam by the time Checkmate comes around. So, the story manages to be compelling for at least six episodes, and then ends up losing me by the last two. But the convincing message and theme of “everything stays, but it still changes” is something that was properly handled in a linear pathway from beginning to end. Marceline’s desire to grow up and change her identity is a heavy focus of Marceline the Vampire Queen, while her acknowledgement of her growth and her acceptance of herself is a major part of The Dark Cloud.

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I’ve mentioned it before, but the vampires are easily my favorite part of this miniseries. With the exception of the Vampire King, of whom I thought was merely wasted potential, I thought the vampires were some of the most fun and charismatic characters we’ve been treated to in a long time, and I’d even argue that some of them would rank relatively high on my list of favorite tertiary characters. Even episodes that felt clunky in some ways, like The Empress Eyes and Take Her Back, were entirely more enjoyable with the presence of these vamps. They all had very unique designs, abilities, personalities, and motivations that made every star appearance just an absolute blast.

The only other character I felt this positive about within the miniseries was, you guessed it, Peppermint Butler. Stakes really provides for some of his best appearances to date, showing off his ability to serve and protect the gang, as well as more insight into his deep and mysterious ways. And on top of that, he’s just freakin’ hilarious, providing for some of the funniest moments that Stakes had to offer. Stakes in general utilizes AT‘s side characters really well. King of Ooo, Lumpy Space Princess, and Crunchy all get their individual moments to shine, the latter two of which are usually only ever around to be dimwitted or annoying, but they actually provide for some legitimately great character moments that do assist in progressing the overarching story.

Of course, I wish I could say the same for our major characters. I’ve gone on and on about how much I disliked Finn’s portrayal in this miniseries, and I’m gonna link those individual reviews below for anyone who hasn’t seen ’em, but if you have, you already pretty much know my feelings. It’s sad to see our main hero be so entirely pointless in the grand spectrum of things. I mean, he’s the only human after all, and his presence as a coveted target in this miniseries could’ve been emphasized a lot more than it was. The only episode that actually revolves around this idea is The Empress Eyes, but even then, it pretty much becomes an afterthought by the second half of the episode. So, even though Finn doesn’t have a specific role like the other major players, I’d forgive this aspect if he actually had an active role in helping his friends, but he’s so deeply sidelined by everything else going on that characters like Crunchy and LSP end up being more of a help than he is. He sadly ends up being carried across as goofy comic relief that usually isn’t even that funny, and a pretty embarrassing excuse for what the character is supposed to be. I’d say the same for Jake, but he at least had his nice ongoing phobia subplot that really made May I Come In? a complete success.

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Princess Bubblegum’s role in this miniseries was a nice surprise, as Stakes proves to be just as much about her as it is about Marceline. I think it was really cool how subtle her development and growth was throughout the course of eight episodes, as she continues to acknowledge her flaws and tries to correct them by looking outside of her own ego to help out her friend in her time of need. I found it quite fitting as a point in time where she could finally move back into her kingdom, continuing to develop on the concept that everything remains how PB left it, aside from her recent behavioral shifts.

And, as for Marceline herself… I can honestly say, I thought her portrayal and arc was merely “alright.” It’s something that’s difficult to completely put my finger on… it’s not that I actively disliked her role in particular, but I guess I always felt like there was something more interesting going on within the story aside from her own personal dilemmas, with the exception of Everything Stays. For example,  Vamps About had those great interactions between the vampires, The Empress Eyes had the thoroughly fun back-and-forth between Empress and Ice King, May I Come In? had a lot of great focus on Hierophant and individual character moments, and Take Her Back had the ambiguity surrounding The Moon. This is somewhat of a criticism and a compliment, as Stakes managed to find something really compelling within almost every episode, it just so happened to make me less interested in what actually happened to Marceline. It is somewhat of a shame, because this miniseries is supposed to be her big, shining moment within the series, though I’m always drawn into Stakes for different reasons, and I find that there are far better examples of great Marceline episodes outside of this miniseries. I still feel as though her statement in The Dark Cloud regarding the growth that she has experienced always feels a bit hollow and unconvincing to me, mostly because I just was never that invested in what was going on with her personally. I felt that her talks with the Vampire King in Checkmate and Ice King in The Dark Cloud were relatively insightful, though that’s the only moment where I did feel that she had learned and progressed a bit throughout the span of the miniseries, and even then, those moments felt slim.

One thing Stakes really gets right is its combination between its ominous tone and its wild sense of fun. Stakes creates a very tense feeling throughout its run, but is never afraid to execute each story with a feeling of excitement and adventure. This really felt like a nice return to the more straightforward adventures that season six was somewhat lacking of, and stayed consistently entertaining throughout. I had mentioned that the humor had suffered from often feeling forced, awkward, or too desperate to appeal to longtime and/or casual viewers. It’s still a major problem I find with the miniseries, though again, I feel like I’ve talked about this long enough in my individual reviews to where it would simply be redundant by this point.

There weren’t many consistent teams throughout this miniseries, though Ako Castuera and Jesse Moynihan somehow managed to snag the spotlight by storyboarding a whopping three episodes. This always struck me as particularly odd, because it always was somewhat apparent to me that Castuera and Moynihan struggled with writing for Marceline’s character the most. Though, that surprisingly is not their biggest downfall. Moynihan had recently gotten off of his season six high and wanted to get back to the basics, though again, it feels like he’s trying too hard to emulate classic Adventure Time to the point where it becomes a pretty pale representation of what the show strives to accomplish. Tom Herpich and Steve Wolfhard dished out their usual mix between fun and insight between two episodes, while elsewhere, new and old teams got their chance to submit their own one-shots.

Best to Worst Episodes

  1. May I Come In?
  2. Everything Stays
  3. Vamps About
  4. Take Her Back
  5. The Dark Cloud
  6. The Empress Eyes
  7. Marceline the Vampire Queen
  8. Checkmate

Final Consensus

Stakes is flawed in a plethora of different ways, but honestly, for the first time experimenting with this type of arc, the writers and board artists at least made it fun and genuinely compelling from beginning to end. As a whole, I wouldn’t say I loved Stakes – hell, sometimes I wonder how much I actually liked it – but it really shows through how much fun the staff had while working on this project, and it’s difficult not to get in on it from time to time. It’s certainly my least favorite of the three miniseries, and it actually seems to hold up less in subsequent viewings, but the atmosphere and tone of Stakes is what really carries it through. Even if I’m not really an avid supporter of it, I’d definitely recommend it for anyone looking for a thoroughly captivating adventure that doubles both as a successful Halloween special, and somewhat of an Adventure Time movie.

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