Original Airdate: September 2, 2021
Written & Storyboarded by: Hanna K. Nyström, Anna Syvertsson, Maya Petersen, Aleks Sennwald & Haewon Lee
Wizard City was the one special that fans seemed somewhat indifferent to when it was announced. I can see why, as Peppermint Butler is perhaps the most obscure choice for the main focus out of the four. I was, however, cautiously optimistic, firstly because Pepbut is my favorite secondary character in the series and I’m a sucker for anything relating to AT‘s wiz-biz. So I gave it the benefit of the doubt, but unfortunately, Wizard City ended up being the weakest of the Distant Lands specials.
A lot of the issues within Wizard City stem from the fact that a good portion of it is just tackling hackneyed tropes and plot points we’ve seen hundreds of times in other media with little to no distinction of that AT goodness. If you’ve seen any magical school or secret society story prior, there’s really nothing here that makes an effort to standout beyond that. Even Adventure Time‘s sister show OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes did this exact story only a few years earlier that played on the exact twists and turns that Wizard City tackles. Part of the fun of Adventure Time is watching it take on relatively common plot devices at times with an added sense of uniqueness. Is That You? is essentially an Adventure Time clip show, but incorporates this element into the actual story of the episode which makes for both a trip and fun endeavor. All the Little People takes the average “king for a day” story and connects it to Finn’s budding sexuality and his hidden desires to manipulate others. And even Fern’s entire arc, which can be boiled down to the traditional evil clone and “there can only be one” story takes a psychological horror turn and showcases Finn if everything went wrong for him. Many of the Distant Lands episodes have featured characters or situations that have had obvious beats from the very beginning: I think we all knew what the purpose of Y-5 and Glassboy’s characters were from the first five seconds they were on-screen. Wizard City is exactly the same with its story and characters, feeling like it’s simply going through the motions of its plot without offering anything remotely challenging.
I don’t mean to act pretentious in this either, though I’m probably coming off that way. Wizard City isn’t devoid of surprises – there is the twist at the end with all of the Wizard School teachers turning out the be evil, but again, in my personal experience absorbing these stories, I feel as if this type of twist could be seen from a mile away. I think especially in the era where twist villains are so commonplace in animation, especially in Disney films, I could see through the Caledonius façade pretty quickly. And even if it was surprising, I think that’s fine, but I really just don’t see how this episode works outside of a surface level beyond that. Aside from the cool allusions to the Second Age of Terror that was first referenced in The Mountain and Coconteppi taking the appearance of one of the ancient monsters from Gold Stars, there’s really nothing compelling or analytical lore-wise.
As for general entertainment, I find the special equally meandering. There are some humorous moments sprinkled throughout, such as the various gags done with Larry’s rock form and a lot of decent visual gags with Cadebra in particular. But I find them to be few and far in between, with many gags lacking the usual Adventure Time spunk that the other Distant Lands specials similarly struggled with. A lot of the special is mainly just focused on Pep navigating through the struggles of Wizard School and regaining his magical prowess, along with dealing with bullies and his frustrations towards Cadebra, which again, feel incredibly formulaic. I’ve been seeing a lot of people obsess over the bully trio from Wizard City, but outside of Blaine’s undying obsession with Spader, I also found them pretty run-of-the-mill. It was also cool to see Blaine being referred to as “they” so casually – probably the first time I’ve seen LGBTQA+ representation in a series where I really didn’t actively think about it on a first watch.
So I’ve dunked on this one a lot, but there are quite a few things I do like about it. Even though Pep’s journey leaves me quite uninterested, I do think there are parts of it that I admire. I think the idea of Peppermint Butler coming back to haunt Pep is certainly an aspect that puts him in a negative light, but I don’t think its main purpose is to demonize Peppermint Butler himself. The curse was merely a representation of everything that Pepbut wanted to accomplish as a dark lord, and operated more as internal pressure rather than an actual venue for Peppermint Butler to act antagonistic. The pressure Pep puts on himself is something that I can personally identify with – I think it’s easy to look at a past version of yourself and resent where you are in the present. Hell, there was a point where I was writing reviews for this blog four days a week, and now I torment myself on why I can’t even churn out a written post once a month. So Pep coming the conclusion that he still wants to succeed, but doesn’t want to let his past dictate his entire journey, is a resolution I find quite satisfying. Even if the story beats that he goes through are quite predictable, as I had mentioned. I don’t really love Pep as a character that much, but I think he has his moments outside of story purposes, mostly in the area of humor. I think his whininess over wanting to be a dark lord can certainly be funny at times, along with his goofy shrug when Cadebra discovers his true nature. Cadebra is another character I enjoy. Again, her journey is mostly uninteresting to me because of how cookie cutter it is, as well as the fact that you know what the special is trying to communicate with her character very, very early on, but she has her share of cute/funny moments, mostly because of the way she is illustrated along with her exaggerated expressions.
Other highlights were seeing some of the classic wizards from the original series (Bill Hader as Bufo was a nice touch), some of the background characters were cool, and the incredibly dark joke that Spader was killed in such a merciless way was kind of wild. I’ve seen a lot of people who were pissed off by this, but I dunno, I actually kind of respect the commitment. Yes, Spader was a character that didn’t really deserve this morbid fate, but in a series where characters so rarely die permanently, it’s kind of hilarious that the writing staff decided to just straight up murder a relatively smug character and not bring him back at the end. Kudos for that.
But still, Wizard City leaves me pretty underwhelmed. This honestly might be one of the AT entries that has the least rewatch value for me personally. Yes, there are far worse Adventure Time episodes out there, but most are only 11 minutes and barely make a dent in my day. Wizard City is a whopping 44 minutes that mostly leaves me just bored – and the humor certainly isn’t strong enough to have me coming back frequently. A lot of people wish that Together Again was the special that concluded Distant Lands, and while I had my own issues with that special, it definitely would’ve ended the series with a bang, whereas Wizard City ends with a whimper. But, as the post credits scene with a dark Choose Goose proves, there’s probably going to be a dozen more AT projects in the next 10 years regardless. For better or for worse.