Original Airdate: January 26, 2017
Written & Storyboarded by: Somvilay Xayaphone & Seo Kim
James Baxter the Horse is an episode I never really expected/wanted a sequel from. If you recall what I thought about that episode, I found it to be decent. Not one of the more memorable or funnier season five episodes, but a light and silly romp with sequences of stellar animation and a lot of heart in its subtext. While James Baxter the Horse was largely about the creative process, as well as the importance and drawbacks of inspiration, Horse and Ball is cleverly mostly about the life and journey of the creator themselves. And honestly, I think I like Horse and Ball a little bit better! The humor is sharper and more cohesive, and I actually find it to be an even more interesting exploration of the creative process than its prequel episode.
It’s really nice that the real James Baxter was able to return to animate portions of this episode. Not only does it help add a rare bit of fluidity and zest to the animation, but it’s really what helps to make this character’s presence feel alive and entertaining to begin with. Without the talent of Baxter himself, I don’t think the character would be nearly as memorable, if at all. James Baxter, the character, has a pretty interesting role in this episode. I enjoy how he’s essentially motionless and dead inside after his ball pops, which is pretty obviously depicted as an existential crisis. Baxter is left with a horrifying dilemma: he’s an artist who isn’t able to create art. Given the circumstances of his past, of which are revealed in this episode, he also wasn’t coming from the most glamorous position. He had left his old life, and corporate America (or, in this case, corporate Ooo), and chose to start anew. Almost immediately in that process, he had unintentionally become an entertainer through the mere process of trying to cheer up a tearful bat, of which essentially becomes his entire life. So, Baxter’s left with quite the debilitating question: is his ability to cheer people up and to entertain others his main, or even his only, purpose in life? How is he supposed to go on if he can’t do the one thing he found that he’s good at?
There’s two subplots of this one, of which both provide their own individual aspects of entertainment. One involves Finn and his desires to care for James Baxter, while also exhibiting nervousness just being in his presence. These scenes are particularly hilarious, with some really great acting on Jeremy Shada’s part. Finn’s deepened voice as he tries to connect with Baxter is hysterically relatable. Any time I meet a somewhat decently prominent celebrity or artist at Comic Con, I’m an uncomfortably awkward dork the entire experience, so I feel you, pal. Another one of my favorite bits in this portion is the way that Shelby assists Finn through his anxiety. Shelby’s usually around to either be snarky or a know-it-all (in the best way possible), so it’s a surprising change of pace to have him so earnestly help his housemate on trying to relax. It’s an irresistibly sweet and fun time watching these two work off of each other, and really pays off when Finn does give his empowering speech regarding the importance of self-care and appeasing one’s self. Finn does a great job here, but let’s face it, Shelby’s the true hero who helps him pull through!
The second subplot involves Jake and BMO as they seek out to find a new beach ball for James Baxter in Ooo’s Junkyard. It was also a pleasant surprise to have Raggedy Princess join the crew, and it even kind of continues her development as a character that was set up in Frog Seasons: Autumn. Totally didn’t expect for any of the Frog Seasons shorts to further impact the series, but here we are again with Raggedy Princess’s sad feelings of isolation. I do like how the show acknowledges that she isn’t without talent or beauty – BMO is so saddened by her poetry that he starts to cry, which he mentions isn’t bad, but just sad in general. I guess that’s what makes Raggedy Princess’s character even more tragic, because even though she is skilled, it’s hard for her to gather an audience because of the negative effect her poetry has on people, whereas James Baxter gains attention for leaving people with a feeling of positivity. Not sure how much I agree with this motif, as I think we live in a society where people are just as willing to consume content that makes them sad as well as content that makes them happy (just look at the popularity surrounding BoJack Horseman) but I suppose I can understand the desire of happiness more than I can understand the desire of sadness. The only aspect of this subplot that I don’t really like is that I feel Raggedy’s position as the antagonist is a bit unwarranted. I mean, what does she have to gain from keeping the beach ball in the first place? I suppose it gives her a legitimately captive audience, but aside from that, I don’t think it really adds anything to the episode aside from a contrived feeling of conflict. I do like Raggedy’s turnaround towards the end, however, as she decides to help a fellow artist, even if it means sacrificing her own audience.
The best handled scenes in this episode, however, are easily James Baxter’s backstory. A lot of it is really quiet and nuanced, with the addition of Tim Kiefer’s ambient score that really carries these portions nicely. I also adore the interactions between James Baxter and the bat. The way Baxter cheers her up (and also ends up gaining his alias by mispronouncing “games” and “bookstore”… priceless) is truly charming and well-animated, just as much as it is heartbreaking when we see how things progress. Really is sad to see how the bat essentially just became another audience member as Baxter’s fame rose. It does seem that, as one celebrity becomes bigger and bigger, those that initially surrounded themselves with said talent begin to shrink in prominence. Of course, I don’t think it’s James Baxter’s fault. He simply decided to share his talent with the world, while the bat saw it as something intimate and personal, and the fact that he chose to widen the popularity of his talent meant that the act essentially lost meaning and significance. It’s just a really sad misunderstanding between two friends.
I know I’ve included this kind of analysis like, five other times, but I really can’t help but think of Pendleton Ward in Horse and Ball. Given that James Baxter the Horse seemed to be about the creation of Adventure Time, or just creative entertainment in general, this really feels like a look at Ward’s life without AT. Again, I’ve already compared this moment in Ward’s life to the events of Chips & Ice Cream, so maybe I’m just really invested in the life of Ward in general and insert subtext where it’s clearly not. Regardless, I do see the ending as a message that can easily apply to his journey with Adventure Time. His time as a creator has ended, and though people may want him to continue doing what he was best at, it’s important that he finds himself an area of happiness and prosperity in his own life. That goes for creatives and celebrities in general; those we look up to, no matter how much we enjoy their work, deserve to be happy doing whatever they want to be doing. It often comes off as somewhat of a betrayal when influencers step back from doing exactly what we want them to be doing, but truth be told, creatives can only offer so much to the point where the greatest gift they can receive is the patience and understanding of their audience. Though James Baxter won’t be dancing on a beach ball any longer, he’s at least left doing what he wants to do (through an impromptu dance sequence) and he can be happy that, for once, he’s defying society’s expectations of him and truly starting out on his own.
Horse and Ball is pretty good! It appropriately continues the motif from its predecessor episode, while also being a hilarious and heartfelt entry in general. Like I mentioned earlier, if I had to choose between James Baxter the Horse and Horse and Ball, I’d probably choose the latter. It has better jokes, more guest-animated sequences, and a more enthralling story overall.