'Adventure Time's' magic remains intact in first 'Distant Lands' special for HBO Max

Robert Lloyd
BMO is in a tight spot in a new "Adventure Time: Distant Lands" special on HBO Max.  (HBO Max)

"Adventure Time" is not done with us. The eight-year run of that lovely cartoon about love and war and play and drudgery and jealousy and generosity and birth and death and everything under the postapocalyptic sun and moon has recently fetched up to stream in its entirety on HBO Max (Cartoon Network is a branch on the same corporate tree). And four new specials have been commissioned, the better to get you to subscribe, my dears.

The first of these, "BMO" — which comes under the umbrella title "Adventure Time: Distant Lands," referencing the original series' theme song — stars the adorable, indomitable BMO, pronounced "Beemo." Last seen narrating the series finale from a time far in the future of the already far-future time in which the show was set, he is the right little sentient robot for the job. (There has been some discussion, among fans and chroniclers, of the character's gender or lack of one — some use the pronoun "they" — and the series plays around on that point; but Niki Yang, who plays BMO, has described him as a little boy, and I'll use those pronouns here, despite the ambiguity. Still, BMO is just BMO.)

I will tell you now that the magic is intact.

The series fulfilled an arc, but when you have created a believable if bizarre wide world and filled it with memorable characters, the least of whom suggest unexplored dimensions and depth, you still have a lot of room to move. Much is known about the Land of Ooo, but there are stories to be told before and after and in between the stories we've already been told. There are characters we rarely glimpse who, if we credit them with life, must be up to something when we aren't looking at them. (This is, to be sure, the case in the real world, regarding everyone we don't live with and to some extent those we do.)

There is always the likelihood, in every revival, of not living up to the original, especially when the point is less to make art — art, I said it — than to exploit a brand. Cartoons, of course, are indefinitely exploitable, as age does not wither them. You can't bring back "I Love Lucy" — yet, although people have been working on that technology for years — but you can bring back "Looney Tunes," which HBO Max has done, to middling effect. (It is not insincere so much as unnecessary.) "Animaniacs," that popular 1990s series that honored old Warner Bros. cartoons with a completely new one, is itself being brought back to life — reanimated, literally — by Hulu.

BMO and new sidekick Y4 explore a space station pod in "Adventure Time: Distant Lands" on HBO Max.  (HBO Max)

But relatively little time has passed since "Adventure Time" ended; like post-Fox "Futurama," "Distant Lands" is more continuation than revival — it hasn't been gone long enough to need reviving. Most important, it is largely the work of "Adventure Time With Finn and Jake" hands, prime among them Adam Muto, who ran the show after creator Pen Ward handed over the keys halfway through Season 5. ("Obsidian," coming later this year, will feature vampire Marceline and Princess Bubblegum; "Wizard City," starring Peppermint Butler, and "Together Again," with Finn and Jake — because, of course — round out the order.)

I'll skimp on specifics, apart from the opening minutes, which have been available as a trailer for a little while now. BMO is piloting a space capsule on a mission to Mars. "Did you know there are more stars in the sky than there are grains of sand … in the sky? It's true." A comet passes by, eaten by a sort of space moth and excreted as a kind of "2001: A Space Odyssey" star child, which turns into, like, a portal, through which BMO passes. ("Let's forget we saw this, just another ineffable mystery in a universe full of mysteries.") He puts on a cowboy hat, picks up a ukulele and sings a song about potatoes ("more exciting than tornadoes"); this western theme will continue, in a small way, as BMO plays new sheriff at the decaying space station where he will eventually wind up.

Like the series finale, "Come Along With Me," "BMO" runs about 45 minutes, not a movie exactly but four times as long as a regular episode, and with plenty of heft and room to run around in. There is more action too, in the usual sense, and more visual activity in any given frame. The adventure pairs BMO with Y4 (Glory Curda), a young rabbit he makes his "deputy" ("I can't pay you") and whose floppy ears call back to the hat worn by Fiona — the gender-flipped Finn — in the "Fiona and Cake" episodes of the original series.

"This robot expends energy in ways that yield it no benefit," observes Y24, wonderingly, nicely summing up BMO's childlike heroism. "So weird."

BMO rides to the rescue in HBO Max's "Adventure Time: Distant Lands" special "BMO."  (HBO Max)

"Adventure Time" is moral without being moralistic, and there is just a hint of what might be read as social commentary toward the end, referring to the fate of our own present Earth, to cooperation and resource management, and the way that certain human billionaires look at space as an escape pod. That this fate might be less than ideal is something the makers of the series have never been afraid to consider; their characters can get things very wrong, even when they want to do right, and the show was always smart about the difficulty living things have managing their affairs. More than most cartoon characters, these experience a range of emotions — BMO will claim to have no feelings, right before expressing them — and introspect, not always accurately.

"You were never the hero of the story I like to call 'life,'" BMO's other self/imaginary friend, Football, tells him here. "You were always just the cute sidekick." (But this isn't true.)

"Even when things look really, really stupid, we still have to try," says BMO. (Which is.)