With Adventure Time and Regular Show finished, Steven Universe's post-movie future still uncertain, and most of Cartoon Network's newer series skewing younger and gentler, Infinity Train is the channel's best new hope for retaining the interest of older fans who like their animated series dark, weird and easy to theorize about. After the 2016 pilot short wracked up 4.7 million YouTube views, Owen Dennis' Infinity Train premiered as a 10-episode miniseries, airing two episodes a night from Aug. 5 to Aug. 9.
Upon the miniseries' conclusion, two seemingly conflicting thoughts come to mind: First, this was a beautifully handled piece of self-contained, character-driven storytelling, almost as perfect as Over the Garden Wall, the previous high point of Cartoon Network's miniseries it most recalls; and second, this needs to last forever.
The promise of the latter is right there in the title: This is a show set on a train with an infinite number of cars, each offering its own, unique adventures. If that concept isn't inherently original (it's the same sort of setting as Adventure Time's "Dungeon Train" episode, and comparable to the movie Snowpiercer), it's one capable of being expanded in countless creative fashions.
Tulip's quest to make it off the train and out to her game design camp, accompanied by One-One (a robot with two personalities, both idiots) and Atticus (the king of the corgis), could have just as easily been the backbone of an open-ended Samurai Jack-style series. As a miniseries, however, Infinity Train is able to give Tulip a complete and powerful arc, using the ever-shifting nature of the train as a means to explore our heroine's need to accept the forces of change in her life that are beyond her control.
Whereas the pilot short began with Tulip already on the train, the miniseries' premiere, "The Grid Car," backtracks to her ordinary life. Her parents are divorced and overworked; her dad put the wrong date on his schedule to drive her to game design camp, and her mom can't cancel her shifts at the hospital. Angry, Tulip runs away from home and finds herself sucked into the train, a mysterious green number appearing on her hand. Figuring out what the number means is just one of the series' many mysteries that eventually gets answered in a poignant way.
Infinity Train shares a similar approach to storytelling with Over the Garden Wall, with episodic adventures in fantastic realms intersecting with ongoing character development. The two miniseries also share ambitious control of tone. Not your traditional cartoon comedies, both are frequently hilarious but just as easily succeed at being somber or spooky, with downright-nightmarish antagonists sharing space with cutesier characters.
The big differences between the two are in aesthetics. Where Over the Garden Wall went all-in on visual and musical stylings inspired by early 20th-century Americana, and the Fleischer cartoons in particular, Infinity Train doesn't have the same overpowering artistic style and, aside from a single episode, is not a musical. This isn't a knock on Infinity Train's animation quality, which is a step above most of its Cartoon Network peers, and particularly gorgeous in terms of background art, just that it doesn't have the same easily describable stylistic hook.
Gamers will pick up on a number of video game influences. As in Myst and all of its progeny, exploration puzzles end up revealing backstories. The sense of humor, as well as some of the robot designs, recall the Portal games. One-One in particular feels of a kind with Portal 2's Wheatley, especially when his actions in "The Unfinished Car" hint at a darker side to the affable moron. Much like Tulip, creator Owen Dennis was himself an amateur game designer himself as a teenager, and questions of control vs. randomness inherent in game design play directly into the narrative.
It would be great if we got a high-quality Infinity Train video game as a means of expanding this world. Given that many of the cars Tulip's explored were left unseen, there's also potential for comic books filling in the blanks similar to Over the Garden Wall. Even if this is the last we see of Tulip, however, there are other travelers stuck on the train. Sure enough, after airing the generally conclusive final episode of the miniseries, Cartoon Network announced that Infinity Train will return. The details of that return are vague, but it seems this could end up being an anthology series, using the expansive setting to tell many unique stories.
All episodes of Infinity Train are viewable on Cartoon Network's website.