TV Review – Over the Garden Wall

Over the Garden Wall (Cartoon Network)
Written & Storyboarded by Steve Wolfhard, Natasha Allegri, Zac Gorman, Bert Youn, Aaron Renier, Jim Campbell, Laura Park, Pendleton Ward, Steve McLeod, Nick Edwards, Tom Herpich, Mark Bodnar, Cole Sanchez, and Vi Nguyen
Directed by Patrick McHale

When I was a little kid, I remember Thanksgiving Day and the next day being an exciting time for cartoons. The morning programming of some of our local channels was planned around the idea that kids were home from school. There were strange & rare cartoons shown; I distinctly recall Rankin-Bass’s The Hobbit and The Last Unicorn. These were odd movies in both animation style and the mystical worlds they created. They exist like so many things from my childhood as fragmented memories in a fever dream now. I don’t necessarily want to revisit these cartoons because I like how they are in this piecemeal state in my mind. Over the Garden Wall, while a coherent narrative simultaneously feels like that show you watched as a kid, laying on the couch curled up under a blanket, so cozy, you begin to drift off.

Two brothers, Wirt (Elijah Wood) and his brother Greg find themselves lost in a mysterious forest known by the locals as The Unknown. With the help of Beatrice, a benevolent bluebird who was once human, they make their way across this strange land to seek help from Adelaide of the Field. Their odyssey has them encountering the woods’ inhabitants from a schoolmarm educating animals in human clothes to a village populated by walking talking pumpkin people to a riverboat for frogs. Wirt is a nervous figure, unable to find the courage within him to stand up for himself. Contrasting Wirt is Greg with his complete obliviousness to the dangers around the brothers. The biggest threat to them is The Beast, a shadowy antlered figure keeping his distance but always a few paces behind and a desire to permanently capture their souls.

Creator Patrick McHale and his crew have created Cartoon Network’s first true masterpiece of animation with Over the Garden Wall. This mini-series takes the aesthetics and tone of projects like Adventure Time and its offspring and elevates it to an entirely new level. The original concept was much darker than the final product, with the two brothers signing a deal with a devilish creature and forced to track down pages from a lost storybook. The series still maintains a horror tone while balancing it with childish silliness. The consistent manner is that of early Americana. The Unknown is a place where people from across time have become stuck, which allows the series to sample music and animation styles from the early American colonial period to the early 1930s Fleischer-era cartoons. 

The production design feels like something familiar because it is inspired by classic children’s art. John Tenniel’s iconic work on Alice in Wonderland is an apparent reference, but the images are taken from vintage postcards and children’s books from around the turn of the century and into the 1930s. Because there’s never a specific period, the series immediately takes on a timeless quality. There’s also an ever-present air of creepiness, even in episodes that aren’t overly scary. I see Over the Garden Wall as a perfect introduction for kids to light horror fantasy. It’s just scary enough but not going to traumatize them or be explicit.

Over the Garden Wall could be just a pleasurable aesthetic experience, but McHale and the company imbue the characters with many loveable traits and give them full arcs. Wirt is the series protagonist and sees the most complete transformation, but Greg also proves himself a noble young boy, showing how much he will sacrifice for his elder sibling. Beatrice is also a profoundly complicated character whose story takes some pretty unexpected turns. 

This was my third complete viewing of Over the Garden Wall, and I can say it still feels fresh and beautiful. I always get myself caught up in the magic of The Unknown and the ambiguity of the horrors there. Characters like Auntie Whispers and The Woodsman are given just enough character development to intrigue us but always left satisfyingly vague. The Beast is hinted to have such a wide berth of power, which resonates through the woods with all these characters. If you haven’t allowed yourself to become lost in Over the Garden Wall, I highly recommend you spend some time this week going on the journey.

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