Last week, Cartoon Network aired its first mini-series — a delightful, animated tale entitled Over the Garden Wall. I first heard about the show via a six-minute preview released last month. The clip (which was taken from Chapter Six: “Lullaby in Frogland”) featured a band of frogs singing and playing musical instruments on a river ferry. I watched it with a goofy smile on my face throughout. When the clip ended, I said, “That was super charming.” Out loud. To myself. I think a huge part of the show’s magic is its sense of nostalgia, as OTGW takes much of its visual style from the old-timey cartoons of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. (Slight tangent: Does anyone else remember the 1949 short “Farm Foolery?” I sing “Shine On, Harvest Moon” all the time because of it. Good times, good times.)
Part Grimm’s Fairy Tales, part Wizard of Oz with an autumnal, Americana aesthetic, Over the Garden Wall is the story of two brothers as they journey through a mysterious forest called “The Unknown.” The first chapter starts in medias res, with Wirt (Elijah Wood) and his younger brother Greg (Collin Dean) already lost in the woods. They soon come across a sassy, slightly misanthropic bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey) and a mysterious woodsman (Christopher Lloyd). Right off the bat, the show is shrouded in a sense of uncertainty. Is the woodsman trustworthy*? What is this supposed “beast?” Was that bluebird… talking? In most of the episodes, Wirt and Greg have many frightening encounters, only to later discover that things were not as they seemed, and in truth, there was nothing to fear.
(*The woodsman is intentionally depicted as one whom the boys don’t know whether to trust. I, for one, was especially wary, as Christopher Lloyd’s voice emanating from a cartoon puts me on edge for some reason.)
I admit that I am a total scaredy-cat. I don’t watch horror movies, and can still vividly recall scary images I saw as a child. (Again.) That said, some things in Over the Garden Wall would have been terrifying to me as a child, and some, I say unabashedly, were terrifying to me as a 26-year-old woman. (I’m looking at you, Chapter 7!!) It’s no wonder, then, that I was automatically put off by the worrisome Wirt. We’re two sides of the same coin, he and I. Our scared, young protagonist assumed the worst in every situation, and was reactive rather than proactive. Through him, OTGW explores the idea that you must never give up lest you get lost in your fears. Wirt pushed off his responsibility as an older brother and laid the blame and all his worries onto Beatrice, Greg, and his stepfather. The show warns the viewer of living “without purpose,” and instead suggests we take hold of our own destinies by not letting our fear control us.
These themes explored over ten 12-minute episodes are underpinned by gorgeous artwork and a fantastic soundtrack. At first, I was afraid that the show’s attempt at that nostalgic feel would be too quirky or twee, and it may in fact be to some. But, in my opinion, the show hits the perfect mark between whimsy and melancholy. There are laugh-out loud moments. (“Please don’t call me ‘old lady.'” “Yes sir, young man!”) There are creepy, scary moments. Beautiful moments that will enchant you, and some that will make your heart ache. Over the Garden Wall is one of those cartoons that will not settle for being “just a kid’s show” in a way that panders to what adults think kids want with bright colors and broad, dumb humor. Instead, it is dark, thought-provoking, and altogether fairly adult.
As I typed up this review and thought about the mini-series as a whole, I found myself wanting to rewatch it all again. It certainly is a series that begs to be viewed a second time after more is revealed about the characters and where they came from. Not to mention, it would simply be a delight to revisit the beautiful artwork, charming characters, and enchanting score. So, if you will excuse me, I believe I will go ahead and do just that. And if you haven’t already, I highly recommend you take the wonderful, whimsical journey that lies Over the Garden Wall…
Disclaimer: All images shown belong to Cartoon Network Studios, the use of which have not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. This blog post is for non-commercial criticism and comment purposes only. I believe that this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law.