Long time readers of the blog will know about my vitriolic love-hate relationship with anime. My experience with American TV cartoons is a lot more lacking, as I’ve largely missed the new wave of internet friendly kids shows that Adventure Time ushered in (although I am currently watching Steven Universe).
It’s the episodic nature of these shows that puts me off. My patience wears thin after too many instalments of status-quo maintaining wacky shenanigans, even with the promise of a continuing story somewhere down the line. Over The Garden Wall largely solves that problem by adopting a miniseries format: ten episodes that aired over the course of a single week, telling a story with a defined end point rather than carrying on for as long as the ratings remain positive. It’s an atmospheric, engrossing tale that feels like a much more daring creative exercise than Cartoon Network usually plays host to. Given its subject material and spooky tone it feels like it should have aired in October rather than November, but we’re going to rectify that now by reviewing it as part of our Spooktober celebrations.
The story begins with two oddly-dressed brothers, Wirt and Greg, wandering through a dark forest. They’re not sure how they got there or where they were going before they arrived. Carefree Greg doesn’t seem too concerned with the situation, but the older and more responsible Wirt is unsettled and resolves to get them home as quickly as possible… just as soon as he can remember where “home” is.
The world Wirt and Greg travel through is a strange one, seemingly a magical-realism and fairytale infused version of the American south and mid-west circa the early 20th century-ish. Friends and foes lurk around every corner and through every thicket, but distinguishing between the two isn’t always easy– the only solid allies the boys acquire are a frog that Greg believes to be sentient (Greg is kind of strange) and a talking bluejay named Beatrice who promises to bring them to someone who can get them home, but who’s hiding secrets of her own.
Over the course of ten episodes a recurring pattern establishes itself: Wirt, Greg and their two animals friends stumble onto a town or cave or mysterious shack in the woods and encounter a group of oddballs who inevitably turn out to not be what they seem, for either ill or good. In among the episodic adventures, elements of an ongoing storyline assert themselves right from the start: the boys are being stalked by a shadowy creature called the Beast and are assisted (mostly ineffectually) by an elderly woodsman who seems to know more about the situation than anyone else. And then there’s the central mystery of how Wirt and Greg got lost and whether they can find their way home, which thanks to the show’s miniseries format always feels pressing and immediate rather than a far-off goal to be reserved for when the ratings start to flag.
These characters are likable (although Greg’s antics can get slightly irritating at times) and I was engrossed by the tantalizing plot, but where Over The Garden Wall really hooked me was its world. The great “Unknown” that our heroes traipse through is a child’s conception of Halloween come to life, a land of eternal autumn where pumpkins and skeletons are naturally occurring features. The aesthetic of this landscape harkens back to a lot of old Looney Tunes shorts, which frequently drew from nostalgia-tinged rural Americana; Over The Garden Wall revisits that world of rustic towns and whimsical talking animals, but infuses the whole thing with a carefully balanced dose of darkness.
One of the big reasons I’m reviewing this series for Spooktober is that it’s seriously creepy as far as cartoons aimed at children go, peppered with extremely unsettling imagery– the second episode features an enclave of disturbing-looking scarecrow people who are guaranteed to give younger viewers nightmares, and it only gets more intense from there. The spookiness is very smartly measured, however; often the most overtly scary characters turn out to not be as dangerous as they appear (while those who seem safe are frequently a threat) and the series balances out the creepier episodes with more light-hearted ones. It feels like an overt play to the kinds of older audiences who love talking about how dark and edgy My Little Pony or Legend of Korra are, but delivered with a knowing wink and a cavalier attitude as to when and to what extent it’s going to take itself seriously.
The culmination of the story can be spoiled with a single errant screenshot (such as the thumbnails on Cartoon Network’s own streaming page, thanks for that guys), but to be honest that doesn’t matter too much; this is very much a it’s-the-journey-that-counts deal, although at the same time I do appreciate that the ending veers away from the very worn out cliche it seems inches away from falling into.
Even if a creepy, off the wall Alice in Wonderland-alike doesn’t sound like something that’s going to spin your cookie, you may want to check this series out if you’re in any way an animation fan, because it’s a near-constant feast for the eyes. Wirt, Greg and co are drawn in the simplified, noodle-limbed style popularized by Adventure Time, but their surroundings are brought to life through a series of absolutely gorgeous painted backgrounds, all warm earth tones and textured detail. Pretty much any wide shot or landscape scene in the series would make an excellent painting; given the chance I would happily adorn every wall in my house with high-resolution screencaps from this show.
This is just one reason why Over The Garden Wall feels like something that fell out of a wormhole from an alternate reality where the course of American animation– hell, the course of popular entertainment, of what’s considered popular and culturally relevant– took a different path. I look at it and feel like I’m seeing something completely unique and original even as I spot the obvious points where its inspirations rise to the surface.
Cartoon Network probably took a risk on this (that gorgeous art can’t be cheap), and I wish more channels would follow their example. We could all do with taking a wander through strange lands and dark woods every now and then.