Last week, viewers of Cartoon Network witnessed something special: the network’s first miniseries, a prestige format not always associated with animation. Billed as “a five-night mystery adventure,” Over the Garden Wall is an expansion of the award-winning short Tome of the Unknown (which I regret I haven’t seen) by Patrick McHale. Over ten eleven-minute chapters, the series combines a painterly hand-drawn aesthetic with an array of vocal talent including Elijah Wood, Christopher Lloyd, and opera singer Samuel Ramey, with contributions from John Cleese, Tim Curry, Jack Jones, and many others. A vibrant love letter to classic animation, fairy tales, and rootsy American folkways and music, Over the Garden Wall draws from many sources, but succeeds in synthesizing its influences into something heartfelt and personal.
(As an aside, I made sure to watch this with my kids, ages 8 and 4: I didn’t know whether it would hold their interest or be too scary, but it seemed like the right thing to do, a throwback to the “event” miniseries of yore. They were as hooked as I was, asking to watch each night without my prompting, and on Saturday they played “Over the Garden Wall” in the yard, running around pretending to be characters from the series. I’d call that a success.)
The story begins with step-brother protagonists Wirt (Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean) dropped into the middle of the “Unknown” with little warning: they don’t know where they are or how they got there, putting them in the same position as the audience. It turns out that they are there for a reason that ties into their odd costumes (Wirt wears a cone-shaped dunce hat, and Greg has an upside-down teapot on his head, making both of them resemble the symbolic figures in a Heironymous Bosch painting), but there is refreshingly little back story and (at first) the pair have only a single goal: to return home, wherever that is.
In the first two chapters, Wirt and Greg (and Greg’s frog) encounter a troubled woodsman (Lloyd) who warns them to beware the Beast that dwells in the dark forest, and a grumpy bluebird, Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), who promises to take them to someone who can help them get home. Along the way, they encounter colorful characters who help or hinder them, and whose problems the boys help to solve (sometimes unwittingly). Of course, it is also a journey of maturation for Wirt, who learns to stand up for himself and his step-brother through the course of their adventures.
There are some obvious points of comparison: Over the Garden Wall drinks deeply from springs as old as Der Freischütz and the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, and as new as the postmodern inventiveness of Adventure Time (the latest iteration of the venerable “two dudes wander around having crazy encounters” genre, and a show McHale has contributed to). Thankfully, the “whoa, isn’t this weird?” exclamations are kept to a minimum: self-consciousness about the psychological meaning of going into the woods has been a well-worn trope since, well, Into the Woods, and Over the Garden Wall’s classical approach to its material is its greatest strength, telling its story without undercutting it or offering unnecessary explanations. The Unknown is a world of symbols and archetypes, to be sure, but it is refreshing to not be constantly reminded of that, to be shown rather than told.
More specifically, Over the Garden Wall is a richly-realized homage to American storybook authors like L. Frank Baum and Johnny Gruelle, set in a gorgeously rendered autumnal countryside dotted with log cabins and stone mills, an idyllic pre-industrial dreamscape. Settings like a village of (apparently) living jack o’ lanterns and a riverboat full of genteel frogs draw from vintage Halloween decorations and funny-animal comic strips alike. Elsewhere, the animated cartoons of Max Fleischer, Ub Iwerks, and Walt Disney provide obvious inspirations: a friendly tavern keeper is a middle-aged Betty Boop in all but name, and a later dream sequence that fully embraces the “rubber hose” style would have been at home in an Out of the Inkwell or Silly Symphony short.
The soundtrack (courtesy of The Petrojvic Blasting Company) combines ballads, parlor songs, and band music, sometimes in ways that advance the plot but often in the tradition of comic “business” that touches the action only obliquely, if at all (another contrast between the classic cartoons Over the Garden Wall channels and the highly structured plotting of much contemporary animation). To borrow Greil Marcus’ famous phrase, Over the Garden Wall embraces “The Old, Weird America” and the mysterious transformations and allusions of folk music. A lovestruck schoolmarm’s lesson outlines the story of her faithless paramour; a dog swallows a turtle and becomes a ravening monster; skeletons are harvested like corn. Episodes like these might have been written to illustrate Bob Dylan’s observation that traditional music revolves around “vegetables and death;” it’s rare for modern stories aimed at kids to acknowledge the unknowable core of “songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels” (Dylan’s words again), still rarer for them to convincingly create something new that taps into the old veins.
Over the Garden Wall is frequently low-key in a way that recalls the films of Hayao Miyazaki. With a few exceptions, it is more often spooky than terrifying, more droll than hilarious. (Against such an understated background, the moments of horror or farce stand out all the more.) In addition to the tender regard for nature and its cycles, Over the Garden Wall shares with Miyazaki a sense that true evil is rare: in real life, the wolf kills not because it is cruel but because it is hungry, and similarly people hurt each other not out of malice but because they have incompatible needs. Still, there are true terrors lurking in the dark woods. It’s ironic that in trying to create a modern fairy tale free of “disagreeable incident,” L. Frank Baum ended up traumatizing generations of children with the flying monkeys and the melting of the Wicked Witch of the West. Like Baum and Miyazaki, Over the Garden Wall suggests that one cannot plunge into the realm of archetypes without brushing against the real monsters lying just beneath the surface.