Patrick McHale’s Over The Garden Wall for Cartoon Network has been a very special event. This decidedly backwards looking mini-series, pulling from fairy tales, folklore and all things you’d find in a dusty trunk has shown that this fall, everything old is new again. Dark, whimsical, it is ironic that something so old fashioned and archetypal, could be so fresh.
Over The Garden Wall marks Cartoon Network’s first short series or mini-series event, an interesting concept (they really haven’t done a mini-series before?) and I appreciate their risk by taking on and producing this lovely gem.
The series follows a pair of two brothers, the elder Wirt (Elijah Wood, sounding his most nervous and adolescent) and younger (half) brother Greg (young actor Collin Dean) as they get lost in the woods. After learning of a looming danger called The Beast, they soon find themselves in the company of an impatient bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey) as they attempt to figure out a way to go home. The script is witty, funny and macabre, but by the end of the entire thing, has woven a rather touching tale.
The design and art direction are gorgeous and well animated with its painterly (think Snow White) backgrounds, taking a rather marked departure from Cartoon Network’s current super bright and flat geometric styling (and taking a leaf out of Courage The Cowardly Dog‘s book). Indeed they are very flat and geometric here too, but they fit seamlessly into the more folk art world of pumpkins and one room school houses McHale and his art director Nick Cross have dreamed up.
Said world resembles a rural amalgamation of late 18th to early 20th century Americana (there’s a touch of Kate Beaton in the designs, which is probably intentional ) as seen through a lens of The Marvelous Adventures of Flapjack and Adventure Time, both of which show runner McHale has worked on. It’s a refreshing look, a bit different than the more spider-y Post Burton looks that has dominated fairy tale fare. Instead it revels in warmer autumnal palettes and featuring lots of rich but dusty uses of primaries. There’s a fair amount of golden age illustration, Miyazaki, Fleischer, and classic children’s literature (Dante, Carroll, Baum, Mark Twain, Washington Irving, Kenneth Grahame‘s Wind In The Willows) influences here as well too. All of these I’d consume greedily when spotted in any media, but here the cup runs over and I can’t get enough.
What makes Over The Garden Wall truly special is that music is a huge component courtesy of scores provided and performed by The Petrojvic Blasting Company. The synergy between visuals and music in story makes for a really special experience. When put together it is more or less a musical film, but not in the Broadway sense. The music is twee at times, especially when involving Greg, but musically it is all loosely anachronistic roots music (which includes a little bit of opera!). The use of early 20th century music itself, something many kids are (sadly) not familiar with, was a risk in itself. The vocalists they’ve enlisted are also of notable talent in the roots scene; Frank Fairfield provides vocals, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton has a cameo as a a minor character, the Highwayman, whose segment both visually and sonically references Cab Calloway as Koko the Clown. Additionally the warblings of a depressed Kate Beaton-y school teacher were provided by 1920’s pop specialist Janet Klein. 60’s crooner Jack Jones additionally provides the singing voice to Greg’s pet frog companion (of which has many names) and sings the series theme, the titular ‘Over The Garden Wall’ which is used to great effect in ‘Lullaby In Frogland”, perhaps my favorite episode.
Voice acting, to compliment the singing, is suburb. I enjoy the trend in utilizing actual children for young characters like Greg, and Elijah Wood makes Wirt’s anxiety ridden character rather believable. Christopher Lloyd notably plays the figure of The Woodcutter, whilst Shannyn Sossamon, Bebe Neuwirth, Chris Isaak, and even John Cleese provide additional voice talents. Really not fooling around here in the level of quality and talent.
Constructed out of short 10 minute “episodes” or vignettes, pairing two per evening over the five night run, the story enchants with its more contained one-shot adventures versus the wider arching narrative at hand. While I had wished there was a bit more meatiness to the plot and for some of the smaller vignettes to intertwine more in regards to importance to the main plot, the short bluntness of the series’ pacing does fit the fairy and folktale world they wished to portray. Fairy tales are often matter of fact and problems can indeed be quickly solved with just the snip of a scissor or the opening of a window. I was, however, wrong about who The Beast ultimately was, or rather what he represented, and I was extremely disappointed that it didn’t follow my particular assumption. The Beast itself is perhaps one of the series weaker elements that could have benefited from additional thematic threading or a longer series run. A rewatch will occur to get a second opinion.
Due to working night shifts as it aired, I was a bit chewed up that I was to miss all the episodes’ broadcasts. I was thus so relieved to learn that Cartoon Network had in fact released the entire series on Itunes and or Amazon in a bundle with a few extras for just $10. While it would have been nice to catch it on TV and participate in the nightly ritualistic “story time” they were going for, the fact I could support it that way was a nice option as well, and one that is still available following the end of the event.
If you’re in need of a good fantasy that has a little bit of bite, a little bit of heart, and a lot of style, we can’t encourage you enough to pick the series up. No witches bargains required.