Autumn is perhaps my favorite time of year. The gentle embrace of cool winds push away the harsh heat of summer and herald the coming ice. After late September the night overpowers day, and we spend the majority of our time in shadow for six months. In October we await All Hallows’ Eve, also associated with the Día de Muertos, as a way to connect with the departed and blur their world into ours. In November the trees have nearly shed their leaves, their green replaced with scarlet and gold; the harvests come in, covering fields in their own mosaic of colors set against the earth; and Thanksgiving punctuates the season with a grand feast that brings together family and friends. Fall is a season filled with mystery and beauty, and no work better captures the spirit better than Over the Garden Wall. The mini-series aired in 2014 over the span of five days, November 3 to 7. To commemorate its second anniversary, I want to examine why the series did so well and really pick apart where its charm comes from.
Over the Garden Wall started life as an animated short produced for Cartoon Network in 2013 titled Tome of the Unknown. Patrick McHale created, wrote and directed the short, which can be found on Cartoon Network’s official YouTube channel. Tome found critical acclaim as it toured several film festivals, and even won the Bruce Corwin Award for an animated short at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. After debating whether to release it as a full television show or a feature-length film, it was eventually decided to produce it as a mini-series. Over the Garden Wall has ten episodes, each about ten minutes long, which is in fact about the length of your average animated film. The final product features two brothers: Wirt, voiced by Elijah Wood, and Greg, voiced by Collin Dean. Wirt and Greg have gotten themselves lost in the wood, and must find their way back home while avoiding the dark Beast that lurks among the trees. Their path crosses with colorful characters, absurd situations, twists and turns in every direction, as does the audience’s.
To start at the surface, the visuals of Over the Garden Wall are lovely. The color palette is darker and more subdued than you normally see in cartoons. In most of the backgrounds, rich mustards and royal yellows blend with black shadows, especially in the woods. Our main characters truly feel out of place in this environment; Wirt’s character design is dominated by faded blue and red, while his little brother Greg dons khaki and green. Speaking of character designs, each character has a very unique look that allows you not only to differentiate them from each other — and not only to differentiate theirs from the animated features of other characters — but also demonstrates what kind of characters they are. In fact, the series often plays with character design to mislead us and give false impressions! Along the same train of thought, Over the Garden Wall excels in visual storytelling. The very first shot we get is a toad spinning towards us out of the darkness and playing the piano. From there we are treated to series of mysterious shots that immediately set the tone of the series. A girl sitting with her dog outside is disturbed by a bird flying from a nearby bush; a cat drives by with a wagon full of pumpkins; an old woman quilting cuts a string, the snip echoing; a collection of figurines, with only a distant wind blowing. Right away the series creates an aesthetic of whimsy and uncertainty, synergizing with the written story so well.
Speaking of which, the writing of the series can only be described as masterful. It takes a lot of twists and turns, and it would be unfair to describe it to the point that it loses its surprise. I will simply say that the writers knew how to juggle tropes. Just like with character designs, they set up audience expectations and then subvert them brilliantly. In fact, within just one episode (which again is only ten minutes), they manage to reverse our expectations three different times on the same trope! The series never reverts to blue humor, and delivers some of the best wit I’ve ever heard (“Please don’t call me ‘Old lady'” “Yes sir, young man!”). In terms of drama, the series also fires on all cylinders. Again, I don’t want to spoil too much. What I will say is that Wirt and Greg’s brotherly bond is put to the test, and the Beast is one of the most intimidating characters I’ve ever seen. Not only is his appearance haunting and always shrouded in darkness, but he weaves lies and deceptions and painful rhetoric into a web that preys off of desperation. If any character better embodied the idea of Satan, I have yet to see it. Between the dialogue and the plot, Over the Garden Wall obviously had some master wordsmiths behind it.
The series looks fantastic and has an excellent script, but how can it take off without some good voice work? Luckily, Wood and Dean handle their roles superbly, and I couldn’t imagine any other voices coming from Wirt’s and Greg’s mouths. They’re joined by Melanie Lynskey, who voices a bluebird named Beatrice who joins them on their travels. Far from the enchanted bird stereotype, she delivers a lot of sass in the show, and Lynskey clearly enjoys dishing it out. Throughout the series we get other voices such as Christopher Lloyd, John Cleese and Tim Curry lending their own bits of magic to the story, as well as Jack Jones giving a great vocal performance. Speaking of which, Over the Garden Wall touts an eclectic soundtrack. From the mysterious “Into the Unknown” to the humorous “Langtree’s Lament”, from the playful “Potatoes and Molasses” to the haunting “Come Wayward Souls”, every performer works at the top of their game to keep each emotional note right on pitch.
So, what does it all add up to? To be frank, writing this analysis has proved difficult. It’s hard to focus just on the writing of the story when the visuals and soundtrack factor so much into its success; how am I supposed to focus on the aesthetics without describing the music that complements it, or the writing that it highlights? To sum it up in a sentence, I’d ask you to imagine Over the Garden Wall as an old Grimms’ fairy tale with The Wizard of Oz thrown into the mix. It is unmistakably Americana, with attire ranging from colonial times to the early 1900s. Steamboats chug along the river, segments pay homage to the infant animation of 1920s Hollywood and there’s even a good-hearted jab at the wealthy but comedically aloof of the Gilded Era. It’s unmistakably fantastical, with walking frogs, magic bells and of course dark demons lying in wait. But above all it feels like autumn. Over the Garden Wall is the feeling of huddling comfortably under a blanket as the first early snow falls. It is the smell of composting leaves and freshly dug earth. It is painted by the same brush that draws scarlet and gold across the trees. It is both beautiful and mysterious, just as the fall is. And, the first episode can be seen online, again on Cartoon Network’s YouTube channel. So this fall, I recommend cutting a slice of pumpkin pie, pouring a cup of apple cider, and then taking a leap over the garden wall yourself.
David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column Animation Analysis runs alternate Thursdays online this semester.