The path of a fairy tale, like those of myths and legends, rarely runs smooth. Though a happy ending is the goal, it’s only achieved by braving the challenges that lay ahead and finding your way through the darkness. In the end, something has changed and you’re never the same. Depending on the fairy tale, this is either good or…bittersweet. Fairy tales in the times of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen were morality tales, teaching tools mostly designed to scare the ever-loving bejeezus out of children and ensure obedience. They weren’t without their moments of whimsy, though, spinning stories of far away lands, princes and princesses, and mysterious creatures in need of slaying. Or, should a more realistic setting be required, adventure could be found (and lessons be taught) by simply journeying outside the safety and security of home. Over the Garden Wall, the first mini-series produced by Cartoon Network, is the modern kin to the fairy tales we grew up with as children. Channeled through the medium of animation, Over the Garden Wall throws us into a world of imaginative whimsy but isn’t afraid to tackle the darker aspects of venturing into the unknown.
Airing two chapters over five consecutive days, Over the Garden Wall, adapted from creator/writer Patrick McHale’s short, Tome of the Unknown, follows brothers Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Gregory (Collin Dean), with the aid of a cursed bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), as they try to find their way home. Heeding the words of an old Woodsman (Christopher Lloyd), the boys try their best to avoid the Beast (Samuel Ramey) that stalks the forest, though his influence is never far from them as they meet all manner of folk along the way. It’s only in facing the darkness do Wirt and Gregory discover how far they’re willing to go for each other before they can return to the world they know.
Like the fairy tales and folklore from which it draws inspiration, Over the Garden Wall is more about the journey than it is the destination. Wirt and Gregory are as different as two brothers can be: Wirt is a fretful, bumbling teenager unsure of himself in almost every way while Greg is an unabashedly gleeful child who questions very little about the absurdity surrounding them. The strength of their bond as brothers, however, is where the heart of the mini-series lies. Wirt assumes the more traditional hero’s journey – the denizens of a tavern go so far as to label him a Pilgrim. Along the way, as he tries to get himself and Greg home, he gains the confidence needed to match his cleverness, becomes slightly more assertive, but ultimately accepts his role as an older brother with all the maturity and responsibility that goes with it; laying aside blame, resentment, and embarrassment in order to protect Greg – unless it’s comedically suitable for him to runaway in fear, abandoning his brother to a feral dog. Greg doesn’t necessarily go through the same journey as his brother, but his time in the woods still imparts a measure of maturity into a carefree child who would follow the wind if he thought it would lead him to something fun.
Described as a “comedy-fantasy”, Over the Garden Wall maintains a level of absurdity and the fantastical reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Animals act like humans, attending school or riding a riverboat like the well-to-do, and humans sing ridiculously long songs about lost loves to teach the alphabet or build enormous mansions that end up running into each other. There’s also a darker underlying tone to the mini-series that invokes classic Americana and folk tales. Skeletons dressing up in pumpkins, the woodsman grinding trees for oil to keep his lantern lit and his daughter’s soul alive, and an old woman in possession of a pair of scissors capable of turning birds into humans by cutting off their wings are unsettling and frightening images. Which is kind of the point. Neither comedy nor fantasy implies everything will be sunshine and rainbows. There’s plenty of humor to be had, a lot actually, but it’s needed to balance out the darker moments of the story. Over the Garden Wall doesn’t go so far as to have limbs cut off or use gore to frighten the audience, but the imagery of the Beast with his antlers and glowing eyes in the darkness is what sticks with you long after the credits roll. And once you find out which garden wall the title is talking about…well, some things are better left unsaid.
The humor of the mini-series is multi-layered, containing slapstick, quick asides, and straight up nonsense. Beatrice and Wirt exchange quick-witted barbs while Greg goes about his business renaming his pet frog, throwing out candy from his pants, and trumpeting his presence as he marches through the woods with a teapot on his head. My favorite bit, though, belongs to Fred the Horse (voiced by Fred Stoller). In need of money to take the ferry to Adelaide, the Good Woman of the Woods’ house, Beatrice and Fred insist that stealing money from the possibly mad, but very wealthy Quincy Endicott (voiced by John Cleese) is the only option available. When Wirt believes Fred should do as he pleases, he’s free to do as he wants, Fred reiterates this fact. He is free. Free to steal.
Tying everything together is the animation and the music. Based on the designs of Mikkel Sommer, the characters all dress in a manner that has an Old World feel ranging from 19th century European to early 20th century American styles. Until we jump back to see how Wirt and Gregory actually got lost in the first place, any indication that they come from the modern world is moderately doled out over the course of the series. For all intents and purposes, Wirt’s young David the Gnome outfit and Greg’s “elephant” costume fit right in. The art direction from Nick Cross and the animation borrow from multiple styles as well. Though the initial inspiration was Gustave Doré and the “Alice Comedies”, there are deliberate allusions to Hayao Miyazaki in the form of Auntie Whispers (voiced by Tim Curry) and an entire dream sequence in the style of Golden Age cartoons like Merrie Melodies and Silly Symphonies. Like the animation, the music jumps around from the operatic singing of Samuel Ramey to ragtime and folk music with the occasional earworm jingle like “Potatoes and Molasses” and “To Adelaide”.
For their first foray into animated miniseries, Cartoon Network picked a good one to start with. Over the Garden Wall is well paced, funny, and contains a world full of likable and fearsome characters that should delight children of all ages. The show doesn’t talk down to its audience, trusting young ones and adults alike to see the nuances or just enjoy themselves. It’s definitely a fairy tale worth watching over and over again.