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Welcome to another First Thoughts review, everyone! For the penultimate entry in this series, we have an appropriately themed miniseries to ease us into autumn: Over the Garden Wall. I heard numerous comparisons between Gravity Falls and this show after becoming a fan of the former, with many hyping it up as one of Cartoon Network’s best creations, so naturally I had to add it to my watchlist. Created by Patrick McHale as the network’s first ever miniseries, Over the Garden Wall expanded upon an idea he’d already made into a short film called Tome of the Unknown in 2013, which had been produced as part of the network’s shorts development program. McHale originally came up with the concept back in 2004 and pitched it in 2006, but it wasn’t until after he’d worked on several other successful shows like The Marvellous Misadventures of Flapjack (2008-2010) and Adventure Time (2010-2018) that the network expressed interest in his pilot.
Over the Garden Wall was produced largely in Burbank beginning in early 2014, although many of the storyboard artists were based in other U.S. cities and the animation was outsourced to South Korean studio Digital eMation. Originally intended to have an 18-episode run, the series was ultimately condensed to just 10 short episodes over the course of production (honestly, I can’t help feeling like it might’ve worked better as a feature, but whatever). After previewing at several major comic cons, the miniseries then made its debut on November 3rd, 2014, and ran over five consecutive nights on Cartoon Network, quickly becoming a major success with audiences.
One of the two aspects of the series which most stood out to me was the impressive voice cast, which is led by none other than Elijah Wood (a fantasy veteran, of course) as Wirt, the elder of the two lost brothers whom the story centres on. The younger brother, Greg, is played by Collin Dean – who was brought over from Adventure Time – and Melanie Lynskey takes the tritagonist role of Beatrice, a bluebird who gets reluctantly sucked into helping the brothers on their journey. Elsewhere, we have some terrific cameo roles for such big names as Christopher Lloyd (as the beleaguered and misunderstood Woodsman), Tim Curry (Auntie Whispers, a favourite of mine) and John Cleese (Quincy Endicott, another favourite). The cast also includes several professional singers for certain roles, such as Jack Jones for Greg’s frog and operatic bass-baritone Samuel Ramey as the Beast.
The second aspect of Over the Garden Wall that caught my eye was its art style, which evokes old-fashioned Americana and features digital backgrounds made to resemble grisaille paintings (a style that uses neutral or monochromatic colour schemes). Inspiration for the show’s unique environment was broad and diverse; the creators drew from an obscure 1890s McLoughlin Brothers board game called Game of Frog Pond, illustrations by Gustave Doré for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, old illustrations for the Hans Christian Andersen story The Tinderbox (1835), the Cheshire Cat illustration by John Tenniel from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and the Dogville Comedies short films (1929-1931). McHale also incorporated elements of chromolithography, vintage Halloween postcards, magic lantern slides, and photographs of New England’s foliage into his design, immersing himself in the specific atmosphere he was trying to create. Working with art director Nick Cross, the team did a fantastic job capturing that cosy, yet slightly melancholy autumnal aesthetic that has become a key part of the show’s reputation.
Among the other talents behind Over the Garden Wall, some of the most notable are Robert Alvarez, Larry Leichliter, Eddy Houchins and Ken Bruce, who directed the animation, as well as Nate Cash, who supervised the animation and also served as creative director for the first six episodes (Bert Youn handled the last four). The show’s music, another high point, was composed by The Blasting Company (I love that name), led by founders and brothers Josh Kaufman and Justin Rubenstein. McHale apparently drew inspiration from “classic American opera singing” for the music, but it also gave me strong ragtime vibes throughout, especially during the tavern episode.
If you’re not familiar with Over the Garden Wall, a quick summary for you: the series tells the tale of two half-brothers, Wirt and Greg, who get lost in a mysterious forest simply dubbed “The Unknown”. They set out into its depths trying to find their way home, yet have no recollection of how they got there in the first place. Along the way, they encounter a variety of weird and wonderful creatures, some of whom help them as best they can – Beatrice the bluebird and the elderly Woodsman play particularly important parts. However, nothing is quite what it seems in The Unknown, as the boys quickly discover, and getting home will prove to be no easy task.
The first of the ten episodes is The Old Grist Mill, which introduces all the major players and features some of the show’s most frightening imagery. The demon wolf was, for me, the creepiest of the show’s creations, although the easy resolution of this predicament somewhat weakened the show’s stakes from the outset.
Then comes Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee, an especially autumnal episode involving a town full of pumpkin people that makes good use of its pacing to build a strong sense of foreboding. Enoch, the town leader, was another impressively intimidating character, although once again the show seems to shy away from committing to its dark tone and banishes the stakes with a simple resolution. Love the artwork in this episode, though!
Schooltown Follies is one of the weaker episodes, a weird and rather pointless piece of filler, but the appearance of a random gorilla did remind me of that old SpongeBob episode. The “save the school” subplot was cute (even if it doesn’t have much to do with anything) and for better or worse, I have to say that this episode includes some of the best – or at least, most inescapably catchy – songs in the whole series.
Things pick up in Songs of the Dark Lantern, where we learn a little more about the mysterious Beast that’s been dogging the boys’ footsteps through the haunted whispers of the forest denizens. The tavern scenes pay homage to classic 1920s animation (with the Tavern Keeper even resembling Betty Boop) and feature some more fun songs, putting me in mind of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). The Highwayman also reminded me of Sylvain Chomet’s distinctive animation style, and I can’t get his odd little number out of my head. However, I have to note that while I was thoroughly enjoying Beatrice’s dry sarcasm, I still hadn’t warmed up to the brothers by this point; neither have particularly strong personalities.
Mad Love is next and it’s one of my favourites, mainly because it features John Cleese having a grand old time in the role of eccentric Quincy Endicott. Once again, the events of the episode are only loosely linked to the boys’ quest – they’re seeking money from the rich old coot to buy passage on a ferry – but the whole ghost hunt subplot was enjoyable enough that I didn’t mind. With the vocal antics of John Cleese, Fred Stoller and Bebe Neuwirth, this was one of the only episodes to make me laugh, and it also finally fleshes out Wirt a bit (albeit clumsily) by allowing him a moment to bond with Beatrice.
Lullaby in Frogland takes place aboard the frog ferry (which the boys have had to sneak onto anyway after Greg threw their coins in a fountain, thus castrating the previous episode’s role in the narrative). This episode is basically another excuse to pack in several musical numbers, but it does include a plot-relevant twist at the end with the revelation about Beatrice and Adelaide, even if the stuff with the frogs leading up to it feels like more filler.
Another of my favourite episodes is The Ringing of the Bell, due yet again to a celebrity cameo which is in this case provided by a deliciously unsettling Tim Curry. After the boys stumble upon the home of a meek young girl named Lorna (Shannyn Sossamon), Curry eventually arrives in the form of Auntie Whispers, an imposing old woman who reminded of both Yubaba from Spirited Away (2001) and Macha from Cartoon Saloon’s Song of the Sea (2014). There are some misunderstandings based on the appearances of Lorna and her auntie, but once the boys have saved the day, Whispers is revealed to be a gentle and compassionate soul. Curry was a strange and yet perfect fit for her, proving that even his health battles have not robbed him of his talents.
Babes in the Wood is a very Greg-centric episode which makes Wirt seem like a jerk and felt a little too childish for me overall, but I will give it props for having more appealing animation and catchy earworms. This is another one that seems to reference the 1920s in particular, with the designs of the inhabitants of Cloud City reminiscent of those in Disney’s Silly Symphonies series (1929-1939). Like some of the other episodes, this one just sort of wanders along before delivering a strong ending to keep you hooked for next time; would making this into a film have allowed them to tighten the pacing, I wonder?
Just before the conclusion, we get a flashback episode called Into the Unknown (no, not the Frozen song), where we find out where Wirt and Greg came from and how they came to be in the Unknown. Judging from what we’re shown, it seems the Unknown is actually some form of afterlife, with the boys getting stuck there in some form of limbo following an accident. Honestly, not to sound like a spoilsport, but this episode felt unnecessary; the story worked better when the boys’ origins were left vague. I get that they were trying to ground the story in reality, but learning that the brothers are just typical modern-day kids sort of cheapens the fantasy. This is also the least interesting episode from an artistic standpoint, but no doubt that was a deliberate choice to contrast with the dreamlike world of the Unknown.
Finally, in The Unknown, the Beast is faced, and the many characters’ arcs are completed. So many people have been packed in that there’s rather a lot of loose ends to tidy up, but as far as endings go this one was decent, if a little rushed. I love the theme that played over the final montage, crooned by Greg’s frog on a twirling piano in the darkness, just to cement the show’s bizarre style.
Over the Garden Wall was a very mixed bag for me, with the beautiful cosy art style and unnerving atmosphere struggling to support the rather weak writing and excessively random humour. The narrative meanders a bit and the dramatic stakes are repeatedly undercut by lacklustre resolutions, but the assortment of kooky side characters held my interest thanks to some stellar vocal performances. Beatrice was my favourite of the central cast, but I still don’t care for Wirt if I’m honest; he seems determined to present himself as a blank slate and, once forced to reveal something of his inner self, he’s so dull that I simply couldn’t muster any interest in his fate. Greg, too, wasn’t my cup of tea, although I know many fans adore him – he fits the same kind of optimistic, naïve and quirky child archetype as Mabel from Gravity Falls, and I never liked her much, either. Who knows – perhaps I’m just getting old.
Speaking of Gravity Falls, I can well understand the comparisons so frequently made between the two shows, as they share a running theme of paranormal weirdness, similar creepy tones and inventive character designs, though I’d say Gravity Falls has the stronger writing. Over the Garden Wall shares numerous parallels with Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320), so viewing it with this in mind might add to the experience for literature fans, but such allusions were lost on me the first time I watched (I read Dante many years ago, but the details are a little hazy). Some have also compared it to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its dreamy, disconnected events and strange pacing, which may explain why I was a bit underwhelmed by it (I’ve never enjoyed any version of Alice). I suspect that this is the kind of show that will grow on me with further viewings, as there are probably numerous details that I’ve missed, but as it stands, I did quite like it – just not enough to justify the hype.
Regardless of my thoughts, the miniseries was a huge hit with critics and audiences who praised the show’s characters and atmosphere, although there were others who found the stories a little thin. In 2015, the show won an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program, and McHale later adapted it into a comic book series. It remains to be seen whether anything else will ever come out of this property, but much like Gravity Falls, I imagine McHale is satisfied with his story and has no immediate plans to return to it.
Thank you so much for reading, and for joining me on this First Thoughts series! We have one more entry to go that I’ve been really looking forward to: Nickelodeon’s beloved fantasy series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I’m hoping to watch next month. Before that, I intend to try and get on with The Incredibles, but this summer has been one of the busiest I’ve ever had and I am, frankly, exhausted, so it may be a while yet before that’s ready. Just know that it is coming, eventually. Until next time take care, and staaay animated!
Oh potatoes, and molasses… MAKE IT STOP.
By May be found at the following website: Tumblr, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44087022 – credit for poster
https://www.cbr.com/over-the-garden-wall-all-the-parallels-to-dantes-inferno/ – a breakdown of the parallels each episode shares with Dante’s Inferno
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Over_the_Garden_Wall – Wiki page
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3718778/ – IMDb profile
2 Replies to “First Thoughts on Over the Garden Wall (2014)”
“Potatoes and molasses…make it stop, lol”
I loved this miniseries and I actually love the episode explaining the kids’ origins. I would have felt cheated had we not been told of their origins.
I probably love Gravity Falls more, but I still love this show.
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It does have a lovely atmosphere to it, sort of soothing in a strange way.
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