Chaos took over The AV Club, a site I regularly follow, after reviewer Kevin Johnson accidentally awarded Cartoon Network miniseries Over the Garden Wall the forbidden A+. grade. The AV Club system caps at a vanilla A, despite their technology going the extra +, so occasionally these mistakes happen and the editors course-correct.
Here’s the thing, though: accident or not, Johnson’s original score was spot-on. From the first installment to the last, Over the Garden Wall is remarkable. If you’re going to make one exception to the A+ rule this year, this might have to be it.
Over the Garden Wall, helmed by Adventure Time and Flapjack veteran Pat McHale, pits everykid stepbrothers Wirt and Greg in the middle of a dark forested world (un)known as The Unknown. Wirt, voiced to angsty perfection Elijah Wood, is the elder brother, full of hemming feelings, hawing poetics, and a latent talent for the bassoon. Greg, voiced by actual child Collin Deen, is the embodiment of joy, curiosity, gumption, and plain old ridiculousness, using buffoonery to counter Wirt’s self-serious bassoonery (I am so sorry). Accompanying the pair is the bluebird Beatrice, affable and smart-mouthed, who promises to help guide the kids home, away from The Unknown. Also, there’s a frog.
Their journey is at turns terrifying, hilarious, and playfully surreal. There is a horse with a New Jersey accent, a stir-crazy aristocrat voiced by John Cleese, a mysterious town of pumpkin people, and an all-singing all-dancing highwayman. Each episode blends a pastiche of golden old-timey references drawn from American folk and the ghoulish European canon. Toads and frogs, hearkening back to The Wind in the Willows, ride a riverboat plucked straight from Mark Twain’s memoirs; en route, they are accosted by witches and spirits straight out of Grimm. The series plays with these old archetypes the same way that Miyazaki’s Spirited Away populated its central bath house with icons of Shinto spirituality and ancient Japanese monsters. Drawing upon these cultural touchstones and adding more than a dash of heart, Over the Garden Wall is probably the closest thing to an American interpretation of Studio Ghibli films that we’re ever gonna get.
Throw in some impeccable, evocative music direction, which pulls from the same 19th century folk strains as its visuals—incorporating marches, dirges, and proto-rag courtesy of The Petrojvic Blasting Company—and the series molds its era-spanning pastiche into an aesthetic entirely its own. Speaking of that aesthetic, holy shit that aesthetic. I’m a big fan of animation (or, as I like to call it, “moving comics”), and while I’m by no means an expert, I’ve seen hundreds of beautifully animated films, shows, and shorts in the last two-and-a-third decades of my life. Out of them all, Over the Garden Wall may be one of the most distinctive, jaw-droppingly gorgeous I’ve ever had the pleasure to look at. Top ten, at least.
The multitude of references to bygone styles (and there are a lot of them, my favorite being Little Nemo’s bed showing up in one of the series’s best episodes) are more than just references: they enrich the tone, add nuance to throwaway details. More than just Family Guy referencing for the sake of referencing, the artists of Over the Garden Wall use homage to enrich their universe and the characters within.
The Depression-era caricature of the inn’s patrons in the above “Highwayman’s Song” clip, plus the stylized fish-eye weirdness of the animation, heightens Wirt’s fish-out-of-water identity crisis. He cannot figure out who he is, and the company he is forced to keep is strange, implacable, and possibly dangerous. The animators do remarkable work with shadows, mist, snowblind winds, and even broad daylight to the same effect. Each episode’s mood builds atop the last, until every environment possesses the same fairy tale charm.
The Unknown becomes a land where every corner could be hiding a murderous beast, goofy talking horse, or ominous pumpkin god. It occupies a genre of oddity distinctly different from Cartoon Network’s iconic surreal landscapes, like Ooo or the park from Regular Show. Really, you might have to go back 120 years to find anything quite like Over the Garden Wall. This timelessness-by-way-of-the-past results in some problematic details—the appearance of a gorilla in one episode veers uncomfortably close to minstrel imagery—and to be honest the world really doesn’t need another white teenage boy bildungsroman, even when that particular roman is bildungsed really, really well.
Still, while these details open the series to criticism from my social justice heart, the universe surrounding them is frankly unimpeachable. I might dedicate future posts to digging into the minutiae and clever plotting that, by episode 6 or 7, turns an A show into an A+ show. Seriously, I had to bite my fingertongues so many times while writing this review; there are so many ingenious character moments and designs worth talking about, were I not worried about flinging spoilers around willy-nilly (also, I gotta keep this write-up under 5000 words). Over the Garden Wall is a smart, heartfelt visual novella that channels old tales to create a modern classic. Between its spellbinding beauty, adorable and contagious songs, and immediate digestibility (end to end, it’s about the length of a feature film), Over the Garden Wall is more than alluring: it’s a lure (again, so sorry).
Now, let’s get lost in The Unknown.