Over the Garden Wall revisited: “Songs of the Dark Lantern”

As all of us in the northern hemisphere know, it’s time once again for another dry and spooky autumn, which of course means more Over the Garden Wall recaps. Writing about such a solemnly autumnal show in any other season or mood never felt right, and on the heels of its recent DVD release, now is the best possible time to dig back into the Unknown. So, then, let’s dig:

“Songs of the Dark Lantern” – Act One Ends with Three Songs and a Dance

darklantern2

What is Over the Garden Wall? Despite coming out of the gate with a fully-formed aesthetic and writing to fill it out, we really know very little about the Unknown and its denizens by the time “Songs of the Dark Lantern” rolls around. Our characters are effectively amnesiacs, hounded by a mysterious force, driven by hearsay, traveling a land where nothing can be taken at face value.

A lesser show would stoop to exposition dumps to flesh out this swiss-cheese-mythology, but Over the Garden Wall has other plans. “Songs of the Dark Lantern” calls upon the power of one of the simplest, most old fashioned storytelling forms in the modern western canon to convey its tales of beasts and burdens: the musical revue. Continue reading

Steven Universe: Prepare For #Stevenbomb 3.0 with a #Stevenbomb 2.0 Analytical Catch-Up

Steven Universe Steven Connie Pearl Sworn to the Sword 1

Steven Universe has me surrounded! I surrender!

Yes, it’s time for yet another Steven Universe megapost. What can I say? It’s not like I lay awake at night thinking about it! Wait—oh God! I do! With “Steven Bomb 2.0: Stevens of Rage” evaporating into the past and “Steven Bomb 3.0: Universe Never Sleeps” tilting over the horizon, I reckon it’s time to play a little recap for all the fans and fanatics who might have been sleeping on the smaller stuff this past month.

So here’s a little (a lot of) analysis of the prior Bomb to freshen your memories and whet your palettes for the oncoming emotional onslaught that’s bound to hit Beach City tonight. And awaaaaaaaay we go!


 

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On Steven Universe, and How Much I Love Steven Universe

Oh yes I love it, yes I do

Oh yes I love it, yes I do

I apologize for my tardiness. I had a broken computer, and some other stuff. I also apologize, in advance, for my inevitable incoherence. Over my extended hiatus, I watched a lot of Steven Universe, then I watched it again, and now I am going to attempt to write about it. It’s like an itch you try to scratch, but once you get your finger close enough it latches on and gives you a big hug and you forget exactly what you were doing in the first place.

Here’s the skinny on the show before I dive into my stream of adulation. The brainchild of ex-Adventure Time storyboarder, musician, and Forbes-certified Powerful Woman Rebecca Sugar, Steven Universe is about the Crystal Gems, female-presenting aliens who protect Earth, warp around on scenic adventures, and generally chill with each other. They are Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl, and Steven, the titular half-Gem half-Human kiddo whose mother Rose Quartz gave up her physical form to bring him into this world. She got knocked up by Greg, Steven’s van-dwelling father and all-around honeybear. Rose was the de facto leader of the Crystal Gems before her essence became a fixture on Steven’s belly, and if anyone mentions her in an episode, y’alls are due for a trip to the cryerworks factory. With a tangible sense of history and unflagging focus on interpersonal relationships, Steven Universe is the gut-bustingly funniest, eyelid-wringingly saddest show about ass-kicking grrliens to ever air.

And after three attempts to write a re-inaugural post about it, after two full binges and endless breaks between work shifts browsing fan art on Tumblr (MLG-Peridot forever!), I realized it was nigh-impossible to keep an objectivish, critical tone about this goddamn show.

I just need a moment to rave. And there will be free glowsticks.

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First Annual Your Horrible Family Top Five Superlatives of 2014

Holy moly! Hot dog!

Holy moly! Hot dog!

The holidays mean lots of things to lots of people, but for me it’ll always be about the endless ranking, the distribution of hundreds of lists across thousands of locales tabulating how, exactly, anything and everything in the past 365 days added up. Go ahead and call it pointless, call it shouting into a storm, call it navel-gazing. I don’t care. When it gets to December and all the big blogs start breaking out the big fonts for their big wrap-ups, my heart gets a-stutterin’.

There’s something about standing in the center of the critical echo chamber, taking a few moments to let it all wash over and soak in, that I really like. For me, the act of going through row after row of wrap-ups and best-ofs is one part mixtape, one part sabermetrics: the mass attempt to turn people’s opinions into objective fact is oddly addicting and, frankly, more often than not makes for damn good recommendations. For someone, such as myself, who constantly feels like they’re lagging behind the zeitgeist, it’s pure manna.

Before I get into my awkwardly constructed and woefully underpopulated favorite whatnots of 2014, I would like to take a step back tonight and thank all of those people out there with capable literacy and the means to project their voices throughout the information superhighway. I know that just sounded snarky as fuck but I mean every damn word of it. It’s the time of a season to share your thoughts, rank your opinions, and tabulate the stats on your year-end lists until you’ve got enough scribbled ticker-tape to fill the stockings. If one person reads this list and finds just one thing that they’d like to explore more in these coming winter months, then we’ve all done our job as critics.

Now, having laid down all that praise for praise, please note that you are now to bear witness to some true hating dabbled here and there within this list. “Best of” is a bit of a narrow window for a year partly defined by hate, fear, and disappointment. Great artists embarrassed themselves. Everyone was racist. Kanye West did practically nothing of import. So let this be a (media-focused) reminiscence on not just the best, but everything else interesting enough to warrant mention on the other sides of the emotional prairie.

Plus, like the most accurate year-wrapup lists, this shit is actually coming out in after the year is fully over. Take that, everywhere else!

Anyway,

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Over the Garden Wall – “Schooltown Follies”: Brightness on the Edge of Schooltown

Oh potatoooooooooes (Cartoon Network)

Oh potatoooooooooes (Cartoon Network)

“I guess the world really is as sweet as potatoes and molasses.”

– Father Langtree

Over the Garden Wall shifts tones between episodes with an effortless confidence that ought to, on paper, take several seasons worth of material to back up. We would need to know our main characters well enough to empathize with, become acquainted with the setting well enough to believe that it could extend itself beyond two dimensions, and be familiar enough with a standard rhythm to justify a detour.

In short-form animated television, the depth of familiarity needed for this type of leg-stretching especially requires a considerable amount of prologue. Adventure Time took at least two seasons before it ventured into darker territory and embraced the adolescence metaphor incubating at its core. Viewers, at that point, had become acquainted well enough with the nooks and crannies of Ooo and its diversity of inhabitants at their brightest moments, paving the path to more challenging territory.

Over the Garden Wall pulls off a similar modulation, albeit in reverse and in a considerably shorter amount of time. The series starts off dark, moody and slightly broody, and must rise to the occasion of turning on the lights for its third episode, “Schooltown Follies.” Jumping from the dark fatalism of “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee” to an upbeat, optimistic romp through a schoolhouse for snappily dressed animals ought to be a jarring transition.

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Over the Garden Wall – “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee”: Darkness after the dawn

hardtimes1whaddyalookinat

whaddya lookin at (screencaps, Cartoon Network)

“Folks don’t tend to pass through Pottsville. It’s nice here.”

-Pumpkin Lady, being creepy as shit

In an offhand parenthetical in my last review, I dismissed a particular moment of “The Old Grist Mill” for being a little too self-conscious. I feel like I should clarify that my criticism of the moment is rooted in its uncharacteristic sloppiness, since on the whole Over the Garden Wall is actually a very postmodern show. A pastiche by nature, the miniseries combines the DNA of two dozen genres, classics, fables, and bits and pieces of tall tales here and there, to create a singular timeless vision—neither original nor replication. The final product is offbeat and warped, but polished enough to cover up its Frankenstein’s monster scars.

Two of the most prominent elements in this pastiche chowder (for such an autumnal show, it must be a chowder, or maybe a bisque) are the  clashing genres of children’s television and psychological horror. Scaring the bejesus out of kids while teaching them important life lessons is hardly a new idea—as for who did it first there’s no earthly way of knowing—but Over the Garden Wall’s particular blend distinguishes itself with the masterful “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee.”

The horrorshow horror starts exactly as you wouldn’t expect: It was a calm and sunny morning. Wirt discovers signs of civilization, while Greg is busy freeing a bluebird from the bush. While the premiere taught us not to take the Unknown at face value, things are still looking pretty damn hopey for our lost boys (and Beatrice the bluebird, their salty new companion). These first few minutes are rich with (mostly) friendly banter and gentle sunrays; Greg accidentally lodging his foot in a tiny pumpkin is the scariest occurrence, a moment that relies on rapid-fire comic timing to mask its ominous portent.

The placid façade doesn’t quite shatter into the shitter, rather, “Hard Times” is a slow descent into Hell. Its positioning as the second installment of the series allows it a unique benefit; while “The Old Grist Mill” had to bare its fangs to rope viewers into the darkness, “Hard Times” has the privilege of patience—it is Over the Garden Wall’s first opportunity to stretch its legs. Out of the forest and into the corn fields, the dawning day promises to shed some light on the series’ central mysteries, geography, logic, denizens, whathaveyou.

But, like the leaf spinning through fickle currents, we are no less lost than before. Pottsville is empty. The sun is a big toasty red herring, a thin blanket that coats the mattress of menace established in the pilot. Even though nothing has gone wrong yet, the still air in a seeming ghost town is enough to tell us something bad lurks around the corner.

But before I get to the bad stuff, I’d like to talk about The Wicker Man.

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Over the Garden Wall – “The Old Grist Mill”: But where have we come?

gristmill2

Screencaps, wistfulness property of Cartoon Network.

“Welcome to the Unknown, boys. You’re more lost than you realize!”

-The Woodsman

There’s a strange land somewhere out there, a land of folktales and myths come to life under the veil of imagination. Where frogs play ancient ballads on pianos, lost souls fill the roots of trees, and placid pumpkin people greet you at the harvest festival. There’s a land, somewhere out there, where smart storytelling, without a hint of condescension, coexists peacefully with spooky, naturalistic imagery, and where pathos can be wrung from the briefest moments like stream water from a soaked rag. This land is called the Unknown.

To reach the Unknown, you must simply hop Over the Garden Wall.

This Cartoon Network miniseries, which I reviewed in full over here, boasts one of the richest fictional universes to be explored this decade in the Unknown. This universe is also one of the strangest, a qualifier earned by its incredibly bold pilot, a dark and obscure chapter that holds all its cards close to the chest, soaring on the strengths of mood and character while boldy delaying the plot. It’s conceptually daring, an in medias res opening that barely introduces the central characters, offers the smallest taste of a mythology, and obscures the tapestry of its autumnal setting in a heart of darkness.

It’s a neat analogy to the plight of our heroes: like Wirt and young Greg (bearing no resemblance to Old Gregg), we are lost in the Unknown. By structuring the first episode, “The Old Grist Mill, like a puzzle box that can only be fully understood by viewers who completed the whole series, creators Pat McHale, Tom Herpich (an Adventure Time storyboarding stalwart with some hilarious deadpan chops), and Amalia Levari are forced to lay the groundwork of the show’s universe by showing, not telling. We are without a compass, but we are encouraged to soak in our surroundings rather than fuss over the details.

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Over the Garden Wall: A Glorious Grimoire

From Over the Garden Wall wiki

Images courtesy of Over the Garden Wall wiki, 17th century American fashion, and a supremely creepy riff on Hayao Miyazaki

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.

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