Some of my favorite works of art are things that have no business existing from a commercial standpoint. A comedy movie about three middle aged guys starting a ghost exterminating business, or a TV show about a high school teacher with cancer who starts making meth, or the musical career of Tom Waits… All these things are “I can’t believe this is actually working” things, and the very fact that they are working is part of what makes them so delightful. What saintly studio executive decided to greenlight these projects, betting their company’s money and probably their own jobs on a thing anyone in their right mind would perceive as a terrible idea?
With all that in mind, I’m going to do my best to summarize the concept of Cartoon Network’s miniseries, Over the Garden Wall.
It’s a 10 episode series of animated shorts based on old timey American folklore, following two kids lost in a foreboding forest trying to find their way back home. Along the way they encounter various human and animal companions and attempt to evade the mysterious Beast. The tone is comedic, including a lot of modern non sequitur humor and absurdity, but it’s also mixed with a mournful, old-fashioned aesthetic that draws from agrarian art, frontier folklore, and fairy tales. The whole thing is drenched in an Autumn vibe, with turning leaves, pumpkins and rolling golden fields bordered by rickety wooden fences. One episode prominently features a town populated by living Jack O’ Lanterns. That, combined with the undercurrent of danger and presence of The Beast makes it an obvious fit for Halloween season.
In fact, according to the creator, this was originally envisioned as a possible Halloween special, ultimately airing on Cartoon Network in early November. The 10 episodes, each just 10 to 15 minutes long, add up to the length of a standard feature film, making it perfect to watch in one or two sittings or in between your Halloween season horror marathon. Myself, I watched it with my wife just an episode or two at a time, as we had recently had a baby and spare time and energy were at a premium. Then we watched it again. It works no matter how you consume it.
Elijah Wood and Christopher Lloyd are the only “names” in the voice cast, but the real shining star is the character of Greg, the younger of the two kids. Seemingly voiced by a real child, he has an utterly unflappable optimism and confidence, regardless of how dangerous or dire their adventure becomes. Wirt (Elijah Wood) is older and an anxious worry-wort. Together their contrasting reactions to the bizarre world they’re lost in forms most of the humor, along with the absurdity of the world itself. There’s an elementary school for woodland animals, taught by a perpetually heartbroken human teacher, an all-frog riverboat band, a talking bluebird cursed by a witch, and the occasional musical number. There are surprises packed into every minute.
I was sold on the show after episode two, but it’s in the final stretch that a major twist is introduced to the premise of the show, and takes on a surprisingly poignant emotional turn. You’d never think a cartoon like this would be capable of reaching those heights, but it does. That there are overtones of Halloween spirit throughout is just the cherry on top.
I’ve only known about Over the Garden Wall for one year, but I’m already getting nostalgic feels thinking about watching it again this season. Thank god it was available to stream on Hulu. But if you’re not a subscriber, it’s available on DVD, and let me tell you friends, it’s worth the 7 bucks.