A Taste of Days Gone By: A Review of "Over the Garden Wall"
I had heard years ago from some of my college students at NCSC about Over the Garden Wall (2014) but didn't really look into it because I didn't realize it was a Cartoon Network production. I sort of let it fall by the wayside, probably because I was grading papers all the time! Anyway, it wasn't until I started obsessively getting on Twitter that Over the Garden Wall generated buzz in my timeline, hailed as a new autumn tradition (particularly for the month of October). Now that I had returned to the USA and wasn't region blocked anymore, I found out I could stream the series. So, in honor of fall and the spooky season, I finally decided to give this show a watch!
Over the Garden Wall is Cartoon Network’s 1st animated mini-series event that tells the story of two brothers, Wirt and Greg, who find themselves lost in a strange forest. With the help of a bluebird named Beatrice, they must travel across this strange land in hope of finding their way home. Featuring the voices of Elijah Wood, Melanie Lynskey, Chris Isaak, Christopher Lloyd, and John Cleese.
Story: This series consists of ten eleven-minute episodes that tell the overarching story of brothers Wirt and Greg, who have wandered into the forest of the Unknown, and are searching for their way back home. Greg rescues the talking bluebird Beatrice by freeing her from the tangled branches of a bush, and she offers to take them to Adelaide of the Pasture who can help get them home. In the meantime, they are pursued by the mysterious Beast and meet a variety of characters and cross into strange locales on their journey home.
This show is just like an old, haunting fairy tale with a bit of Washington Irving thrown in there. With enchanted (and sometimes musically gifted) animals, cursed maidens and witchlike ladies, eccentric gentlemen and a ragtimey-singing frog, all with a 19th century aesthetic, this feels like an old, comfortable, but spooky story you'd hear told by the fire or read from a worn, leather-bound hardcover tome in your grandmother's library.
I really enjoyed the story. It's straightforward--boys end up in a strange place (yay for portal fantasy!) and try to find their way back. But it's the atmosphere and the characters they meet, along with some fun and goofy songs, that tell the story in a brisk 11 minutes.
I was so into this series I streamed the whole ten episodes in one go. It's weird and wonderful and provides a great taste of nostalgia thanks to its aesthetic and tone.
Characters: There are a ton of characters that show up in the series, largely because Wirt and Greg travel from place to place and encounter all sorts of people. I'm going to focus on the major, recurring characters and skip over the others (but I recommend looking into Adelaide and Auntie Whispers and Lorna).
Wirt (Elijah Wood) is a teenaged boy who is unsure of himself and a bit on the anxious side, but he's got a good heart, even though he gets annoyed by his half-brother Greg. I enjoyed watching him grow from somewhat of a scaredy cat into a boy that will do anything to save his brother and return home.
Greg (Collin Dean) is an adorable little boy because he is just so weird! I love it! He throws candy everywhere, thinking he's making a trail like in Hansel in Gretel, but just tosses it without any rhyme or reason. He talks to a frog he constantly renames. He sings random songs about "potatoes and molasses." He's an imaginative kid and I think he brings to the audience the sense of wonder you feel when you're lost in the woods for the first time, whereas his half-brother Wirt represents the other side of that--panic. They're a great team and you can tell they really love each other deep down.
Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey) is the voice of reason for Wirt and Greg, but she seems to pick on Wirst most of all. She's been cursed for throwing a rock at a bluebird, and she along with her family were transformed into bluebirds. Because of this, she has an ulterior motive to helping the boys get home--she wants to break her own curse. But she has a conscience and always does the right thing in the end.
The woodsman (Christopher Lloyd) hunts down Edelwood trees in order to use their oil to keep his Dark Lantern lit. It turns out he has a relationship with the Beast of the forest, who trapped his daughter's soul within the lantern. The Beast says as long as the lantern is kept lit, his daughter will live. The woodsman disappears and reappears throughout the story, warning Wirt and Greg of the Beast in the forest.
The Beast (Samuel Ramey) is a silhouetted figure in black with stag horns and glowing eyes. He haunts the forest and turns people into Edelwood trees, which is then used as oil to light the Dark Lantern. The big twist is that the Dark Lantern contains the Beast's soul, not the soul of the Woodsman's daughter, so the Woodsman has been keeping the Beast alive this whole time. While Wirt and Greg wander through the forest, the Beast pursues the both of them, wanting to turn them into trees.
Animation: The characters are animated simply (and in a nostalgic, almost vintage style) in contrast to very detailed, gorgeous backgrounds that look like paintings. The combination works well together.
Everything seems to be coated in a type of sepia tone which helps give it a vintage vibe. I also have to give a shoutout to the title cards which also continue the antique style.
Notice that everything not only has an old-fashioned quality to it, but there's some darkness and spookiness to all of it as well.
I really enjoy the aesthetic of this show. It's right up my alley.
Voice Acting: I think the voice acting in the show is excellent. I love the star-studded cast (John Cleese can't help sounding exactly like John Cleese). It's such a delight reading who plays which part...and there's not anyone that sounds out of place. Even the men voicing the women fits the tone of the show (and especially how their characters look).
Low Points of the Season: I only have one complaint, and it spoils the show--it turns out Over the Garden Wall doesn't take place in the past, but the present. The bygone era exists once the boys enter the forest, but the "real world" as we know it is still out there. This would explain what seem to be anachronisms, like wandering into an old town asking about a phone. This is just a matter of taste, but I wanted the whole series to be set in the pseudo-19th century. The show isn't ruined by being set in the modern day; it's just not my cup of tea. Otherwise, this is a pretty near-perfect treat.
High Points of the Season: I loved the whole side story where the boys and Beatrice meet Lorna (Shannyn Sossamon) and Auntie Whispers (Tim Curry).
The whole time you're expecting Auntie Whispers to be the Big Bad by locking Lorna away and keeping outside visitors from coming in, but it turns out she's been protecting Lorna because, once Lorna goes outside, the evil spirit within her takes over. Luckily Wirt and Greg rescue Lorna by banishing the evil spirit, but I loved this excursion on their journey and even the cutesy little love song Wirt and Lorna sing together.
Final Thoughts: This show is weird and wondrous. The songs are strange but good, the characters bizarre and delightful, and the story like something out of an old fairy tale. Thanks to the autumn aesthetic (complete with Halloween vibes and designs), this show makes sense as a fall tradition for people who love celebrating the October holiday. I loved the wistful feeling this series gave me, like looking back on the past through my grandma's old stereoscope, and the vintage style and strong sense of nostalgia weaves its way through every episode. It's a unique contribution to the world of animation and I'm glad I watched it finally. It's the perfect thing to watch this Halloween season.