Over The Garden Wall is not only the first animated miniseries for Cartoon Network, but it might be the first kids animated TV miniseries ever. There have been specials and one-offs, and there have been unfinished-series and one-season wonders, but unless Cartoon Network orders a second season out of the blue, this is a legit miniseries: Ten 12-minute episodes telling a fully self-contained story. I doubt Cartoon Network is experimenting with something akin to the British model of television here, but the network has been messing around with different types of programming: the nonsensical “Mixels” shorts, the PowerPuff Girls reboot episode that got picked up for a full series, the weird but well-animated superhero special from The Looney Tunes Show.
It also seems like Cartoon Network is trying to step away from the “signature style” that’s been propping up the network for the past couple of years: that big, round eyes, noodle-armed, “notebook doodle” look. Sure, there’s enough variations among them to make each unique and special, but on the whole, they’re a far cry from the Cartoon Network output in the late 1990s and early 2000s: Johnny Bravo, Courage The Cowardly Dog, The Grim Adventures Of Billy And Mandy, Dexter’s Laboratory, Codename: Kids Next Door, Ed, Edd, And Eddy, and Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends. (This isn’t a knock against current shows mind you, but they’ve been packaged together on Thursdays for a reason.) It hasn’t always worked out—Beware The Batman, Green Lantern, Riders Of Berk, and The Looney Tunes Show were all dropped unceremoniously, but I’ll give the network props since they are still trying (Sonic Boom!).
Still, that style is Cartoon Network’s go-to look, and Over The Garden Wall is the creative brainchild of Patrick McHale (who worked on The Misadventures of FlapJack and Adventure Time). McHale’s miniseries is influenced heavily on early European folklore, along the lines of the Brothers Grimm, in which two siblings get lost in a confusing, terrifying, fantastical world. The reason or explanation for how or why they got lost isn’t quite the point: It’s a show about growing up and maturing in a world beyond a young person’s understanding. Over The Garden Wall is about coming into a world of societies and individuals that seem so weird, amazing, dangerous, and off-kilter. It’s also one about dealing with strangers, mortality, regret, fear, sadness, depression, wonder, imagination, and love.
And what a world: The Unknown is hauntingly beautiful, with fantastical, classical backgrounds and rich colors reminiscent of a turn-of-the-20th-century paintings. Locations are designed with a keen eye so they’re both familiar and unfamiliar, exhibiting the sense of early 20th century children’s literature and folk art. Each episode exhibits a specific aesthetic that reflects a specific artistic style—“Schooltime Follies” resembles the works of Richard Scarry (complete with anthropomorphic animals in schools); “Songs Of The Dark Lantern,” riffs on the everlasting animation of Max Fleischer, including a great Betty Boop knockoff as the barkeep—tweaked to the series unique, quirky brand of humor.
Greg, Wirt, and Beatrice are the young charges that are thrust into this setting, each of whom fit a specific age group—and in their own ways, represent a kind of transformation as they travel from place to place. Greg (Collin Dean) has a youthful spirit thatkeeps him optimistic, and his adorable songs and constant amazement at even the most unsettling images a delight to behold. Wirt (Elijah Wood) is the cynical teenager, yet the show does a fantastic job balancing him between his moody, stubborn tendencies and his waning childhood wonder. Then there’s Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), the series’ standout character by far. A mix between an older sister and a self-serving tourist, Lynskey steals the show with her amazing putdowns and passive-aggressiveness, smartly avoiding overdone sass or sarcasm.
The storybook setting, with its bizarre cast of creatures and characters (which includes a stodgy, rambling woodsman voiced by Christopher Lloyd, and an eccentric, rambling millionaire voiced by John Cleese), forces the three to bond, and as the series goes along, events—particularly their conflict with The Beast (voiced by Samuel Ramey)—begins to test their relationship, as secrets are exposed and revelations are made. Avoiding spoilers, their specific attitudes and behaviors (and the testy, odd interactions among them) are given context, deepening the three and opening them up like the very imaginative fairy tale they find themselves in. The title cards of each episode add to the narrative’s “literary” design, with slow, smooth fades over bold fonts, complete with the chapter number. In some ways, these bookends evoke the nifty aesthetics of classic silent animation (an aesthetic brilliantly invoked in a later episode, to incredible and harrowing results).
“Incredible” and “harrowing” are the strongest words to describe Over The Garden Wall, as each episodes bridges between warm fall colors to evoke comfort and comedy, and dark black and greys for terror and drama. Credit to art directors Nick Cross and Nate Cash, seamlessly able to bounce back and forth between the two color palettes, sometimes in the same episode, to reflect the mindsets or the characters, or the specific mood of the scene. Likewise for the music: Each chapter comes with a perfectly tailored score emphasizing the whimsy and mystery of the moment, composed by the gypsy-folk band The Petrojvic Blasting Company.
With such a perfect blend of mood, atmosphere, story, and characterization, Over The Garden Wall’s 10 episode run will leave you wanting more, but like every great fairy tale, it’s a story that knows when it’s over. In the midst of its run, though, viewers will no doubt be caught up in the show’s fantastic locales and its lessons. And like any great fairy tale, it’s one worth experiencing again and again.