The loveliest lies of all
In fall of 2014, Cartoon Network debuted the defining autumn work of the generation. If you narrow that to animated specials, you might have to go all the way back nearly a half century to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown to find something that better evokes the season.
Over the Garden Wall is a miniseries of ten episodes, each ten minutes, adding up to the approximate length of a feature-length film. It was envisioned and created by Patrick McHale, an animator and writer who worked on Adventure Time (meaning this miniseries falls in the ever-growing Flapjack family tree). It aired across five nights, two episodes each night — which is a nice design, as each episode pairing works well as a small bundle — but can just as well be binged in one or two sittings.
Over the Garden Wall tells the story of brothers Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean), who find themselves in an enchanted forest called The Unknown. Within the forest, they encounter all sorts of autumn-themed misadventures. One of the things that makes Over the Garden Wall so special is that goes beyond the normal seasonal touchstones. It pulls from all sorts of folk and ghost stories, remembering the roots of All Hallows’ Eve as a time of remembrance and reflection; of observing our connection to the spirits of the past; of both sumptuous harvest celebration and mourning of a fallen summer.
If you haven’t seen Over the Garden Wall, I encourage you to stop reading and go track it down. Though it’s a work that grows in depth upon rewatch, so much of its prodigious charm is discovering firsthand its unusual, folksy wavelength. As of 2022, it’s streaming on Hulu and HBO Max, and it can be bought on Amazon for as little as $7. I will keep this review light on spoilers, especially the second half of the series, but I think the less you know, the better.
The series’ ten stories together tell an overarching narrative of Wirt and Greg’s attempt to escape The Unknown — itself something of a metaphor for adolescence and loss of innocence — but each episode stands on its own as a “chapter” of the saga. For example, the opening chapter, “The Old Grist Mill,” traces the brothers’ encounter with a deranged woodman (Christopher Lloyd) and a cursed wolf.
Before long, Greg and Wirt connect with Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), a talking bluebird, who serves as both a spiritual guide and a companion, and who suggests they search for a woman named Adelaide (John Cleese; yep). The brothers also find themselves hunted by a shadowy figure called The Beast (Samuel Ramey), who portends deeper and darker mysteries of The Unknown.
Over the Garden Wall’s stylistic influences are broad and unusual. Many of the character designs and settings are inspired by 19th century postcards. Early 20th century picture books and animation are inspirations; the fourth episode, “Song of the Dark Lantern,” in particular has a bunch of references to 1920s and 1930s animation, including a barmaid who looks and talks like Betty Boop.
The series is also infused with music. The background score is evocative, blending piano, orchestral, and symphonic instrumentation, but it’s the variety of sung numbers that stand out. Each ten minute episode has at least one or two sung tunes. The music has roots in early- and midcentury folk or choral music and Tin Pan Alley pop. You’re likely to find at least one of the numbers stuck in your head, with “Potatoes and Molasses” from the third episode a top candidate.
The voice acting, too, is excellent. Dean and Lynskey are great as leads, but it’s Wood who shines especially, lending Wirt an inviting vulnerability and gawkiness that makes him massively relatable.
The series’ spooky tones ebb and flow, cresting perhaps in the seventh episode, a mini-masterpiece titled “The Ringing of the Bell.” This chapter features one of my favorite animated character designs of all time, Auntie Whispers (Tim Curry). But it’s hardly the only spine-tingling moment of the series: The Beast’s honey-soaked voice and minimal design feel like they’re straight out of a nightmare, and Lloyd’s slightly unhinged take on The Woodsman deserves some kind of award. Even the more innocuous moments of the miniseries, like anthropomorphized animals in the third episode, “Schooltown Follies,” have something uncanny and grotesque about them that is unsettling.
Nearly every episode has some narrative twist, small or large. And the series as a whole has a “twist” of sorts outlined in the final two episodes. Part of the reason the show holds up so well to rewatches is that a lot more of the clues to the twists both micro and macro stand out when you know what to look for.
The direction the show takes in the final two episodes is a bit divisive among fans, and it actually turned me off the first time I watched. It undercuts some of the fantastical and dreamlike tone of the story in favor of something a bit more exposition-heavy and grounded. But it’s grown on me; it adds a lot of resonance to the plot threads on rewatch, and doesn’t diminish the metaphoric and coming-of-age content. And it helps that “Into the Unknown,” the penultimate episode, is perhaps the funniest and most charming chapter of the entire series.
Despite its painterly look and bespoke ambitions, the show still operates in the 2010’s Cartoon Network brand of animated storytelling. Much of the humor is silly and slightly absurdist in the “lol so random” tradition — mostly via quips by younger brother Greg. This occasionally gets in the way of the show’s more serious tone, but still serves a purpose of providing a contrast between the carefree younger brother and angsty older brother, Wirt.
The other element that keeps me at a little bit of a distance is the choppiness of the structure. Ten minutes simply does not support that much of a story, so we never hang around any thread long enough for any real scenario to build with depth. There’s sufficient atmosphere accumulated across the 100-or-so minutes to make it feel like a whole, but the pacing still causes problems, especially in the show’s second half as it tries to fit the overall arc into these segments. The show’s sixth episode, “Lullaby in Frogland,” in particular crams multiple story threads together in a way that feels like the writers were hamstrung by the 10-minute cap.
It’s a minor issue, though; the fleeting nature of most of the stories’ conflicts wouldn’t really benefit from longer exploration, and the short chapter length means that we never lose any momentum or face anything inessential. When every idea and story thread is this good, it’s not a bother to move to the next one
Over the Garden Wall is something special and unique, and has become go-to fall watching for me since I first saw it in 2020. Three viewings in and it feels like it could enter the hallowed ranks of required annual viewing. Like many of the best TV specials, it deepens my engagement with the season. It makes me pensive at the passage of time and more connected with my place in both nature and the anthropocene. As that idea is at the very core of Over the Garden Wall, I’d say it’s a resounding success.