Over the Garden Wall (2014) Review

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Created by Patrick Mchale, known best for his work on Adventure Time for Cartoon Network, Over the Garden Wall came out November 2014. I heard about this show yesterday from a youtube reviewer and became curious.

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I love Halloween and old American folk tales so this show’s overall premise seemed intriguing enough for me to give it a try. I roped my brother Christopher into watching it with me last night, thinking we would watch the first episode and go to bed. We ended up watching the whole mini-series together that night. (Not that that was a problem seeing as each of the ten episodes are only about eleven minutes long. . .)

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Mchale actually started working on this show 2004 and pitched it to Cartoon Network 2006. It was not until 2011 that Mchale first released a short entitled Tome of the Unknown which featured his two main characters Wirt and Greg looking for the Unknown and coming across a garden come to life, singing bluegrass toons and dancing at a gathering. After the short received The Bruce Corwin Award for Animated Short at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2014, Cartoon Network gave the okay for Mchale to create a short miniseries based on the short.

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Miniseries follow a different format than regular cartoon shows because, like anime, there is already a predetermined ending to the story. McHale thought this would be the best option because it would be “something that felt higher quality than what (they) could do with a regular series”. Though they are obviously shorter than regular shows, there is usually a lot more effort put into its characters, story, music and (in this case) the artwork. Some examples of popular miniseries include North and South (1985), Jesus of Nazareth (1977), and The Forsyte Saga (1967).

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(Example of anime, Steins;Gate (2011)

Now, cartoon series are not naturally made into miniseries, especially in the United States. In Japan, most anime are actually based on RPG’s and manga so they usually have a predetermined story and number of episodes. In contrast, American cartoon shows develop with the intent of extending the show’s length as long as possible. As such, makers really cannot afford to give the characters and story the time needed to develop and change since they assume that the show will run indefinitely.

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This tactic is not necessarily bad. There have been MANY shows like Looney Tunes (1930-1969), The Flinstones (1960-1966) and Yogi Bear (1961-1964?) which are great entertainment. Usually though, because there is no foreseen end the characters do not change or develop. They stay the same basically the whole length of the show. Often, this leads to predictability and boring characters. I think that is why it is rare for adults to really become involved in cartoons.

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Now let’s talk about the show itself. It takes place in a place called the Unknown and follows two lost half-brothers Wirt and Greg. They meet a woodsman outside his house, who promises to show them the way home once he is done with his work. Shortly after, they are attacked by a demented dog, destroy the woodman’s house and leave to find their way home. Each episode, rather than bringing them closer to home, draws them deeper and deeper into the Unknown. Accompanied by a bluebird Beatrice and a frog whose name constantly changes, they come across varied types of people from different time periods.

This show impressed me. Over the Garden Wall is incredibly well constructed, voiced, and paced. It has so much going for it from its music, character development, setting and animation that I do not know if I will be able to go over it all.

I am restricted in how much I can reveal in this review because I do not want to ruin the story for you. For my part, I will go over many aspects that make this show work so well. (Here is the trailer for the show if you are interested LINK —-> CLICK HERE)

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First of all, there are so many references to old cartoons!

Examples:

In episode 4, “Songs of the Dark Lantern”, a highwayman steps onto the stage and sings a short 34 second song. This is a reference to the cartoon Minnie the Moocher (1932), starring Betty Boop and the famous jazz singer Cab Calloway who sings as a walrus.

Later in the episode, the inn keeper sings a creepy song about the Beast much like Betty Boop who had a high-pitched whiny singing voice.

Episode 8, “Babes in the Woods”, is modeled after old cartoons from the 1930’s in its styling, singing characters, the emergence of a villain and his defeat at the hands of the awkward hero. (Watch Flowers and Trees (1932), The Cookie Carnival (1935)and Balloon Land (1935) ).

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The voice actors picked for the show were surprisingly high class. Elijah Wood, known for his iconic portrayal of Frodo Baggins, voiced Wirt, the neurotic and pessimistic older brother with a red pointed hat. Christopher Lloyd from the Back to the Future films played the Woodsman, trapped as much as the boys in the Unknown and its mysteries. There was also Melanie Lynskey as the grumpy bluebird Beatrice, singer Jack Jones as Greg’s frog, American opera singer Samuel Ramey as the Beast, actor John Cleese as Quincy Endicott and Adelaide and even Tim Curry as Auntie Whispers.

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The entire set up of the show really intrigues me. At the beginning, Greg’s frog sits at a piano and introduces a wide number of images and characters before shifting immediately to Wirt and Greg lost in the woods. Slowly, through each episode, the characters are drawn farther into the Unknown and uncover other character’s secrets and overcome obstacles in unexpected ways. I never knew what to expect in each episode and the ending to the show was equally satisfying and enlightening. Each episode is placed brilliantly and gives an equal amount of insight, dark imagery, and humor.

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I love how all the characters play off of each other. Wirt and Greg proved to be two complete opposites, Wirt being an overly serious high-schooler and Greg a light-hearted, optimistic little boy. Wirt does change subtly as the series progresses but usually his more serious personality clashes charmingly with Greg’s quirky sayings and actions. Beatrice and Wirt’s relationship was also interesting to watch. Both are equally pessimistic, which is probably why Beatrice instantly hates him and insults him at the beginning of the series. That also meant that as they spent more time around each other they developed a friendship.

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Out of all the relationships, the Beast and the Woodman’s took my attention most readily. There was always a feeling of suspense and mystery every time they appeared together. The woodsman obviously hated the Beast but still worked for him in order to protect the best he can what was precious to him. Their chaotic relationship is contained by the existence of the lantern and the stakes involved in keeping it lit.

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From a historical perspective, this series is fascinating as well. Not only did McHale make references to different historical periods, but he stayed true to their atmosphere, people and music. Some of the references are not readily apparent in the first watch.

For example, in episode 2,”Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee”, Wirt, Greg and Beatrice find a town called Potsfield where its residents are celebrating the harvest. This is a direct parallel to what is known as a Potter’s Field which is a place where unnamed people are buried. The poet William Blake referenced this in Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804) and much of the lands between the North and South are covered with the unmarked graves of Civil War victims.

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The animation, especially in the backgrounds, is absolutely stunning. I felt it was on par with Avatar and Samurai Jack, but without the more Asian. It has a genuine American feel and style to it, lost to the annals of history. Animation from the 1930’s to the 1960’s was very high quality and oftentimes showcased amazing imagery, and this show feels like it could have been made during that time.

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Now, for this show McHale and others put so much work and detail into the animation and Background art. Elijah Wood noted in an interview, “The art work, specifically, was unlike anything I had seen in a long time. The backgrounds are hand painted — an almost old fashioned approach to animation.” Also, McHale used traditional Cel animation as opposed to computer based shows of today. The result was a beautiful, atmospheric and high quality production. Here are just a few examples of the amazing art work showed throughout the series. (Thank you German Orozco and Levon Jihanian for the brilliant backgrounds! Also Nick Cross was an amazing art director.)

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As for the character designs, I do not mind how simple they are. At first, I thought that they would be the downfall of the show. As it turned out, I liked them, though I would not have complained if McHale had chosen more mature styles for the characters. As it is, I think they animated the characters more simply because they wanted to make it more acceptable for kids visually. I will say that I LOVE the Beast’s design. He reminded me, in design and personality, of the Earl King from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Franz Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig” (1782, 1821), who led wayward children to his kingdom when they were close to death.

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Speaking of the music. . . it was incredible. Usually the music plays little to no part in a cartoon series. Every song fits so nicely to each setting and episode. For each new song that came on, I felt almost giddy! In an interview from themarysue.com, McHale explained his approach to the music.

Well, the mood of the show is a really important aspect of it. And so the music sort of paints — with the color scheme and all that stuff — the music finishes it off and makes it the right feeling for the audience’s experience of this place where we can delve into, sometimes, genres of music that might not match what we’re watching but give you a certain feeling. . .

To create this amazing music they recruited two opera singers (YES!), the 1960’s artist Jack Jones, and The Blasting Company, which provided all the background music and instrumental parts. The styles range from Bluegrass, opera, folk music, early jazz and various styles seen throughout old cartoons. I can honestly say out of all the shows I have watched this is possibly the best musical score for a series in regards to mood, relevance and quality. (Note: the soundtrack for Avatar is also exceptionally well done.)

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This show is incredible. It’s funny, charming and full of such mystery. There are hidden clues throughout each episode which keep you guessing even after it’s over. I would say that this is easily a show meant for all audiences, especially adults. The best part about it is I am still trying to understand its hidden messages and clues. In regards to making his show, McHale stated in his interview,

It’s sort of a difficult show to make. The amount of musical variety, and we’re using real instruments for all the music, not synths; the backgrounds are so complicated; and the animation quality we wanted it to be a little bit higher, and that’s just not something that we can really sustain for a long ongoing series.

I highly recommend you go and watch this show from beginning to end. It is anything but predictable and the conclusion. . . well let’s just say it was extremely satisfying. Also, it would be wise to watch this show at least twice. The experience is entirely different the second time. I would say that this short miniseries is in its own right a masterpiece. Take it how you will, but I think this show will surprise you.

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Favorite Quote(s):

1. The Beast: Did you fetch for me – the Golden comb? –

Greg: Will that work? –

Beast: This is a honeycomb.

Greg: Golden comb of honey. [giggles]

Beast: Never mind that, Gregory. You’ve brought me the first two items a golden comb and a spool of silver thread.

Greg: It’s just spider web on a stick.

2. Beatrice: Okay, Wirt, I’ll admit it you seem like a pushover, but you’re not.

Wirt: Oh?

Beatrice: Deep down in your heart, you’re a stubborn jerk. When are you gonna give this up?

Wirt: Maybe never. Maybe I’ll never give this up.

3. Wirt: Um, Beatrice, w-why are you pretending I’m – this guy’s nephew?

Beatrice: We need money.

Wirt: You’re scamming him?

Beatrice: I was thinking more like – flat-out stealing from him.

Wirt: What? No way.

Beatrice: Why not? We already stole a horse.

Fred The Horse: Hey, guys.

Wirt: No, we didn’t. Fred’s a talking horse. He can do whatever he wants.

Fred: I want to steal.

Wirt: You guys are bonkers!

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