November 13th, 2018. Published on In The Loop.
There’s something special about a one-off miniseries: since they aren’t expected to keep an audience engaged for years and years, they have the right to be as niche, opportune, and experimental as they want without fear of tiring the audience out. It’s exactly this timely nature that makes Over the Garden Wall so magical. The ten-episode Cartoon Network show, which first aired four years ago, exists entirely inside its autumnal Americana world without straying into more traditionally “kid friendly” territory as other children’s shows might be want to do. Every detail from the cozy watercolor backgrounds, the paper-cut vignettes, and the longingly nostalgic music captures a feeling that is quintessentially October.
The story begins with Wirt (Elijah Wood), a chronically nervous and arty pre-teen, realizing that he and his little brother Greg (Collin Dean) have become lost in The Unknown, an ethereal forest containing everything from talking-pumpkin-harvest-festivals to a mysterious and ominous figure known only as “The Beast.” Greg is delightfully innocent and eccentric, and his older brother’s passive resentment towards him is both irksome and relatable. The relationship between brothers is expertly explored in Over the Garden Wall, but when we first meet the main characters, we are given no information about where they came from or where they were going before they were lost. At first, this lends the show a sense of fairytale whimsey, but in later episodes we are slowly clued in to the darker truth of the story. As Wirt and Greg slowly reveal that they don’t belong in this magical world, and are in fact just two kids from a normal American town who are trying to get home, the spooky Halloween theme suddenly gets darker and direr. It becomes a story about resentment, loss, fear, and love, all without losing the whimsy that drew you in in the first place.
Over the Garden Wall takes risks that most kids shows don’t. It allows itself to explore themes that may be dark, difficult, or even existential, but it does so with a child-like wonder that turns real-world fears into something that can be held at bay with a nightlight.