On November 3rd of 2014, an animated mini series called Over the Garden Wall was unceremoniously released onto Cartoon Network with almost no fanfare or hype, despite a cast which featured the likes of Elijah Wood, Christopher Lloyd, and John Cleese. The mini-series seemed to simply roll in with the autumn wind and ever since its brief 10-episode run from November 3rd to November 7th, it has become beloved as an autumnal re-watch, building legions of fans with each passing year. So what is it about this humble little “cottage-core” show that has caused it to amass such a massive fan base?
If you have never seen Over the Garden Wall, the story follows two children: Wirt (voiced Elijah Wood) and his much younger half-brother Gregory (voiced by Collin Dean), who have found themselves lost within a mysterious forest called “The Unknown”. With the aide of a talking bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), the boys try to find their way back home through the increasingly weird and spooky situations that each new environment thrusts them into. Each episode is structured around the trio wandering into a radically different area of The Unknown where they will encounter new characters, new problems to solve, and new clues to help solve the overarching mystery of the woods.
On paper that may seem like a fairly vague and possibly even “garden-variety” fairytale structure, but the success of Over the Garden Wall comes from its unique voice, proving that how a story is told is just as important as the story itself. Over the Garden Wall is primarily the brainchild of it’s creator and showrunner Patrick McHale, a man who was no stranger to the world of children’s animation or Cartoon Network for that matter. Prior to Over the Garden Wall, McHale had already built a strong relationship with Cartoon Network, previously working on such series as The Misadventures of Flapjack and the cultural phenomenon that was Adventure Time; a show whose style of humor and visual aesthetic still serves as the main influence on the landscape of modern children’s cartoons. It feels important to note Adventure Time, in particular, as it may be the closest comparison point that comes to mind when recommending this series. However, I would argue that the similarities between the two begin and end with their post-modern sense of humor, which bounces back and forth between being completely earnest one moment and joyfully flippant in the next. When it comes to their visual aesthetics, however, the two shows are night and day. Where Adventure Time’s art design is extremely modern, deploying its bright neon color palate to craft an environment so sugary it could give you a cavity, Over the Garden Wall is decidedly old-fashioned and familiar. Many fans have commented on their love for the atmosphere and art design of Over the Garden Wall, specifying that it manages to feel extremely familiar while remaining deceptively hard to identify what is so familiar about it. According to McHale, the show’s aesthetic was the culmination of a variety of different influences “including children’s books of the 1800s, folk art and American music from the early 20th century” (Day, 2014, para. 6). In a 2014 interview with the Los Angeles Times, McHale states “There are a lot of layouts borrowed from Gustav Doré . . . And also from Disney’s early ‘Alice’ shorts” (Day, 2014, para. 7).
For those who may be unaware Gustav Doré was a French illustrator renowned for wood-engraved illustrations. Some examples of his work can be seen in “The Divine Comedy” and “Paradise Lost”. As for the Disney Alice shorts’; in the 1920s, the Walt Disney company made shorts that were half live-action and half animated. Some other notable artistic influences are illustrations from old Hans Christian Andersen stories such as The Tinderbox, the “Dogville Comedies” shorts, vintage Halloween postcards, and chromolithography. All of these different visual influences become enmeshed to create the overall look of the show and it is truly astonishing how well each one fits together and serve to compliment each other. It is this level of care and detail that manages to serve the overall mood of the story; a seemingly warm and friendly mood that contains unexpected complexities and dimensions for both its characters and the story itself.
Visual Influences of Over the Garden Wall
One such added dimension is that the show takes on a noticeably darker tone with each episode, giving its protagonists real stakes and imbuing their circumstances with tangible weight. While a perfectly appropriate show for most families to watch together, there does tend to be some darker elements involving spooky situations or creepy looking monsters that may prove a bit too scary for some of the younger viewers. However, it is these surprisingly darker elements that make the program feel truly unique among much of today’s children’s programs; many of which avoid age-appropriate elements of suspense and horror all together for fear of negative backlash. This well intentioned choice can unfortunately result in content that talks down to children or patronizes them.
While the show arguably never strays too far into the Horror genre, it does allow itself to provide moments of true suspense and age-appropriate scares. This choice is one that is very much fitting with the subject matter of the show. McHale uses the more nightmarish imagery in a way that feels like he is acknowledging the roots of children’s fables from its earliest days. In fact, the majority of well-known children’s fairy tales are often greatly altered from the original versions which were often very horrific. (Look up the original versions of such stories as The Little Mermaid and Pinocchio if you don’t believe me.) While this is fun part of the show’s dynamic, the elements of horror would be nothing without the magic that lies at the heart of the story: the half-brothers Gregory and Wirt.
Moments of horror in Over the Garden Wall
Beyond the horror, beyond the humor, beyond the beautiful painted vistas of the show’s art direction; I believe that Over the Garden Wall has become a beloved piece of pop culture because of the story at its center: a story about the relationship between anxiety-ridden teenager Wirt and his silly, carefree, 5-year old brother Greg. There is something so simple, so elemental about their dynamic that their characters feel practically timeless. While much of their adventures has a humorous tone, the show does build to a truly cathartic and heartfelt conclusion which focuses heavily on the still newly burgeoning relationship between the two half-brothers. McHale and company do a truly great job developing such iconic new characters in Greg and Wirt that you instantly fall in love with; Greg in particular who was voiced by a real child which gives his character a special added layer of authenticity. In fact, even though seasoned veterans of the screen such as Wood and Lynskey deliver excellent performances, it is undeniably 9-year old Collin Dean (Greg) who steals the show.
In trying to synthesize why this mini-series has become a yearly re-watch for so many people, myself included, it is easy to see that there is a lot to love. It is genuinely funny for people of all ages; the art direction for the show is incredible; the central characters are lovable, and the performances are all top notch. But, if we are being completely honest, it’s also probably the fact that the show is brimming with Autumnal imagery and its the perfect thing to get you in the mood for the fall season.
So throw on your comfiest fall sweater, pour yourself some hot apple cider, and curl up with your family to start a new yearly ritual with this seasonal treat!
Day, P. K. (2014, October 3). ‘Over the Garden Wall’ gets lost in creator’s imagination. Retrieved September 21, 2022, from ‘Over the Garden Wall’ gets lost in creator’s imagination