Over the Garden Wall

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For my second post on television, I thought I would dive once again into the world of children’s cartoons by discussing Over the Garden Wall. This Emmy Award-winning mini-series, which first aired in 2014, has so much heart and soul that it feels as timeless as the fables which it was inspired by.

Wirt (Elijah Wood) and his loveable younger brother Greg (Collin Dean) are two boys trying to find their way home after becoming lost in the woods. On their travels, they encounter a mysterious Woodsman (Christopher Lloyd) who offers to shelter the boys from the shadowy Beast that lurks in said woodland. Wirt, believing the Woodsman to be crazy, rejects his help and decides to find his own way home. While escaping form the Woodsman’s abode, Wirt and Greg accidentally come across the Beast, barely managing to escape its clutches.

Soon after, the brothers are greeted by a talking bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey). She suggests that they visit Lady Adelaide, a reclusive old woman who, she claims, can lead Greg and Wirt back home. Along their ten-episode adventure, the trio – along with Greg’s pet frog, who is constantly being renamed – meet with a number of unusual characters, changing lives for the better as they do. And, by journey’s end, their own lives have been changed too.

Cartoon Network has been blessed with a number of outstanding programmes over the past few years, including Adventure Time, Steven Universe and We Bare Bears to name but a few. Given these shows are wildly popular, the temptation would be to apply their warm, friendly demeanours to this series. Instead, Over the Garden Wall deviates from their formula by utilising frames coloured with autumn hues, a soundtrack performed by a ragtime band and having a slower, less exaggerated style of animation.

This unconventional approach works brilliantly in the show’s favour. The animation, which was inspired by the illustrations in 19th century children’s literature, is nothing short of gorgeous. To me, the drawings are seemingly a fusion of Cartoon Network’s programming and the animated shorts of the early-to-mid 20th century. That same vibe comes across in the music, aiding the animation in creating that nostalgic, yet contemporary tone.

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Characters left-to-right: Fred the Horse, Qunicy Endicott, Greg, Wirt and Beatrice.

One of the biggest surprises of Over the Garden Wall – to this writer, anyway – is how wonderful the voice cast is. Usually when an animated film or television programme secures a famous actor, they fail to apply themselves to their character, with their voice becoming overly prominent. Here, even though their voices are recognisable, it isn’t “Elijah Wood” or “Christopher Lloyd” speaking – instead it’s their respective characters, Wirt and the Woodsman who one can hear.

There are two other examples in this series of A-list celebrities with exemplary vocal talents, both of which happen to be Britons. The first example is John Cleese, who many will recognise from the comedy troupe Monty Python or the sitcom Fawlty Towers. His gleeful, ecstatic voice is enough to bring a grin to anyone’s face, leaving one to wonder why it isn’t heard more often. The second is Tim Curry, who makes a memorable guest appearance as Auntie Whispers.

Over the Garden Wall is pretty much faultless, but there is one factor which is particularly irksome. The show’s creators, cast and fan-base have all described the series as a fairy tale, to which I cannot see a firm connection. The stories written for each episode are wholly original, rather than retellings of classic narratives, while the central plot – that is, Wirt and Greg’s journey home – takes a familiar storytelling trope and subverts it in a way which is fresh and inventive.

Maybe it’s best to view Over the Garden Wall not as a fairy tale but as a pastiche of those tales of old. Even then, a summary like that doesn’t begin to acknowledge just how brilliant this series is. Its animation, writing, soundtrack and voice cast are brimming with charm, all combining to make the series a very, VERY deserving Emmy winner.

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