Film/Mini-Series Review: Over the Garden Wall

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Since this past year, I’ve been slacking off on watching various shows/movies.  Sounds kinda funny considering I’m all about reviewing movies and shows too, right?  Needless to say, I’ve been catching up on tons of content I’ve missed for a while; whether that be through video release or the divine gift to the masses that some people refer to as “Netflix”.  Among those things was a charming animated dark faerie tale called “Over the Garden Wall.”  This mini-series/movie (either works, depending on who you ask) involves two boys lost in a strange otherworld full of anachronistic people, horrible creatures, and some really catchy music numbers.

It’s not exactly easy to nail down what Over the Garden Wall is.  Is it comical or dramatic?  Is it merely an homage to the works of yesteryear or the expectation of tomorrow?  Is it a tongue-in-cheek folktale or something right out of The Twilight Zone?  And this doesn’t even cover a lot of the mini-series’ countless mysteries that countless fans are still trying to figure out.  That combined with the questions above, people are still coming back for more.  From a small cult hit to a recognized Emmy winning masterpiece, it’s likely one that will endure for a while yet.  But this begs the question, why?  Well, I’ll certainly do my best to try to figure it out!

NOTE:  This review contains heavy spoilers.  While this mini-series has been out for almost a year and was recently released on DVD, you have been warned.

Over The Garden Wall was envisioned a little over a decade ago while Patrick McHale was hired for shows like The Misadventures of Flapjack as well as Adventure Time.  While influences and other projects shine in his pilot from 2013, the special truly came to form in its final incarnation.  Still having that olden time aesthetic, mixed with various other bits of olden America, we see a bizarro afterworld come to life.  Different people from different ages live their lives seemingly in limbo over problems and ideas long since passed.  Beyond that, the characters feel dated but current in a way that makes them feel timeless.  Despite being anachronistic, it doesn’t feel like the content is lost in some bygone age.  Wirt acting like some of the icons of existential cinema (i.e. Woody Allen, Coen Brothers) meshed with the 19th century Eastern European inspired outfits reminds me of anachronism mish-mosh of Adventure Time, but only a little.  That said, we all keep a little bit of what inspires us in our work, as everything is built off of something else.

As we start the series, we’re treated to a singing frog on piano telling us about a place made of old memories and faded dreams called “The Unknown” in the introduction.  Meanwhile, we see a somewhat surreal slideshow of various images detailing old memories or scenes from peoples’ pasts.  While it means little odd to first time watchers, coming back to this segment alone will provide a payoff they were waiting for.  Funny how a less linear version of set up and payoff works, huh?  It also draws the audience in more, urging them to keep looking for the many tidbits they probably missed the first or second time watching the program.

Keep your eyes peeled or you’ll miss something important!

Beyond encouraging the audience to revisit, it gets us ready for what to expect the first time around as well.  We’re treated to a world that while a bit colorful and cheerful at first glance is filled with brooding mystery and an aura of despair and tension.  Scenes of children at play and a circus jump to a grouping of creepy dolls (complete with a sinister sound within the music) and a puritan looking woman shuffling in a catacombs.  In a sense, that eerie yet charming juxtaposition is what this piece is all about.  We’re treated to tons of moments that are lighthearted and playful, especially from the Greg.  With his innocent and upbeat demeanor, he’s one of the few “points of light” in an otherwise pretty dark show.  One could say the truly catchy songs throughout the show also bring some light in the dark.  Many of the sequences are already delightful homages to classic moments in cartoon history, but the old timey style tunes are another layer of cake, so to speak.  Each masterfully sung to fit their respective environment, the audience is in a sense lulled into a false sense of security before the darkness creeps back in.  This balance of light and dark allows for a wide range of emotions.  Rather than being a creepy horror movie that continuously descends into darkness, we’re treated to plenty of heartwarming moments and wonderful gags.  Take the first episode, when the beast-possessed dog tries to attack   And rather than being goofy and silly sugar, we’re given some emotionally complex scenes.

One of the big themes about the show is unveiling secrets and the series is chock full of them.  While we learn many of the mysteries of the show by the end, there are still many more that are… well, still quite mysterious!  While the aforementioned intro tells us that the possessed dog belonged to Beatrice, the Mayor of Pottersville is a very festive guardian of the dead, the Steamboat ride was likely an imaginary story crafted by two boys long ago; there’s still a lot that makes us wonder.  Specifically, what the lives of the people who had those memories were like and how they became a part of this dark and misty wonderland of sorts.  Plus, keeping that mystery alive helps to spur the community onward to be creative, craft new ideas.  And hey, there’s nothing wrong with an expanded universe, because one day the “inmates are running the asylum,” to borrow from TVTropes.  But, it’s probably best if we keep coming up with ideas, rather spinning out endless spin-offs and sequels that will never live up to the original work’s legacy, to the point fans might turn on the creator and make better work.  Though, I suspect Patrick McHale won’t make the same mistakes that other fellow has.  Personally, I think an expanded universe might be a cool idea though, even though that might be retconned out of existence too.

Francis ranting about Disney owning Star Wars

(Please don’t hurt me, I’m just criticizing what I love as much as you folks!)

Digressing a bit, the universe of OTGW is both highly imaginative and quite engaging.  To me, it feels like a mix of old Americana art, Adventure Time and Silent Hill.  Maybe I’m saying that because we love to compare what we enjoy to other things we like.  All in all, it’s the perfect thing for the Autumn season.  Just as nature dies back into the dim doldrums of winter, we see a place of faded memories and worlds of the dead.  The world becomes even more interesting when it’s revealed to be a collage of sights going through the boys’ minds as they nearly drown in a lake they accidentally fell in.  However, there were plenty of things to suggest that it might have been an afterlife, such as the tea shop owner’s name on a tombstone in the cemetery.  In a sense, perhaps these restless spirits have just crafted up these own little worlds they continue to suffer in.  It’s a beautiful twisting of the nostalgia the culture of the United States has for “Americana”, a sort of idealized look at our cultural heritage as a nation.  In a strange way, the combination of being a purgatory of sorts with the patchwork Americana reminded me of the “Domains of Dread”, from the Ravenloft Setting for Dungeons & Dragons.  While not quite a world of the dead, Ravenloft is a realm where people create their own literal hells where the realms’ forces continue to torment them in true Gothic tragic villain fashion.

“Why did Tatyana have to fall for that jerkface Sergei and not me, Strahd? I’m such a nice guy!”

And speaking of the Gothic, the work itself is full of gloomy gothic fiction splendor, just look at the cast themselves.  Much like The Haunted Mansion/Phantom Manor, most of the spirits aren’t inherently malevolent.  The Dog from episode one was violent because it was panicked and looking for Beatrice.  The Woodsman wasn’t some axe wielding psycho like the kids first thought he was, he was in a desperate situation because he thought he was rescuing his daughter.  Even the creepy mayor of Pottersville isn’t bad at all, he just oversees and cares for the dead that pass onto that realm.  Just like the characters, we become played with by the theme of misconceptions.  By judging the characters one way, we too develop alongside them in a sense.  The only horrors that truly haunt this realm is a cruel witch who tricks and hexes those who come into her grasp and an even worse abomination known as “The Beast.”

The Beast

Or if you prefer, “Your nightmares for the next couple of nights!”

Now, it would be a shame if I didn’t dive more into the characters themselves.  While all the characters were pretty interesting for their own reasons, I found Wirt among the most interesting.  He’s very insecure, his obsessions and angst get the best of him, he doesn’t know what to do with himself sometimes.  And above all of this, he considers himself more mature and confident than Greg… even though that’s questionable.  Sure, Wirt is very intelligent, we can hear that in his speech and see that in his personal interests.  For one, he’s open about sharing his interest in architecture; whether that be in his chat with Beatrice or the many books sprawled throughout his room.  Greg on the other hand is pretty content with himself and he doesn’t want to shut himself in his own little box.  He does what he does because he wants to help, even if his good intentions sometimes fall apart.  When he sees Wirt obsessing over Sarah, he does what he can to get Sarah’s attention.  Meanwhile, Wirt plays his “woe is me” victim act, mumbling about Big Bad Jason… who turns out to be just a regular guy that Sarah likes to hang out with.  And to be honest, he seems dorkier than Wirt, plus he’s based off Patrick’s own adolescence too.  And just like Jason, Sarah just wants to live an average life like any other teenager.  That’s not to say they’re underdeveloped characters, they’re just a bunch of kids who wanna hang out and do fun stuff on Halloween… up until the cops scare them out of the graveyard.

Now, what changes Wirt is seeing what happened to the Woodsman, who also chases a delusional dream.  This helps him see through the Beast’s illusion that he’s not offering a deal to save Wirt’s brother, he’s tricking him into staying a victim while the Beast continues to flourish.  Just as the Woodsman finds out that his mission to protect his daughter was a lie, Wirt finds out that his girl chasing won’t lead him to happiness.  Forcing him out of his box by making him act responsible (keeping his brother from trouble) and broadening his mind to other possibilities (the many weird after worlds he encounters) helped him to realize this.  In the end, he’s a kid trying to find himself and his voice; much like the jaded and frustrated youth of Gen X (when the show is revealed to take place) and Gen Y, the current generation.

The other characters too deserve mention.  Most of them seem to be lost souls not quite sure what to do with themselves.  The school teacher has grown lonely as she thinks her love left her, when in reality he’s still obsessed with his old circus act.  The tea shop owner was too busy building and fearing ghosts (despite being one himself) to realize he had a neighbor this whole time.  Much like the Woodsman, Beatrice was a damned soul who was almost literally tethered to a sinister witch.  After realizing that both her plan to restore herself failed as well as seeing the boys nearly killed, she tries to atone for her sins by truly helping the boys on their journey out of this spirit world.

In a sense, Over The Garden Wall highlights some of the best parts of the new “Golden Age of Animation” that I could argue we are currently in.  While some could argue we saw spades of this from the late 1980s through the late 1990s, the generation that grew up on those works are now adults themselves, working in the animation world.  As a result, they too want to make animated works that challenge norms, push boundaries and above all, respecting their audience as smart.  Combine this with the push to incorporate more complex and mature themes while keeping various works friendly for a general audience and you have a medium showcasing what this art is truly capable of.  Shows like the Avatar series, Phineas and Ferb, Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Gravity Falls among many others embody animation are the result of this new animation boom.  To me, OTGW stacks up to those pretty nicely.  While it references all sorts of animation classics of past, but it truly fits in with some of the best of today.  Characters feel complex, have realistic drives and feel much more human than previous characters we’ve grown up with and loved for decades.  Plots have multiple layers and aren’t just simple start to finish storylines that lack depth.  They involve the characters in well thought out interactions with the world around them.  Plus, we’re delivered a wide variety of emotion.  We laugh with the characters, we cry with them, we even quake in terror with them at times too!  Not to mention, animation quality has improved as more time and investment has allowed for more unique styles as well as more fluid looking form, compared to the choppy crap spat out for the sake of toy line advertisements.

I’m sure I could go on and on about why I really enjoy this some more, but we’d be here forever.  All in all, you owe it to yourself to give this mini series a try.  I came skeptical and left totally loving it.  While I was expecting a slightly darker direction, involving Wirt taking up the lantern (and the Woodsman was just a future version of Wirt who lied to the past boys), I still like the ending… complete with the Frog earning his true name!  Perhaps if you sought out a straight up animated horror piece or a popcorn piece to veg out and have a few laughs over, this one might not be for you.  But, if a mix of oddball and dramatic is appealing or if you like dark fantasy faerie tales, you’ll love Over the Garden Wall.  Good night and see you in the Unknown!

Never eat potatoes and molasses, just don’t do it!

IMAGE SOURCES: “Francis”/Boogie2988, Over the Garden Wall, Dungeons & Dragons – Ravenloft

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