And So It Begins.
I can already imagine the initial reaction to choosing a cartoon miniseries as my first submission to this little monthly project, and I understand the sense that this might be a cop out, but listen up. Over The Garden Wall was created by Patrick McHale, and released in November of 2014 by Cartoon Network over the course of two weeks as ten minute short animations. However, it is very clear from the tones and story present in the series, this show was intended to be viewed in October. Over The Garden Wall is spooky, dripping with the charm of autumn, darkly atmospheric and unafraid of confronting the viewer with their fears, both from childhood and those faced later in life. In my opinion, it sounds like the perfect way to kick off the month leading up to Halloween. So let's jump in.
At once the opening theme hits us with the style and nature of the miniseries. A slightly haunting tune is struck up on a piano....played by a frog, who proceeds to sing a melancholy tune over a collection of seemingly unrelated images including a forlorn young woman glancing at a bluebird, an assortment of odd wooden toys and...a girl plumbing the depths of a catacomb, standing before a wall of bones. Only repeat viewings of the show, or a sharp memory can reveal the meaning of each separate vignette, and the ties that link them together.
The two primary characters are introduced in the form of Wirt and Greg, voiced by Elijah Wood and Collin Dean. The oddly dressed siblings are first introduced wandering an autumn-stricken forest, laden with imagery reminiscent of Snow White's flight through the woods in the original Disney movie, seemingly with no memory of how they got there. Genre-savvy viewers may start to pick up on what the implications of this are, but the stage is set by these few lines. Wirt, the older sibling, is a poetic, self-obsessed young man who would rather ponder his place in the universe than watch his own feet in front of him, or his brothers for that matter. Greg on the other hand is still very juvenile, and frequently ends up endangering himself and Wirt through his own failure to grasp the seriousness of the situation, though his naviete can also help him see matters plainly and often comment on the root of a problem. Both characters are flawed, but realistic children, and it's easy to feel immediate sympathy for them.
Over the course of the first episode, “The Old Grist Mill” the backdrop of the mysterious wood known as The Unknown is set and a shadowy antagonist simply called “The Beast” is spoken of by the first face that the brothers meet, a burdened, weary woodsman voiced by Christopher Lloyd. He gives them shelter, though his exact intentions are unclear. The atmosphere is eerie, but not entirely out of place for a cartoon. Then the first threat shows up.
This bug-eyed wolf pursues the boys like a storybook monster, abandoning the tropes of today's big bad wolf in favour of being scary as hell. The boys narrowly escape with their lives, but in the process, the mill that the Woodsman called home is destroyed. He seems distraught not at the destruction of his home, but in his sudden inability to produce oil from the wood of the ghoulish looking Aedlewood trees. The audience is reminded by The Woodsman's diatribes that while Greg was little help against the real danger of the wolf, it was Wirt's inattentiveness that allowed Greg to wander away in the first place. The Boys disappear into the woods again, heeding a final warning to beware the unknown, and fear The Beast.
Over the course of the next few episodes, the tone of the show begins to become very apparent. Over The Garden Wall is very reminiscent of German opera and fairy tales, from the themes of endangered children wandering the woods, the supernatural elements that haunt the boys throughout their journey, to the very musical world that the show takes place in. There is also a sense of Washington Irving Americana, with most characters dressed in 18th-19th century clothes and a sense of Colonial to Victorian Era design to buildings and technology. One half expects to see Ichabod Crane or Rip Van Wnikle wandering between the trees alongside the other characters. The Unknown is definitely a very otherworldy place, but has it's roots in our reality.
If there were still any doubts about the theme of the series, the next episode “Hard Times at the Huskin' Bee” can quickly put them to rest. The entire episode features Wirt and Greg entering brief indentured servitude for the people of Pottsfield, an odd community of farmers in the midst of a “harvest festival” where they dress as jack-o-lanterns, covering their bodies in hay. There is a sinister tone to the community, which finally reveals itself in the final act, when it turns out that the residents of Pottsfield are all animate corpses, represented as suitably cartoonish skeletons, recently exhumed and dressed in ceremonial attire. The attitude of the populous and their odd primarch Enoch is friendly and amicable, but the circumstances certainly add weight to simple comments such as “People don't really pass through Pottsfield” and Enoch's farewell “You'll be back to join us someday”
The notable change in episode 2 is the full introduction of Beatrice, a talking bluebird that has been following the boys since the first episode. She is snarky and bitter for a bluebird, and very clearly has her own agenda, insisting that she owes the boys a favour and determined to direct them to Adelaide, a woman of the woods that she claims can assist them. Beatrice often acts as the voice of blunt common sense, usually calling for progress and attempting to avoid contact with others out of fear of getting mixed up in problems. She is rarely listened to.
Chapter 3, “Schooltown Follies” is when the tone of the series starts to skip a bit. The sombre, spooky attitude of the previous chapters gives way to an adventure primarily centred around Greg's attempt to aid a musical schoolhouse while Wirt and Beatrice bicker in the background. The boys are wrapped up in a garish melodrama of lovers, an embittered father, a rogue gorilla and of course, the students. Who are animals. Forced into pants. Being taught to play music.
We can move on.
“Songs of The Dark Lantern” is just as musically inclined as the last episode, but gets a little more on track as Wirt and Greg take refuge in a tavern populated by townsfolk defined entirely by the tropes they fulfill. As The Tavernkeeper, The Toymaker and The Butcher all try to find Wirt's role and Beatrice runs afoul of the Woodsman, who Wirt discovers is linked to The Beast by the lantern he carries. The group finally escapes into the night on a talking horse (There's a lot going on here) and more information comes to light: The Beast is an entity who seeks lost travellers and transforms then into the tormented-looking trees that are found throughout the forest, seemingly for the purpose of grinding them down into oil for the lantern the The Woodsman carries. For the bulk of the episode, The Woodsman himself is hinted at being The Beast, until the true Beast is finally introduced.
A chilling, entirely shadowed figure conjured straight from every nightmare I ever had about what might be under my bed. This...creature has power over The Woodsman, who grudgingly follows his orders for the sake of his daughter.
The other breakout moment of this episode is the song briefly sung by The Highwayman, another patron of the tavern. His bluesy voice, odd movements and even odder animation pays clear tribute to another definite influence on the development of Over The Garden Wall, namely old-school Fleischer cartoons starring the likes of Betty Boop (to whom the Tavern Keeper bears a passing resemblance). Do yourself a favour and watch the original animated video for Cab Calloway's Minnie the Moocher, and you will know exactly what I am talking about. This tribute to early animation fits with the rustic theme of the show and even some of the more outlandish moments of the series, like the cartoonish exploits of the anthropomorphized critters in the previous episode.
There is also the fact that Wirt and Greg are actually half-brothers, with Greg as the product of Wirt's stepfather. This small aspect alters the understanding of their relationship significantly, throwing to light the reluctance of Wirt to take responsibility for Greg, a brother that he, by all accounts, never asked for and has complicated feelings towards.
Things slow down again a tad for the next episode “Mad Love”, which is really just an excuse for John Cleese to be John Cleese. And that's enough excuse for anyone. Wirt masquerades as the nephew of an eccentric Tea Baron voiced by Cleese with Beatrice's help, searching around the equivalent of the Winchester Mystery House for means to continue their journey while Greg follows the Baron in his attempts to find the ghost that haunts an unknown wing of his mansion. The antics of the characters are slightly tinted by their implications, such as the Barons growing fear that there is no ghost, merely his own collapsing mental state, and the revelation that Beatrice wasn't always a bluebird. Her own stake in the journey becomes clearer as the matter of the haunted mansion is quaintly resolved and the travelers continue, thankfully bidding farewell to their talking horse companion.
I have neglected to mention the fourth member of the travelling party, Greg's frog, who's name changes on an episodic basis. It is simply because he doesn't service much, save to hold an object or croak at a humorously opportune moment. His relevance finally comes to light in “Frogland Lullaby”. The boys stowaway on a ferry peopled by frogs, and in an attempt to blend in with the ship's band, the frog displays a surprisingly melodious singing voice, provided by notable crooner Jack Jones.
The real point of the episode is the developing relationship between Wirt and Beatrice, and Beatrice's developing hesitance to go through with the plan to see Adelaide, for good reason. As their journey rolls to it's destination, Adelaide is revealed to not be the good witch that she was painted as. Beatrice was instructed to bring the ailing woman a servant in exchange for a pair of magical scissors that can lift the curse that transformed her and her family into birds in the first place. The deception is finally revealed, Adelaide discusses her plan to enslave the two boys and Beatrice finally rebels, accidentally killing the old witch rather gruesomely. This would all be quite potent if wasn't squeezed into a minute and a half of screen time. The pacing of the show suffers from the time it spent on the ferry with the frogs, leaving the actual plot to suffocate slightly. The takeaway at the end of the episode is that the group is split up as Beatrice is left alone and Wirt struggles with his shattered faith as they vanish back into the woods.
“The Ringing of the Bell” is arguably the most chilling episode of the series, featuring a despondent Wirt and oblivious Greg hiding in a house occupied by a frail girl named Lorna and her eerie Auntie Whispers, a looming matirach straight out of Spirited Away, voiced by Tim Curry. Hiding in the house beyond the knowledge of it's mistress, Wirt and Lorna grow close as they conspire to flee the house, away from Auntie Whispers and the arcane bell that she uses to control her niece. In a somewhat predictable twist, Lorna is revealed to be the true threat.
Again, I have to remind myself that this show was in some part intended for children.
Quick thinking and use of the bell allows the brothers to banish the evil spirit that possesses Lorna, though the question of why Auntie Whispers never attempted this remains unanswered. Lorna and her Aunt are reunited and return home, leaving Wirt as lonely as ever. While Greg remains proactive, Wirt's will has begun to fade, as he becomes more and more lost within himself in the face of betrayal and even the briefest moments of comfort snatched away from him by the frightening gloom of The Unknown. All of this plays directly into the hands of The Beast, who watches them from afar, revelling in the loss of hope as The Woodsman looks on, weary and eager to protect the children, but powerless in the face of his daughter's plight.
“Babes in the Woods” is definitely the most tonally abstract of all the episodes, if only because most of it is a dream sequence. Though it could be argued that almost the entire series is an extended dream sequence, so take it as you will. Greg and Wirt, who at this point has abandoned all hope of ever returning home, take roost under a tree for the night and their own adventures begin to become diametrically opposed. Wirt surrenders to the unknown and begins to lose his temper in the face of Greg's optimism. As he sleeps and is drawn into the forest, Greg ascends to Cloud City, a dreamlike paradise in the sky, where the symbolism and metaphors begin to make themselves clear. While the Winsor McKay like “Nemo in Dreamland” quality of Greg's antics are surreal even for this series, it is clear that even as Wirt fitfully rests and Beatrice attempts to search for her friends, Greg is being offered a way out. But his sense of sibling responsibility causes him to refuse, instead choosing to take Wirt's place in The Beast's clutches before he is transformed into another tree. The episode ends on a very dark note, with Wirt nearly drowning in a frozen lake when tries to search for his missing brother, only to be saved by Beatrice. She calls for Greg as Wirt lies shivering in the boat of a passing fish(er) man as winter falls across the landscape.
“Into the Unknown” can be initially confusing, but finally reveals just how lost Greg and Wurt actually are. The entire episode is a prequel to the events of the series, showing Greg and Wurt as residents of the present day. Their odd clothing are actually Halloween costumes. Wirt is a high schooler with a crush on a girl named Sarah, prompting him to compose a mixtape for her, which his own insecurity prevents him from delivering to her. When it finds it's way into Sarah's pocket, Wirt and Greg attempt to reclaim it, fleeing into a cemetery. Things go south and the older brother's frustration towards his half-sibling and stepfather come to light. His rant is interrupted by an oncoming train and the two, plus the frog that Greg found, topple off of the tracks and into the water. Catching us up to where we are now.
If the previous episode wasn't enough to spell it out, this one should do it. We are watching an autumnal, animated version of The Divine Comedy. Wirt and Greg are both at death's door and venturing through their version of purgatory, held there by their own demons and sins. In “Babes in the Woods”, Greg was given a chance to ascend to heaven or even return to life, while Wurt was almost doomed to become imprisoned as a lost soul, in the hands of The Beast, a parallel for Satan if I've ever seen one. Now Greg has taken his place, Wirt's spirit's have been renewed in the face and the final episode begins.
“The Unknown” features every character confronting their fear in one way or another, as Wurt scrambles to find his brother. The Woodsman finally learns the source of the Aidlewood trees and picks a fight with The Beast while Greg begins to become a part of the forest. Wurt arrives and finally the mystery of the lantern is revealed. The Beast gives Wurt a simple bargain: Bear the Lantern in the Woodsman's place and keep it lit with oil, and The Beast will place Greg's spirit within it, keeping him alive. Wurt nearly agrees, until his memory of Lorna's bell makes him realize that things in the Unknown are often a lot simpler than they appear. He flatly refuses, deducing that The Beast is so concerned with keeping the flame lit because HIS soul resides within, uses the Woodsman's axe to free Greg and leave, no longer afraid. Disgusted by his own gullibility, furious at the deception, and resigned to finally returning to his empty house, The Woodsman finally blows out the light, plunging The Unknown into darkness.
Greg and Wurt were both held in The Unknown by their own demons. Greg's “sin” was minor from a mature stand point, as a simple act of petty theft, but his own guilt is enough for him to linger with his brother. He finally admits the theft, and leaves with Wurt, who has finally taken responsibility for his actions and accepted his brother and himself. He gives Beatrice the scissors that he stole from Adelaide (He was, admittedly upset with her) and both brothers are no longer looking for home. They are ready to go home.
The boys awaken in the hospital, back in their own world. It is left very unclear whether or not the two even remember their adventure, though both have clearly changed and matured. Wurt finally talks to Sarah, and the narrator assures us that all are satisfied and that the story is over. But as the series ends with another collection of shots, bookending Over The Garden Wall with the results of each character's choices and their own stories, the song reminds us that such tales are “The loveliest lies of all”.
How much of the story is true? Was The Unknown a real place, something ethereal or merely a dream that brought Wurt and his Stepbrother back into the living world? There is plenty to discuss about a series like this. It is a spooky, well-made journey into a place of metaphor and tribute to days gone by. Highly recommended as a seasonal viewing, though I suggest spacing each episode out a tad to give yourself time to think.
Such concludes my first Halloween review. I can promise you that they wont all be as long or as deep as this one, but it was a lot of material to process. Horror and Halloween films of varying quality are sure to show up here in the coming days, and I've got only 30 more to go.