There are some shows that seem destined to slip through the cracks, that are so unique and ephemeral that it's difficult to believe that they really exist. Billed as Cartoon Network's first miniseries, "Over the Garden Wall" is one of these curiosities, telling one complete story in ten serialized ten-minute episodes. At first glance it looks like exactly the kind of content you'd expect from "Adventure Time" veteran Patrick McHale. Two young brothers, Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean) are lost in the woods and trying to get home. Their designs echo vintage illustrations from old volumes of children's stories, though their patter is very modern. Other characters they meet include a talking bluebird, Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), an intimidating Woodsman (Christopher Lloyd), and a genial horse (Fred Stoller). The villain of the piece is a sinister creature known as The Beast (Samuel Ramey).
What sets "Over the Garden Wall" apart is how beautifully realized its universe is, and the way the storytelling is handled. Each episode neatly parcels out a little information at a time, gradually revealing larger stakes and character details. Initially all you know about Wirt and Greg is that they wear funny hats, they're brothers, and they're lost. By the end of the last episode, there are satisfying explanations for everything, including a lot of the odd little conceits that abound in children's shows - like why Greg is always lugging around a frog and starts out the journey with his pants full of candy. There's also the atmosphere, which is never inappropriate for children, but mixes whimsy with a darker, more foreboding undercurrent of dread. It's fairy-tale like in the best sense, evoking both wonder and horror. I was surprised how dark and psychologically fraught the series got. At the same time it maintains a good balance of fun and silliness. Some installments are much lighter and more comedic, and even the grimmest ones will have a good laugh or two.
As an animation fan, I love the multiple references and homages to the older comics and cartoons of the 1920s and 30s. Many of the designs look like like they came straight out of old Max Fleischer "Betty Boop" shorts or early Disney "Silly Symphonies." One episode features a dream sequence that borrows heavily from "Little Nemo in Slumberland." Jazz and ragtime songs are incorporated into the narrative now and then, several with vocals by Jack Jones, evoking the era even further. The illusion isn't quite perfect, as the actual animation is very much the same quality as Cartoon Network's usual output - well designed, but a little static and a little flat. Though the characters have rubber hose limbs, they don't move like proper rubber hose characters. That's not to say that "Over the Garden Wall" isn't lovely to look at, but the budget constraints are very evident.
Aesthetics aside, the show's sensibilities are very modern, particularly the characters of Wirt, an insecure teenager who keeps questioning things that don't make sense to him, and Beatrice, the helpful bluebird whose slightly acerbic attitude doesn't quite match her cuddly exterior. Initially I thought they were a way to inject some self-aware, ironic dialogue aimed at amusing parents, but "Over the Garden Wall" actually makes the incongruity part of its story instead of just pointing it out. Picking up the little clues and foreshadowing from their asides and offhand comments is a lot of fun. On the other hand, my favorite character is the younger brother Greg, an eternally optimistic little boy whose behavior is completely universal and timeless. He makes up songs, changes the name of his frog every five minutes, and has an infectious never-say-die attitude that diffuses a lot of the creepier material.
Best of all, "Over the Garden Wall" feels exactly the right length. The running time is roughly the same as a feature film, but the episodic structure and the serialization give the creators a lot more space to explore the show's intriguing universe while digging into its secrets. Much of the same crew worked on "Adventure Time," and I've enjoyed the way that show has slowly built its mythology over the course of multiple seasons. However, the payoff has been extremely slow in coming. "Over the Garden Wall" wraps up everything in 100 minutes while still giving the viewer the feeling that they've come a long way with the characters.
I hope that Cartoon Network tries more experiments like this, and I hope that "Over the Garden Wall" manages to stick around in the public consciousness and reach a broader audience over time. Miniseries and special event programming like this can get lost in the shuffle because it doesn't fit any of the usual programming categories - you have to go back to things like "Clone Wars" or MTV's "Liquid Television" to find similar animated projects - and "Over the Garden Wall" is one that deserves to be remembered.