Nov 27, 2014

[TV] Over the Garden Wall

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Over the Garden Wall when buzz started to build around the web. I heard nothing about this project while it was in development and as a limited series it took a while before feedback from the first few episodes of this mini-series started to really get around. But when we finally took the time to watch the show, I have to admit that we were pretty much blown away.

It's hard to describe what exactly Over the Garden Wall is as a television experience, but it did invoke similar feelings to when Tobie and I first really sat down to watch Adventure Time. We knew that we were seeing something pretty amazing from a truly creative perspective, even though we couldn't quite articulate all the things that made us like the show so much.

This is no ordinary cartoon, especially from an American perspective. If anything, it feels like it carries a certain maturity and complexity that one more associates with Japanese anime like the works of Studio Ghibli and other groups. And this sort of storytelling is always welcome.

Synopsis: Over the Garden Wall is an animated TV mini-series created by Patrick McHale, whose previous work includes the role of creative director for the cartoon Adventure Time. The mini-series consists of ten roughly eleven-minute episodes that originally aired two-at-a-time on Cartoon Network.

The show is centered around the brothers Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean), who somehow become lost in a forest known as the Unknown. As they try to find their way home, they encounter a number of unusual characters. One of the first that they meet is a mysterious Woodsman (Christopher Lloyd), who warns them of a fearsome beast that roams the woods. They also meet Beatrice, a talking bluebird who later joins them as part of their little group.

Wirt is the older brother, and he seems rather unsure of himself for most of the series. Part of his story involves a girl that he has feelings for, although it's clear that she has no idea about this. Greg is the younger brother and he seems pretty random and carefree. Throughout the journey he's seen lugging around a frog, although he never quite decides on what to name it. And the Unknown isn't at all a normal forest with towns filled with pumpkin head people and a riverboat whose passengers are frogs all dressed rather formally.

The show plays out like a fairy tale, although definitely one of the darker ones. The mystery of the Beast that roams the Unknown is one of the major story elements that doesn't get fully explained until the end of the series. But it does drive things along quite well along with other narrative elements like the story of the Woodsman and the curse that Beatrice is trying to remove. As seemingly random each episode seems to be as each tells a fairly self-contained story, each episode also builds on the established mythos and reveals even more of the greater story.

The series also features quite a number of songs, but I suppose that should be expected from a series that shares creative influences with Adventure Time. And they're quite lovely (or even at times disturbing) but overall they're a lot of fun. I swear, songs like "Potatoes and Molasses" are some major earworms that can never get out of my head without a few more repetitions.

From the art style to the character design, I can't help but think of Studio Ghibli's fantastical worlds. There's that eerie sense of strangeness inherent to the universe given how the Unknown seems to be a mix of the familiar and the peculiar. But despite how strange everyone is in the Unknown, they're all just living their lives. And thus you're forced to accept that everything is perfectly normal such as that everyone has a role in the town (like the Highway Man) or that frogs that riverboat rides.

One thing that I never fully figured out was way the entire series seems to be in soft focus - you can see a slight blurring around the edges of every episode. Things take a major shift in Episode 9 as things are explained and I thought the soft focus would eventually go away - but it never does. What do you think it means?

Over the Garden Wall is a fascinating little piece of dark fantasy wrapped up in the absurd and the crazy. It's a magical piece of animation that may not seem all that sophisticated at first glance up until the story really sucks you in. Thus the series as a whole more than deserves a full 5 servings of potatoes and molasses out of 5.

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