What is a good animated series? The history of television animation is plagued with stigma and critical dismissiveness. From the “limited animation” of the cheaper than cheap Hanna Barbera productions of the fifties and sixties, to the eighties boom of series designed explicitly to sell toys (think of He-Man, or Transformers), the genre has been traditionally cheap, and creatively uninspired. That was until the rise of cable and the early nineties boom of television. Not only were we spending more money on these series, but we were starting to see what could be described as “auteur cartoons”.
I mean, if you think about it, there are fewer clearer authorial visions than the manic nastiness of Ren and Stimpy, or the noir aesthetic of Batman: The Animated Series. This nourishment of television authors interested in animation has continued ever since. The best example of the richness of our current cartoon landscape is the hugely popular Adventure Time, which is as funny and entertaining as it is a hugely detailed and inventive exercise in world-building. Even more excitingly, though, is the recent premiere of Over the Garden Wall, an animated miniseries that might (and I hope it does) start a new era of animated storytelling on television.
“A miniseries?” You might ask, and I wouldn’t blame you, I think there is very little precedent for such a thing as an animated miniseries in television history. Part of the reason for this is the fact that much of the financial value of cartoons for a network lies in the possibility -assuming that children are more open to repetition than adult viewers- of re-airing episodes over and over again. The closest thing to the Over the Garden Wall model that I can think of is the Star Wars: Clone Wars shorts produced by Genndy Tartakovsky and Cartoon Network as a way to bridge the gap between the theatrical releases of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, but even then, the “miniseries” was based on an enormously popular (and commercially bankable) property.
Over the Garden Wall, on the other hand, is as unique and personal a vision as I have seen on any medium this year. The creator is Patrick McHale, who actually worked as creative director on the first two seasons of Adventure Time, and he tells us the story of two young brothers -anxious thirteen-year-old Wirt (Elijah Wood) and oblivious Greg (Collin Dean)- as they travel through the woods (a.k.a. “The Unknown”) trying to find their way back home. There are many influences to the show: folk tales, harvest festivals, New England ghost stories, 19th Century music, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, old cartoons, and silent film; and somehow, it all comes together to form a beautiful tapestry of spooky Americana.
As the two boys travel, they get into small adventures, which are usually either scary, bizarre, or both. Weird is a word that is used a lot to describe something that is creative, or just different, but in the case of Over the Garden Wall, weirdness is the right word. The show’s old-timey aesthetic lends it an aura of creepiness, like an old run-down carnival from back in the day when kids where exposed to terrifying things on a daily basis. There is an edge to it, and there are certainly some legitimately scary moments, but the show is also really, really funny (although I will admit that you must be into its particular sense of humor).
The show features the voice talent of Melanie Lynskey, John Cleese, Tim Curry, and Christopher Lloyd in supporting roles, and composed by Josh Kaufman and Justin Rubenstein from The Petrojvic Blasting Company. While we are on the subject, the music on the show is amazing, the songs especially. An original song is featured in almost every episode. They are all lovely, and they all serve the show completely. That is ultimately the thing about Over the Garden Wall. It isn’t just a good show, it is the vision of an auteur. Pat McHale had something to tell. Something personal, that came from the deepest corners of his imagination. That is the only way we could have gotten something as unique as this miniseries.
Back when we only had three networks, television tried to appeal to the broadest possible demographic. It was all about producing something that everybody would like. The least risky, the better. I think there’s been somewhat of a shift in mainstream culture where this is concerned. Movies, have become the huge four-quadrants events, with giant tent-poles designed to attract all kinds of people, while cable has turned television into a landscape of niche auteurs. In a year of such flavorless disappointments as How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero 6 in the world of theatrical animation, it’s not only refreshing, but invigorating to find such a personal and exciting product as Over the Garden Wall being broadcast right into our living rooms. Here’s hoping this is just the beginning of a beautiful era of amazing programming.
You can watch Over the Garden Wall on Cartoon Network.com (depending on your cable provider). It is also available On Demand, or you can buy it on iTunes.