Over the Garden Wall: A feel good, binge-worthy show

Over the Garden Wall: A feel good, binge-worthy show

  This article was previously published in print on Dec. 05, 2023.  
There is so much magic and charm to be found in animation, but nowhere do I find more than in “Over the Garden Wall” (OTGW). The Emmy Award-winning ten-episode mini-series aired on Cartoon Network in 2014, and while it was not successful at garnering mass viewership, it did become a cult classic with a smaller, yet devoted fanbase. The warm sentiment and chilling atmosphere of the cartoon have solidified it as a perfect pick for a fall movie. 

This appropriate autumn recommendation can be watched with a subscription to Hulu. As mentioned before, OTGW consisted of ten short episodes in the entirety of its run, making the series about as limited as TV can be. Each episode had an approximate runtime of eleven minutes, allowing viewers to binge the entire show in just under two hours. The show’s reasonable runtime is one of the many positive aspects of the series, as it makes it an easy watch and even easier to recommend. If you have time for a movie, you have time for OTGW.

The critically acclaimed show was created by Patrick McHale and Katie Kentz, based on McHale’s 2013 short “Tome of the Unknown.” McHale wrote and directed the short, receiving critical success and accolades such as two Emmy awards for individual animators and Best Animated Short Film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. OTGW boasts a strong voice acting cast, with talent including Elijah Wood and Collin Dean as the main characters with supporting voices including Christopher Lloyd, Melanie Lynskey, Samuel Ramey, Tim Curry, John Cleese and many more. 

The cartoon has many literary elements that it uses as inspiration: namely, the poem “Inferno,” which is the first part of 14th-century Italian writer Dante Alighieri’s poetic epic “Divine Comedy.” The poem follows Dante’s journey through the nine layers of Hell, guided by Virgil, an ancient Roman poet. The premise of this poem as a journey through an afterlife becomes all the more apparent and meaningful upon a completed watch of OTGW. The series also has heavy American Gothic and dark fantasy elements that seep into the general feel of the series through its homage to classic 1900s animation and films. For a great compilation of the episodes and their direct inspirations, watch YouTuber Johnny 2 Cellos’ video “The Many Inspirations of “Over the Garden Wall”’ on YouTube. 

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The plot of OTGW follows two young brothers, Wirt and Gregory, as they adventure deeper and deeper into a strange land called “The Unknown” while trying to find their way home. The brothers encounter strange folk and even stranger creatures along their journey, from the cryptic old Woodsman who crosses their path in search of the oil from the Edelwood tree, to the young-girl-turned-bluebird named Beatrice who seems to guide the boys along their journey. 

Their adventures bring them from towns full of pumpkin-wearing skeletons to wind-up paddle boat passengers by clothed frogs, the lost young boys’ adventures growing ever stranger. They must also beware of the singing, ever-present Beast who resides in The Unknown, preying on and manipulating those who give up hope. Their episodic, random adventures culminate in a beautiful, mysterious and touching finale that bears many themes that viewers can enjoy, as well as learn from.

One thing the show portrays in great care is sibling and brotherly relationships. Wirt, the elder brother, is riddled with fears, anxieties and hopeless pessimism, while Greg, the fun-loving youngest child, faces every new thing they encounter with glowing excitement and copes with any hardships with his “Ain’t that just the way?” attitude and endless optimism. 

This dichotomy between the two brothers is not only an effective character dynamic but also has heavy roots in real-life interpersonal relationships. The show portrays what both sides of the coin have to offer each other: how the elder can use their knowledge and experience to protect, nurture and teach, and how the younger can share their unjaded light with the world for the betterment of those who can muster the strength to look into it. The realistic and touching portrayal of sibling dynamics and how they can learn and grow by using each other as examples is amazing to see in a piece like this.

Another highlight of OTGW is its atmosphere and ambiance. The format of a kid-friendly cartoon paired with creatures and threats that are sometimes quite menacing and scary, especially the Beast himself. The general randomness and air of mystery in the boys’ adventures paired with the audiences’ suspension of disbelief help create a remarkably charming yet eerie atmosphere, and it is beautiful. The art style and animation also helps further this effect. 

The animation for the assorted friendly characters is lovely and bears its influences in old-school animation, as does much of the show, reflected in its general tone and style. The more malevolent characters are also animated beautifully, while still retaining that old-school charm. The Beast is an especially effective character in the way he is animated, with his shadowy antlers and billowing, tattered robes blending him in with the dense forest and his glowing, watchful eyes peering through the dark evoking a perfect sense of menace and the fear of being watched. 

The animation is not the only factor that adds to what makes OTGW such an outstanding watch. The series has one of my all-time favorite twists near the finale that single-handedly answers a ton of questions raised by the series thus far, while also leaving many more to be answered on the audiences’ terms at the end of the show. Viewers are free to have their own interpretations of what the ending means or whether it means anything at all, and whatever their decision may be, the series remains entertaining and pleasant regardless. 

I struggle to believe that those who take the time to watch the series will not be touched by at least one aspect of it, whether it is the loveable characters, intriguing plot, touching messages of sibling love or just the laughs and smiles that it is sure to evoke. As autumn falls deeper into the cool winter months, I cannot stress enough how highly I recommend taking the time to watch “Over the Garden Wall” and start your own journey into the Unknown.


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