Features and Columns · TV

‘Over the Garden Wall’ Beautifully Challenges Childhood Hurt and Fear

‘Over the Garden Wall’ is a miraculous animated series that feels as if it’s always been a part of pop culture without feeling abhorrently stale.
Over The Garden Wall Cartoon
Cartoon Network Studios
By  · Published on October 31st, 2020

Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our weekly column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we wander into the woods and foolishly resist the dread uncovered Over the Garden Wall.

Grappling with fear is an essential component of existence and an all-encompassing battle as a child. There are monsters in the closet, under the bed, in the shadows, and in the hearts of others. The world is a swirling sandstorm of what-ifs. And the impossible knowledge of the future stunts most from acting on their aspirations. To do nothing is to remain safe from harm, both physical and psychological.

As we age, we pretend we’ve conquered fear, supplanting ideology atop the emotion to mask the jangling, shivering bones beneath our skin. The kids who stayed under the covers mature into sheepish followers of the status quo. The kids who kicked off their sheets and braved the immense chasm between bed and closet and flung open the door, exposing the dark to the light, develop into champions of change.

Over the Garden Wall presents two very different types of children. Wirt (voiced by Elijah Wood) is a quivering teen who obsessively considers every decision and the negative inevitabilities of every outcome. His younger half-brother Greg (voiced by Collin Dean) worries little, considers even less, and bounds down any path that reveals itself. Alone, neither would survive the peculiar and unfamiliar forest they’ve bumbled into. Together, with a little help from a talking bluebird, “The Unkown” bramble need not be their tomb.

The half-brothers challenge each other. Greg’s inability to contemplate doom even when seemingly staring into his assured destruction grates on Wirt’s carefully constructed neves. In return, Wirt is a mystery to Greg, who only wants his brother to be happy and cannot fathom the indecision that plagues the teen. Want something? Do something.

As they traverse the woods, Wirt and Greg continue to encounter impossible creatures and characters. We meet pumpkin people, fancy-dressed frogs, talking horses, and a circus performer imprisoned within a gorilla costume. There is also the Woodsman (Christopher Lloyd), who must keep the flame lit inside his lantern or his daughter’s soul will perish. He takes orders from the great shadow of this saga, The Beast, a nightmare entity who whispers soothing thoughts and makes large promises.

Created in 2014 by Adventure Time alum Patrick McHale, the ten-part Cartoon Network miniseries draws inspiration from Don Quixote, vintage Halloween cards, the bouncy linework of 1930s animated cartoons, the illustrations of John Tenniel, a 19th-century board game called Game of Frog Pond, and god-knows-what-else old-timey shinanigans. The cartoon appears paradoxically rooted in the past while emanating an utterly modern glee for absurdist fantasy. If Steven Universe, Regular Show, or Gravity Falls are your jam, Over the Garden Wall slots perfectly into place. Yet, it still manages to stand apart as something wholly original.

The series opens on a frog playing a piano swirling in empty blackness. A tune billows into song, the theme written by McHale and performed by Jack Jones. The lyrics are familiar and sound as if you heard them on your grandmother’s kitchen radio. You immediately question whether you read the book in elementary school. Didn’t your friend Beth slide you a copy when Mrs. G wasn’t looking?

“But where have we come?” Jones warbles. “And where shall we end? If dreams can’t come true, then why not pretend?”

With the introduction of one talking animal after another, followed by Wirt’s aghast condemnation, the viewer is asked to question the reality of the brothers’ situation. The thought is not there to dominate your mind, but the preposterousness of the realm aids you in adopting Greg’s carefree nature. Chillax, Wirt.

Judgment falls through observation. Fiction trains us to expect a hero’s rise. The fearful teen will gain his gumption. Hurry up already.

Greg is a delight. Through his comedy and blank optimism, we join his team first. We may relate to Wirt’s trepidation, but we don’t want to hang onto it for too long. We expect him to cast off his shackles of anxiety and become the big brother Greg needs. Whatever laughter we gain from him is tinged with mockery, a knowing self-mockery.

Entering the penultimate episode of Over the Garden Wall, we believe we comprehend The Unknown. It’s whimsical and purposefully obtuse, but that’s when McHale rips the carpet from under you. Via flashback, we come to learn the very real teenage relationship trauma that sent our heroes over the cemetery wall and into the nonsensical void.

Nothing more serious than a crush, but damn, is there anything more tormentful? The what-ifs of early romance torture most folks long into adulthood and will randomly spring to the forefront of their mind during the most random and inopportune moments of the day. Over the Garden Wall‘s secret origin slices into a wound that rarely scabs over.

Wirt desperately wants validation from Sara (Emily Brundige), mustering enough courage to trap his favorite bits of jazz and poetry onto a mixtape. However, his pluck ends there, especially with the appearance of the other suitor, Justin Funderberker (Cole Sanchez). With Wirt catatonic, Greg must act. He gets the tape where it needs to go, igniting Wirt’s final flight of terror, sending them over the wall where metaphor and magic can take over as teachers.

As we knew it would, as these stories go, Over the Garden Wall‘s final episode forces Wirt to confront his fear in the form of The Beast. He surpasses this stifling emotion by placing others (primarily Greg) ahead of himself. It’s a consideration or an equation– something Wirt has already mastered.

To not act, to cower from The Beast, would allow Greg to wither and die. It’s a negative thought so atrociously imaginable that Wirt shakily stands against evil. His love for his brother trumps his fear of everything else.

Love. Trumps. Fear.

There are countless sagas of children confronting the dangers of self-doubt and instinctive dread. Every generation needs a few dozen tales to gameplan real-world scenarios: The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, The Neverending Story, Moana, whatever. They’re dry-runs we take with us into adulthood, and if we’re smart enough, we continually replay them as a method of fortifying moral strength.

Over the Garden Wall is a cartoon destined to wriggle around your noodle. Every gag and jolt is recognizable. It sits snugly on the shelf with other children’s fables as if it was always there. The more, the merrier.

The universe is scary as hell, and it will never stop being so.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)