Saturday, October 3, 2015

RR Over the Garden Wall

It's that time of the year again, it's time for another HORROR-A-TON!!

Let's start on the right foot, and begin this Halloween Horror-themed month with an All-Age cartoon! That's right, you read that right.

One of my favorite surprises of this last few years, a genuinely good, decent and well-animated cartoon with surprisingly plenty of depth.

Name: Over the Garden Wall
Created by Patrick McHale
Original run November 2014
Genre Fantasy/Adventure/Comedy/Mystery animated series

Here is something quite unique, in that nobody expected such a show to ever come out of Cartoon Network, even though these last few years animation had been going through a renaissance of sorts with the likes of Adventure Time, Regular Show or Steven Universe nowdays. 

If anything it was Pendleton Ward's series that paved the way for a return of creativity and spontaneity we hadn't see on the channel since it's early days over a decade ago.

Over the Garden Wall was created by Patrick McHale for Cartoon Network. Unlike other shows, OtGW was most entirely handled at their studios in Burbank, California. Veteran CN figures Nick Cross served as art director and Nate Cash as supervising director on the series. Although they worked from their locations in New York and Chicago which the distance proved kind of difficult to work with for Patrick McHale.

Prior to that McHale worked on The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack and Adventure Time as a writer and a storyboard artist. At the time CN was wiling to have in-house artists pitch pilots from time to time, of course not all pilots lead to full series.

Over the Garden Wall was based on some prior work Patrick McHale had been working for a while. In fact he first imagined it back in 2004 for the previous generation of cartoons on CN. It was going to be a lot scarier, more adventure-oriented. The idea was to originally make a 3-season run as a cartoon series for Cartoon Network. But then to avoid the trappings of continuous larger story arcs and have a simple and clear goal at the end of his story, he envisioned his tale as Halloween special, a feature film instead. Finally it became a mini-series.

They produced first an animated short in 2013, a proof of the concept. Called "Tome of the Unknown". It was produced as part of a series of shorts Cartoon Network Studios made for possible program developments. The episode was actually sub-titled "Tome of the Unknown: Harvest Melody". It already featured our heroes Wirt (played by Elijah Wood!) and his young brother Gregory (Collin Dean) walking through a forest, looking for the big city in search of a mysterious book. Along the way they met some strange... people. This short was taken on several festivals before being finally greenlighted by Cartoon Network.

The series would finally be retitled "Over the Garden Wall", all 10 episodes would air through a single week starting on Halloween, through November 2014.

Over the Garden Wall was met with some great reception which finally opened the door to more miniseries on the network. It was the first miniseries on Cartoon Network, which allowed for more freedom compared to an ongoing series which would easily risk cancellation each year or draw on forever. They worked under far less pressure that way and didn't need to stretch the main plot for several seasons that way. In fact, since the success of OtGW Cartoon Network as actually announced an upcoming Adventure Time miniseries as well as a Long Live the Royals miniseries based on another scrapped pilot created 2013.

The actual Over the Garden Wall miniseries would finally set for a more friendly comedy/fantasy tone, which still kept its fair share of great creepy moments along some lighter and funnier situations. The series still revolves around our pair of siblings lost in the woods...

Over the Garden Wall begins with two half-brothers, Wirt and Greg, lost in the forest of "the Unknown", looking for a way back home in the big city. Greg is the carefree younger brother who really loves his new big brother that doesn't seem to care much for him and he keeps trying to find a new name for his nameless pet frog. Wirt is always worried about everything, every single details annoys him and he prefers to avoid to have to make any decisions. Wirt only seems to love his clarinet and poetry, but maybe he doesn't want to admit what he really cares about.

Traveling through the woods the siblings meet several characters such as this Woodsman (noneother than Christopher Lloyd) and Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey, originally voiced by Natasha Leggero in the original 2013 short), a talking bluebird. Beatrice is looking for this Adelaide who can undo her curse and return her back home in her original human form.

Oh, and there's also this mysterious Beast lurking in the shadows after the two brothers, some kind of ancient creature that "hunts lost souls" in the woods. 

They have all kind of adventures. They attacked by a creature they mistake for the Beast, and hide in an old oil mill. Beatrice join them as their guide. They reach what appears to be an abandoned small town at first, Pottsfield, there it turns out living pumpkins inhabit the town and are coming their for their harvest festival. Greg loses his frog, which leads them to a school full of animal students and they meet this sad teacher, Miss Langtree, that just lost (?) her boyfriend and her father seems to disapprove her lifestyle. Looking for Adelaide's house they ask for directions in a tavern where everybody gets to sing a song. They force Wirt to do the same. After that they meet wealthy recluse named Quincy Endicott who lives all alone in this huge haunted mansion, and he's apparently fallen in love with a ghost. They catch a ride aboard a ferry full of anthropomorphic frogs, so they are forced to disguise Greg's frog as a "person". One night Greg has a dream about a city in the clouds. The Beast finally catch up with them.

In the last episodes we finally find out how they got into the Unknown!
It is revealed this story was actually taking place in modern day all along (or in the 1990s-ysh at the very least). On an Halloween night, Wirt was trying to give a mix tape to this girl he likes. Long story short, they found themselves in a graveyard, ran scared when they heard the local police, got lost in the woods "over the garden wall" of the cemetery. They found themselves on some train tracks and ended up in the river trying to avoid the incoming train.

In the end they confront the Beast.

They wake up in the hospital, narrating the events of the show. Did all these adventures ever happen or not? Was anything real? It certainly seems so. Things seem to hint it all was just a near-death experience.

The show finally ends with a quick montage showing the aftermath of their different encounters, a resolution for the inhabitants of the Unknown as they are reunited with their friends and families.

Patrick McHale took a lot of care for his first cartoon. He wrote every single episode and storyboarded most of it too.

The entire series is heavily inspired by old folk stories, fantasy and its spirit evokes 19th–20th century Americana at heart. Most shows on Cartoon Network already have gorgeous backgrounds, but here they tried to make it look like old paintings. 

The story takes some cues from 19th century literature and folk tradition.

The show features the voice talents of Elijah Wood and Collin Dean as our returning protagonists from the pilot. Joined by Melanie Lynskey and Christopher Lloyd in the main roles. There's also
Jack Jones as Greg's Frog, Samuel Ramey as the imposing Beast, and also the always great Ashly Burch, John Cleese (!), Tim Curry (!!), Bebe Neuwirth and many more!

Over the Garden Wall allows a lot of room for interpretation.

On the surface it looks like most Cartoon Network series, part adventure, part comedy and most of all random. But it is also a very interesting exploration of dreams and their illogical nature. Embracing the bizarre. 

The show even dares explore some deeper themes through the various people Greg and Wirt meet. Our two young stepbrothers even have some issues. 

All the great talent involved in the show carefully crafted this tale that brought heroes from a dream turning into a nightmare. And it really holds on repeated viewings, getting to see the bigger picture and deeper connections between these characters and places.

The most notable parallel is with our heroes trapped in a form of "limbo". Throughout the series the woods are refereed to as a "land of the dead". After all, these different characters they meet appear to be lost souls (people they come across buried in that cemetery?). There's a lot of possible explanations and hints in the show, everybody seems to come from different periods of time. That's right, the show offers a very Faustian-like interpretation of the story, thanks to its carefully written mythology. In fact Beatrice takes her name from Dante's Devine Comedy, the guide that shows the path through hell. And you can also draw some easy comparisons with the Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland and their other worlds.

Over the Garden Wall is inspired by classic children folk stories.

It's a story about two brothers lost in a place between life and death. 

The story was well written and well thought. One of the episodes was actually cut from the show, but they would finally use the plot in the one-shot comic (more on that below). The original plan was much darker, the idea was to have Wirt remain stuck in the Unkown while Greg alone would make it back. Thankfully they didn't go that dark route. Patrick McHale also first thought about having the Beast actually trying to get them back home, once they decided to face their problems head on. Another interesting idea dropped on early on was to see our characters trapped in the Unknown on Halloween (as in the show), only to return back from there on Christmas.

Over the Garden Wall draws a lot of inspiration from classic folk music. The series features some fantastic music, a blend of classic American opera and folk songs. The music itself is a fantastic work of art in my eyes. It was composed by The Blasting Company. It ends up having such a huge impact and big role on the show, that's why most people even call this miniseries a musical (but there's not that many songs in my eyes, personally). We hear various old timey styles from classic songs to louder more Broadway-like singing.

All in all, it' a fantastic series Patrick McHale was able to make it its own experience. Over the Garden Wall can be funny and creepy. It's great, well animated. It was so different from Cartoon Network's usual programing, be it the other epic shows or the more zany random humor. Amazing. In a weird way, it sort of reminded me of the best original work that came from the Japanese Studio Ghibli, despite the different art direction. It was cute but can be pretty tense, the storytelling is well crafted and they had some amazing music production values. Overall, it was a great experience.

No surprise, the series would be nominated for all kinds of awards, and even won several of those. It won an Emmy Award for "Outstanding Animated Program".

Overall,Over the Garden Wall is a fantastic series.

A brilliant "Halloween" tale on the surface, in my eyes it's easily the best to have come out of "western animation" in over a decade, one of the best new creations to have come out of Cartoon Network recently and it is such a fun memorable ride!

I Highly Recommend to watch it, even if you're not that big a fan of American cartoons to begin with. It is a perfect tale to throw in the mix of an Halloween marathon.

And it's not that long, there aren't that many episodes so it's easy to go through the entire mini-series in a late night.

Long before the production of the long awaited DVD release, the series had been on high demand in all types of streaming services. A one-shot comic book adaptation penned by Patrick McHale himself was released at that time around the original run of the show. Thanks to its great success, new comics have since been announced in August 2015 by KaBoom!, an imprint of Boom! Studios. These companion comics are all supervised by McHale and illustrated by Jim Campbell, a storyboard artist on the series.television series. Telling tales set around the events of the miniseries.

The success of Over the Garden Wall has led CN to adopt this miniseries format for more upcoming projects. Which means they will now be open to greenlight more proposed pilots in a form much easier to produce. Like I wrote above, we already have a one-shot Adventure Time miniseries coming this fall and I can't wait what they will offer next.

I give it:
3 / 3 Felixes!

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