Humans are strange creatures. The adults of the species even more so. We spend our lives dipping into a state of fear; fear of the past, fear of the future, fear of the unknown. As children, these things pass us by. We are too busy clutching at teddy-bears, wondering about the monsters under our beds and being scared of the dark. Blissfully unaware of the existential horrors waiting to scare us as the years go by, instead we watch cartoons.
As adults, many of us turn back to cartoons. Perhaps it’s because of fear. Animation is often comforting, easy. Sometimes, it offers us a safe-space to explore our fears and to meet the monsters that were once terrifying and now, within this animated environment, fascinating. But some cartoons manage to cross these boundaries. Cartoons like Patrick McHale’s miniseries Over the Garden Wall.
A favourite of so many cartoon-fans, this 2014 series manages to achieve something I have seen few within the genre do: it evokes nostalgia on your very first watch. The series follows the journey of Greg and Wirt who find themselves lost in a place known only as the Unknown. Searching for the way home, they meet an assortment of weird and wonderful characters, fall into impossibly absurd situations, and are unknowingly stalked by the terrible Beast that lurks in the darkness.
The story and setting are immediately evocative of folktales which in turn creates one level of nostalgia, although for most people, their interactions with folklore are mediated through other animation as stories from writers such as Hans Christian Anderson fall into public domain. So, is that why Over the Garden Wall feels so familiar – or does it go deeper, exploring why it is that we love a good folk tale?
Postmodernism is ripe within cartoons. For better or worse, many shows rely on the subversion of mainstream conventions regarding narrative, characterisation, or design to tell their stories. Consider Dreamworks’ Shrek; it’s an adventure-comedy where both the adventure and the comedy only work because it upturns everything you might expect of a fairytale. More recently this was done in Netflix’s Disenchantment, where the typical princess lead is more comfortable downing pints than doting on princes.
While postmodern folktales reject the beautiful simplicity and familiarity of traditional folklore in order to achieve their effect, Over the Garden Wall rejects postmodernist trends; instead embracing folkloric tropes to effectively weave a complex thread of themes that is unique and yet uncannily familiar. One such trope is the ‘cautionary tale’. These stories lean into subjects darker than you would expect to one day see on Cartoon Network, but Over the Garden Wall was unafraid to delve into themes of prejudice, ephemerality, and death. It subverts subversion and tells a tale to match the Brothers Grimm.
The show’s traditional elements are supported by an old-fashioned aesthetic that further rejects postmodernist trends. It doesn’t blend modern buildings or structures into its world, instead it creates something that Sean Edgar describes as “both timeless and unique” in The Art of Over the Garden Wall. New England landscapes, Victorian chromolithography, and vintage Halloween postcards all influenced the show’s design and consequently create an otherness that is unconsciously familiar.
These influences manifest in Over the Garden Wall’s characters and backgrounds – full of clean lines and earthy tones, but go deeper still. Look closely at the lighting; at the mercy of the forest around them, Wirt, Greg, and their surroundings are lit only with candles or torches as the Autumn sun is quick to leave them in darkness as they continue in their search for home. Its final effect is flawless, conjuring romantic images of simpler times, a stark contrast to the antiseptic brightness of modern day. Few, if any, of us can identify with this modest way of life, but through its connections to the fairytales we grew up with it feels personal, intimate – nostalgic.
“Where are we?” asks Wirt, voiced with melodramatic angst by Elijah Wood, in the show’s opening scene. “In the wood,” replies Greg in the sweet sing-song voice of Collin Dean, completely unfazed by the obvious worry in his half-brother’s voice. This comical interaction embodies the relationship of Wirt and Greg throughout Over the Garden Wall. Their story is (deceptively) simple; it follows a basic journey structure as they wander in attempts to escape The Unknown, encountering all sorts of wonders and horrors as they go.
Its structure reinforces how fundamental the brother’s relationship is to this story. Whether they’re harvesting vegetables in Pottsfield or roaming haunted halls in Endicott Manor, they’re constantly teaching and learning from each other. Wirt’s anxiety at the world has to be calmed by Greg’s joy of life, just as Greg must understand that his positivity does not make him invulnerable. It comes back to the show’s dedication to folklore and its cautionary elements – only here they’re highlighted through oral storytelling traditions in the brothers’ conversations and the songs they sing.
Well, they only sing a few songs. Most of the time they listen. They listen to The Highwayman (Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton) mull over his chosen career in homage to the jazz of Cab Calloway, to Ms Langtree (Janet Klein) lament on her lost love inspired by Dixieland style, and even to The Beast (Samuel Ramey) as it sings a beautiful and terrible operatic piece calling forth wayward souls. Written for the show by The Blasting Company, the songs and score encompass the geographical and historical influences mingled throughout the Unknown. The lyrics reveal the show’s dark themes while the blend of musical inspirations continue the trend of new nostalgia in Over the Garden Wall. Altogether the music is strange and new, but within it are strands of familiar melodies and songs we’ve heard before, but can’t quite place.
Folktales are spectacular things. They take you through spaces of transformation, places where boundaries can be crossed, all in the knowledge that the characters will make it out of the woods more self-aware, more knowledgeable. Over the Garden Wall is a spectacular thing. It trusts the audience to understand these folkloric traditions and encourages them to let down their guard and be at once frightened and protected.
The show reminds us why we love folktales. We are fascinated by The Beast as much as we fear him, we mull on the ephemerality of Autumn and childhood as much as we remember the joy of being young. We allow ourselves to wonder whether The Unknown is a place between the dreaming and waking world, or even between life and death, while settling in and relaxing in the modest beauty of the woods. Folklore allows all these things to exist at once.
Over the Garden Wall is a story that makes us nostalgic for things that only exist in our memory because of other stories. It doesn’t conjure images of our own childhood, but of ‘childhood’ itself: a time where our voices are all we need to create worlds and where fairytales don’t need to be upturned or parodied – they just need to have a happy ending. Over the Garden Wall has a happy ending. At least, that’s if you want it to.