Big Eyes here,
This show is a few years old, but I noticed that it hasn’t been talked about very much on AICN, and felt like I had to share. Especially since it’s almost Halloween!
“Over the Garden Wall” is a mini series with a very Miyazaki-esque feel and fantastic music that premiered on Cartoon Network back in 2014. It seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, but that didn’t stop the quick rise of a cult following, and setting a higher bar for Halloween entertainment. It’s no surprise that Patrick McHale of Adventure Time directed and wrote for the show. Not only is it clever and fun to watch, but there are layers of depth that keeps you guessing about what is real and what isn't by the end of the last episode.
The series begins with Wirt (voiced by Elijah Wood) and his little brother Greg wandering, lost inside of the “unknown”, trying to find their way home. They come across the unusual Woodsman (Christopher LLoyd) who warns them of “The Beast” in the woods. They’re attacked by a creature, that they think is The Beast, until it is defeated. It turns out that it was a dog that had eaten a black turtle that turned it into this mad creature.
These turtles show up again in a basket in Auntie Whispers’ (Tim Curry) house, which she eats them, and more are hidden throughout the show but there is never a concrete in world explanation of what exactly they are. I could go into about how in Chinese mythology, a black turtle or tortoise symbolizes wisdom and longevity, and how when they reach a thousand years of age, they speak the language of the humans and can predicts the future, so perhaps the turtles exist in the show only as symbols of foreshadowing. But in an artbook for the show that came out last year, director Patrick McHale goes back and forth between saying the turtles represent imperfection and that they were thrown in there just for fun, and that also he never planned on explaining what the turtles actually mean. Perhaps it was just something personal that means something only to him.
After leaving The Woodsman, Wirt and Greg find themselves in a town full of pumpkin people who are actually reanimated skeletons on the inside. The people of the town invite the kids to stay with them, but they refuse. One townsman warns them that they will “join them one day”. This is one of the first real hints given in the show of exactly what The Unknown is, some form of the afterlife. Perhaps even an amalgam of many cultures’ mythologies having to do with the afterlife.
Wirt and Greg come across many others in their journey, all seemingly from different times ranging from the 1700s to the early 1900s. You see later in the show that Wirt and Greg themselves are easily from at least the late 1980s. Even though Wirt had made a mixtape for the girl he had a crush on, she didn’t have a tape player, which implies it could have happened as late as the early 2000s. Most of the innocent characters they come across in The Unknown are all dealing with issues that can easily reflect their personal burdens of the dead that need to be processed before they can move on. Those who couldn’t let go of their identities, a man who spent his life pursuing money over relationships, a teacher with unresolved feelings for a lover, and some other things that are left so vague, I can only speculate about.
The cursed blue bird that leads Wirt and Greg through The Unknown, Beatrice, seems to be one more of the souls with a burden that is having trouble coming to terms with something terrible she did to her family, who have all been turned into blue birds as well. Beatrice cannot face her family because of what she did, even if all they want for her is to come home. The curse must be some sort of metaphor reflecting how Beatrice had made some sort of mistake, betraying her family, in her previous life and she is having trouble coming to terms with it. Beatrice is very set on doing a good deed, thinking that will absolve her of what she has done to her family. Over time it goes from being just a job to her to helping Wirt and Greg because she genuinely she wants to. It’s the difference between doing good and being good, and in her mind, she was a bad person. This is what needed to happen before she could go back and face her family, to move on.
Wirt and Greg aren’t in The Unknown without reason, they too have their own unfinished business, moreso Wirt, though. He’s immature and cowardly, and fails to take care of his little brother on occasion. He was also sent to The Unknown while he was being too cowardly to tell someone his true feelings about them.
The Beast in “Over the Garden Wall’ is very mysterious. He seems to trick poor souls into giving up hope of ever moving on, so that their souls may rot in The Unknown, feeding him. When hope is lost and they submit, they begin turning into a specific kind of tree that produces oil for his lantern. The Beast controls the Woodsman by telling him that the soul of his daughter is inside of the lantern, and that he must keep the lantern lit to keep her alive, but really it is keeping The Beast alive
After Wirt and Greg come into the picture, The Beast moves to make Wirt his new lantern bearer. However, when The Beast is about to execute the final steps of his plan, Wirt had grown during his time in The Unknown, and he had become immune to The Beast’s trickery. Just before he is defeated, we briefly get to see what The Beast actually looks like, and it is terrifying. Wirt and Greg peacefully walk back into the woods.
Then, Wirt and Greg are rescued from the river they had landed in after falling off of a garden wall, and wake up in the hospital. It seems as though everything was just a dream, but then Greg makes a reference to their adventure, and shakes his pet frog which still contains Auntie Whispers’ bell. Until all of this happens at the end, you don’t really question the true reality of the events throughout the entire show. The brothers had a shared near death experience in the river, and leave better people than they were when they entered.
“Over the Garden Wall” is a beautifully put together and well thought out series, and I highly recommend making it a part of your yearly Halloween traditions.
Animation geekette out!