Over the Garden Wall Is a Fairy Tale for the Adventure Time Generation
Patrick McHale’s 2014 miniseries Over the Garden Wall shares many traits with other critically-acclaimed children’s cartoons of its generation, such as Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time and Steven Universe, or the sorely-missed Gravity Falls on Disney XD. Like these other shows, Over the Garden Wall incorporates modern sensibilities into fantasy storytelling, telling tales of childhood empowerment and self-learning that showcase outlandish environments and odd, even grotesque, characters.
However, unlike these other shows, Over the Garden Wall is rooted firmly in a children’s story tradition that goes back more than a few decades. In fact, Over the Garden Wall draws on classic fairy tales and a lot of early modern storytelling tropes, from its Puritan America-inspired setting to the moral lessons it teaches to the grotesque and frightening villains it sets its heroes against. All this gives Over the Garden Wall a richer sense of tradition than any of its contemporaries.
Over the Garden Wall follows Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean), two half-brothers who get lost in the woods and eagerly hope to return home. They find a bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey) who promises to help them in their task by taking them to a woman named Adelaide, but they have to travel through the supernatural woods to do so. All the while, a Woodsman (Christopher Lloyd) warns them to be careful, as a monstrous figure known as the Beast (Samuel Ramey) stalks the woods and hopes to turn lost souls into Edelwood trees. The show is handsomely animated with designs drawing on pilgrim America and early-modern wood carvings. There’s a focus on earthy tones and rounded, stylized designs for the characters. There’s a fidelity to tradition here and traces of animation’s early styles in the way that Greg’s face is perfectly rounded, or the cartoonish anthropomorphization of the frog Greg carries with him.
The series consists of 10 episodes, each following Wirt and Greg as they enter a new community in the woods and have to help the residents of the community out of some conundrum in order to move on towards Adelaide and, eventually, home. Each community is odd, to say the least; in the second episode, they enter a farm populated by sentient pumpkins, who force them into manual labour as punishment for interrupting their harvest festival. In the sixth episode, they board a river ferry populated by clothed frogs and pose as the frogs’ evening band. These situations are an opportunity for fanciful animations and humour drawing on the bizarre juxtapositions between Wirt and Greg’s relative normalcy and the oddness of the woods’ denizens.
But they’re also an opportunity for moral lessons. Like most Cartoon Network shows, Over the Garden Wall concerns itself with lessons of character and self-actualization over external actions or social mores. For instance, just as Adventure Time forces Finn and Jake to compromise on their carefree desires and take responsibility in order to save the day, Over the Garden Wall forces Wirt and Greg to overcome their personal shortcomings in order to escape danger. Wirt, an inveterate worrywart, has difficulty making decisions, while Greg is lackadaisical, and even oblivious to the dangers around him. Each community they pass through requires them to overcome their foibles and grow as individuals, lending the show an undeniable modern bent in its focus on the individual and the identity of the self. Later episodes draw out these modern themes even further, clarifying who exactly Wirt and Greg are and how they came to be in their predicament.
However, Over the Garden Wall goes further than its modern contemporaries in capturing the moral centre of children’s stories. For one, the show demonstrates that good living is necessary not just for emotional health, but for physical safety and the betterment of the community. If Wirt and Greg do not learn the proper lesson, it’s not that they won’t be happy, it’s that they might not live. Bad behaviour is linked to danger, even death, showing a more objective form of morality than some other modern entertainment. As well, Wirt and Greg’s self-improvement leads to improvement in the world around them. In episode seven, Wirt finally learns to stand up for himself and in the process saves the life of a girl haunted by a demonic presence.
Invariably, as the show progresses, so do Wirt and Greg, and they leave each community a little better off than the last. This all eventually contributes to the defeat of the Beast and his corrupting influence on the Woodsman and others in the woods. The presence of the Beast complicates the morality of Over the Garden Wall even further than the moral consequences of Wirt and Greg’s actions. Although the show never delves into religion, there are obvious biblical overtones to the Beast’s presence and the show’s mode of storytelling as a whole. Each episode acts as a kind of fable or parable, using a simple narrative to convey moral lessons through bizarre, impossible situations.
As well, the Beast acts as a Satanic figure corrupting those around him, and the Woodsman a type of prophet who has been led astray by the Beast’s lies. To be fair, the lessons learned are not of the Puritan sense of many Christian fables (especially those of the early-modern period that Over the Garden Wall is riffing on), but there is a darkness to the lessons in Over the Garden Wall that is not present in other children’s shows of its sort.
All of this works perfectly in the setting Over the Garden Wall inhabits. The woods are a supernatural version of pilgrim America, where animals coexist with humans and spirits and ghouls haunt ordinary people. The characters would be perfectly at home in a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, such as “Young Goodman Brown” or “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” The darkness of the Beast is suggestive of the unwavering belief in the Devil held by the Puritan communities, while the wood’s supernatural power over its residents suggests the constant fear of Paganism’s power over civilization.
All this is to say that Over the Garden Wall is a work of complex moral storytelling, even if it shares so much of modern prestige animation’s sensibilities for humour and character. Its characters are distinctly modern—Wirt, in particular, is a teenager entirely of the 2010s—but so much of the show has a timeless appeal, drawing on centuries of American fables and their approach to moral lessons.
The show’s combination of old-fashioned fairy tale moralizing with modern humour and character lessons creates a show much more potent than most of its brethren. It has a staying power that’s not be underestimated. If people still watch Over the Garden Wall in 100 years and ponder its lessons, I won’t be surprised.
Over the Garden Wall (Cartoon Network, 2014)
Created by Patrick McHale; starring Elijah Wood, Collin Dean, Melanie Lynskey, Christopher Lloyd, Jack Jones, Samuel Ramey.