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Review: “Over the Garden Wall” UK Premiere: Tests Your Courage, Respects Your Brain

Over the Garden Wall
Surprising secrets are revealed about the Unknown.

Over the Garden WallThe phrase ‘family entertainment’ has become somewhat awkward to modern audiences. Although meant to suggest that a production can be enjoyed by all ages, it’s come to usually refer to something aimed almost entirely at the mentality of children, with maybe some ‘over their head’ jokes to keep the accompanying adults awake. I highlight this because I believe Over the Garden Wall encapsulates what the term should mean ideally.

Older brother Wirt and younger brother Gregory find themselves wandering lost through the woods. The pair happen across an old, sinister woodsman who points them in the right direction but emphatically warns them to beware of ‘the beast’ lurking amongst the trees and shadows. Thus begins a journey for the mismatched siblings as the encounter unforgettable sights and personalities on their journey home, where magic and darkness are never far behind.

Cartoon Network is currently in the middle of a creative renaissance. After slipping viewers overseas led to some ill advised choices in programming, the network is finally back on track for delivering entertaining and unique animation with a clear vision, much as they did in the late 90s with the fondly remembered Cartoon Cartoons. Over the Garden Wall stands as a testament to this. The five-part mini-series that will air in the UK every night at 6pm this week is the creation of Patrick McHale. McHale’s previous credits for the network include involvement with The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack and Adventure Time, and his work on those gives an idea of what to expect here.

Over the Garden WallWhat results is a hybrid of Cartoon Network at their current challenging best, combined with the Studio Ghibli films of Hayao Miyazaki.  At the same time I feel that comparison isn’t fully fair, because nothing in the series struck me as being so ‘patchwork,’ for want of a better term. Americana is certainly an influence on the production, but what we get feels unique, inventive and memorable, not mere cultural mimicry.

The heart of the story is the brothers attempting to find their way home as they traverse through the realm of the literal Unknown, and the two are delightfully structured to play off one another. Older brother Wirt (Elijah Wood) is a cynical bohemian who often over-thinks situations. He is the exact opposite of the optimistic and impulsive Gregory (Collin Dean) who bounces through life with distracted ease. It’s a family situation that many will be able to relate to, but never falls into artificial melodrama. Wood and Dean display a sincere rapport as actors that makes the characters believable as brothers from their very first lines. Wood instils a vulnerable, loveable heart into Wirt, but relative newcomer Dean is highly deserving of praise. For obvious reasons, child actors usually don’t quite have the best chops in a production, but Dean does very well. For the silly things he often has to say, there’s an awareness of actor’s nuance in his performance. It really helps a character that could have become irritating works because both script and actor are working in tandem.

Over the Garden WallThe journey itself is a visual and audio treat as we get to see some lovingly created realms and characters voiced by some top acting talent. I don’t want to give too much away as I genuinely feel that the magic and mystery is a big part of the show’s charm but expect to encounter players voiced by the likes of Christopher Lloyd, Melanie Lynskey, John Cleese, Tim Curry and more. I should perhaps warn that the series is certainly willing to dip into scary. This is where I feel McHale’s involvement with Flapjack and Adventure Time is particularly relevant, as the story knows how to balance genuinely scary and sinister moments with humorous ones. I’d caution that very young children might not be ready for it just yet, but to elaborate on my view that Over the Garden Wall is genuine entertainment for the whole family, I watched it in a screening full of adults and children of various ages…and they all loved it. The scary moments had people on the edge of their seats and the comedy moments had them laughing out loud. Even the odd joke that aims more for older viewers is never done to the exclusion of younger ones. It’s smart writing, not demographic box ticking.

Over the Garden Wall is really the kind of project I’d like to encourage. The mini-series format works well in telling a concise but far-ranging story, with every aspect from the animation to the scripting to the music really bringing its A-game. With the early evening time slot every day for the next five days, I really hope that this is something that families can sit down together for each night and enjoy. It’s a great example of what family entertainment should be and one of the most memorable and charming works of animation I’ve ever seen.

Over the Garden Wall airs exclusively on Cartoon Network UK every weeknight this week at 6pm.