Dreams and the utterances of children share a strange sort of logic that’s just outside the average adults’ understanding. It’s clear that there is purpose behind the events of a dream or the babbling of a child, but we’re often hopelessly lost trying to figure out what that purpose is. This pre-conscious sensibility is incredibly hard for an adult to properly capture without drifting into the juvenile or the incoherent, which makes Cartoon Network’s Over the Garden Wall remarkable for nailing both dream logic and child logic so precisely. Now available on DVD, the 10-episode mini-series is bracing for being so refreshingly bizarre. It feels less like the average cartoon and more like some weird lucid dream (and, occasionally, nightmare) with intentions and purposes that are just outside the reach of our comprehension.
The series begins with the teenaged Wirt (Elijah Wood) and younger stepbrother Greg (Collin Dean) who suddenly realize that they are hopelessly lost in the woods. The rest of Over the Garden Wall deals with their journey home, and the strange characters they meet and events that befall them along the way. Among those characters are a husky-voiced woodsman (Christopher Lloyd) carrying a lantern and perpetually warning the boys to “beware the Beast,” and Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), a tart-tongued talking bluebird who claims to know how to get the boys home.
That’s about as useful as a plot synopsis can be for Over the Garden Wall, thought it’s not for a lack of events. Describing the plot of Over the Garden Wall is like trying to describe your dreams to someone else the next morning: you might be able to describe the outlandish things you saw in your head, but words will always fall short of the experience and what it meant to you at the time. As an experience, a dream is powerful and potent and important in a deep, personal sense, but trying to verbalize it makes it fade and slip right out of your grasp. You never do justice to your dreams in words; I doubt I could do any real justice to Over the Garden Wall‘s plot in mere words. In fact, I found it a bit disappointing when Over the Garden Wall backtracks enough to explain who the kids are and where they came from (and why Greg has been wearing a teapot on his head). The explanation turns out to be too mundane and also largely unnecessary; I think the series may even work better if you just skip episode 9 entirely, since there’s enough context given in the finale for you to figure out the rest.
OK, maybe not the teapot-on-the-head thing. But only because the explanation is such a beautiful expression of child logic and creativity that is hard for grown-ups to capture.
What is worth noting is the incredible talent on display in Over the Garden Wall. By stretching its budget over only 10 11-minute episodes rather than a full 26-episode season, Over the Garden Wall achieves a look that is incredibly lush and beautiful, with a variety in settings that wouldn’t be possible without a significant budget boost. The forest (aptly called “The Unknown”) and the assorted settlements that Wirt and Greg drift through are all wonderfully realized, blending elements that would be fantastic or unbelievable in the waking world, but which fit perfectly into the strange dream logic of Over the Garden Wall. Occasionally, that dream logic drifts powerfully into nightmare, especially in the ominous second episode “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee.” Harvest festivals and jack o’lanterns won’t ever quite be the same again, and while it’s easy to make a line like “you’ll join us someday” into something sinister, the context (and the fact that it’s never explained or followed up on) is absolutely hair-raising. If you are going to watch this with children, just be aware of how much spookiness they can take beforehand. Some kids will absolutely eat it up, while I suspect others won’t take to it at all.
Over the Garden Wall also sports an impressive roster of voice acting talent, anchored by Elijah Wood’s neurotic Wirt and Collin Dean’s free-spirited Greg. In addition to Christopher Lloyd and Melanie Lynskey (both terrific), a surprising array of acting talent were involved in the project, including Chris Isaak, John Cleese, Tim Curry, Shirley Jones, Fred Stoller, and Bebe Neuwirth. The fact that series creator Patrick McHale has cited American roots music as one inspiration explains why there’s usually at least one song per episode and why many of the supporting cast are singers, including Los Angeles-based Janet Klein as a slightly loopy schoolmarm, Grammy-winning singer Jack Jones as a frog (really), “Blind Boy” Paxton as a singing highwayman (in one of the series’ most daring animation experiments that pays off handsomely), and opera singer Samuel Ramey as…well, that would be telling. The music is one of the most charming and original elements to Over the Garden Wall, sourcing a variety of distinctively American folk traditions to craft a soundtrack that modulates between haunting, ethereal, winsome, and delightfully nonsensical, but is always beautiful. The vintage music is definitely one of the most distinctive elements in the mini-series, making the “Composer’s Cut” on the DVD the next best thing to an actual soundtrack release.
One other tidbit of note is that Over the Garden Wall definitely holds up to repeated viewings, but doesn’t really benefit from binge watching. Knowing what’s coming makes the first few moments of the mini-series take on all new meanings, and you can catch numerous dropped hints and clues disguised as throwaway lines or events. However, the loose structure of the overall series means that each episode doesn’t always link strongly to the next, so sitting through the whole thing in large gulps doesn’t really benefit the overall narrative. In this case, the storytelling disconnect created by the short and loosely connected episodes makes the whole thing feel like you’re drifting in and out like a dream anyway.
While I would have preferred Over the Garden Wall on Blu-ray, the DVD leaves very little to complain about. The anamorphic widescreen video still looks great when upscaled on a high-definition TV, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack brings out dialogue, sound effects, and music beautifully. It’s also nice that chapter stops are included so one can skip opening and closing credits; the 11-minute episodes are too short for a useful chapter stop anyway. Bonus features may not be numerous, but they are excellent, starting with the original short film “Tome of the Unknown” which drops Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice on their journey through the Unknown. Everything that makes Over the Garden Wall great is already in place here. The short featurette “Behind Over the Garden Wall” runs just under 10 minutes and is mostly puffy, but still worth watching for moments like Elijah Wood and Collin Dean recording the “To Adelaide” song or Jack Jones singing the title theme.
There is a feature-length commentary track with creator Patrick McHale and art director Nick Cross which is a little disappointing, though in hindsight this isn’t too surprising. It’s extremely low-key, focusing more on technical details and production than any kind of deeper analysis of what’s going on. This is probably for the best, since I think looking too hard at Over the Garden Wall would break the spell. However, this also means that there’s a good amount of dead air in the commentary track, and it’s also all too easy to get distracted by the on-screen events and ignore the commentary. The fact that Mr. McHale and Mr. Cross both joke about doing this themselves suggest that they’re as enraptured and mystified by their work as we are. The commentaries were also recorded per-episode rather than for the entire series all at once, and I wonder if this hurts the flow of discussion since the pair have to wind down and then spin back up every 11-minutes rather than building up some momentum. Remaining bonuses include an alternate title sequence, animatics for deleted sequences, and a “Composer’s Cut” soundtrack that contains only the music.
Cartoon Network truly is in the middle of a creative renaissance, giving animators their head and letting them push the medium forwards in fascinating ways. Some of the experiments work better than others, but credit is due for the fact that something like Over the Garden Wall was even commissioned in the first place. It’s the sort of thing that I doubt would have been greenlit even a few years ago, but the world of animation is better for its existence. Over the Garden Wall on DVD comes most highly recommended.