The dominant understanding of animation is that the medium exists in two distinct forms based on the work’s target audience. Children’s entertainment is made by the likes of Cartoon Network and Disney, while adult animation mostly exists on network television, with a hard line between the two types (think Looney Tunes vs something like South Park). However, the last ten years or so of animation has ushered in a new style of animation aimed not at a single demographic, but rather designed to be enjoyed equally by both young and old viewers alike. Certainly, plenty of children’s films include jokes aimed at adults, however the type of animated work I am referencing here is created from the ground up with both children and adults in mind; enter Cartoon Network’s 2014 miniseries Over the Garden Wall.
Set in a mysterious land only ever identified as the Unknown, half-brothers Wirt and Greg begin the series lost, with no memory of how they got there in the first place. Their time in the Unknown is spent meeting and helping locals all while trying to get back home. However, their journey home becomes threatened when they learn a mysterious force referred to as the Beast is reported to be stalking them, intent on trapping their souls in the Unknown.
While the main characters of the show are well written and relatable, the real star of Over the Garden Wall is the well-developed and thoughtful world the characters inhabit. Each location Wirt and Greg visit implies so much more information than it should be able to fit into each 12-minute episode through its intricate visuals and excellent writing. This creates a sense of longing that begs the viewer to stay in the folksy red, yellow and brown world of the Unknown for as long as possible, despite the show’s writers having the foresight and restraint to understand when to end Wirt and Greg’s journey as to maintain a satisfactory and holistic story.
On a surface level reading, younger audiences will find great lessons to take away from the show, like the importance of balancing self-confidence with the ability to ask for help from others. But a more nuanced interpretation from older viewers will be able to draw out messages about death, identity and most clearly, the loss of innocence in the transition from childhood to young adulthood.
Dense with references and allusions to great literary works by the likes of Shakespeare, Kierkegaard and Alighieri, Over the Garden Wall is so much more than just a cartoon. It is a universally enjoyable piece of fiction designed to enrich each and every person who takes the time to engage critically with its story. A viewing of the miniseries is an annual fall time tradition in my household and with its recent addition to HBO Max, I would invite you to do the same. – 5/5 stars