The Best Animated Series-es of 2014: Over the Garden Wall

If you’ve talked with me at any time over the past three months, you probably already know about my favorite animated series of 2014. Over the Garden Wall is the kind of show that makes you want to talk and talk and talk about it to everyone you meet and then, for a chaser, spend a few hours reposting tumblr gifs of elaborate OtGW fanart. I may go a little overboard expounding on its virtues, but that’s only because its virtues are manifold. Hand-painted backgrounds that animation geeks can’t help but drool over. Witty, eminently tweetable dialogue. And storytelling that’s designed to awaken giddy, rapt, childlike attention in all of us1See, I’m already gushing. You were warned..

The word “timeless” has been pretty well hijacked by Kay Jewelers and Disney DVD rereleases, but it’s the most appropriate way to describe Over the Garden Wall. The show works to dislocate viewers from their temporal positioning, to create a purposeful sense of fluidity. It invites you into its intertemporal space, syncretically drawing upon the art of multiple decades, centuries even, to construct a spare yet charming world of myth and discovery2I’d call it a postmodern fairytale, but that would invite comparisons to Shrek, or at least to Fractured Fairytales, which is in a completely different tonal universe..

The premise is simple. Two brothers, Greg and Wirt, are lost in the forest called the Unknown. They befriend a talking bluebird named Beatrice, who serves as their (somewhat acerbic) Virgil3The name is no coincidence; recall that Beatrice herself serves as Dante’s guide in Paradiso. Tempermentally, though, this Beatrice could not be further from Dante’s objectified paragon of femininity., and their quest to return home leads to encounters with strange people and creatures. Using these basic ingredients, this show accomplishes more emotional movement and character development over the course of its two hours total run time4Divided into ten episodes of about twelve minutes each. than most shows can in a 20-hour season. Wirt and Greg feel like very real brothers, with a very real mix of annoyance and concern for one another. And the subtle growth of the relationship between Wirt and Beatrice is a joy to watch and rewatch5and rewatch for a second time, and a third, and a fourth….

Every one of the fantastically diverse characters on the show, down to the most minor, has their own concerns and desires, or carries the weight of some personal tragedy. From the pastoral, pumpkin-headed residents of Pottsfield in “Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee” to the frog steamboat crew in “Lullaby in Frogland”, every gorgeously rendered character is given memorable shading6Literally and figuratively — the frogs, for instance, are well-dressed and officious, but also love music, and occasionally revert to their amphibian nature in unexpected ways. The show’s universe is rich and fully realized, full of surprising perils and gentleness.

Four paragraphs in, and I haven’t even touched on the show’s secret weapon: its fantastic songs. A list of all of my favorites would basically comprise the entire soundtrack7But “Langtree’s Lament” and “The Highwayman Song” are both highlights, while Potatoes and Molasses would be the Unknown’s version of a breakaway pop single., so I’ll focus just on the introductory theme, “Into the Unknown”. Its melancholic piano intro leads into authentic crooner vocals from Jack Jones. “Led through the mist by the milk light of the moon,” he sings. It would all feel like cheap pastiche, or some painfully cheesy lounge singer, if it weren’t perfectly executed. But it perfectly evokes a melancholy emotional register. So when Jones asks “If dreams can’t come true, then why not pretend?” you can’t help but feel uncertain as well. The question is raised and not answered. Is is meant rhetorically? Or is it just meant to be the moment when a first-time viewer asks themself just what is this show? And, perhaps by way of answer, the key shifts, and the song turns in a gentle breeze, wafting across a landscape both familiar and not. In just the first sixty seconds, we can already see how the show will incorporate elements from disparate times and places, executing tricky tonal melds while effortlessly keeping the whole harmonious. The two keys reflect both the show’s eerie and pastoral sides. The song is comforting and unnerving all at once, as it leads to the sepia tones of the title card, gorgeously bordered with what look like tiny elves and a winged skull.

I could say more — lots more. About its spot-on voice casting. Its unbelievable art direction. The way it works as a treasure trove of visual nods to history of western animation without ever feeling gimmicky or pedantic. If we still lived in a society with a unified culture, where everyone would gather around to watch the same channel, this is a show I would want broadcast every year sometime just before Thanksgiving8Just like The Wizard of Oz. Or Die Hard.. Like I said at the start of this series, 2014 was a fantastic year for animation, and Over the Garden Wall was its graceful centerpiece. This is a true masterpiece. I cannot recommend it any more highly.

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1. See, I’m already gushing. You were warned.
2. I’d call it a postmodern fairytale, but that would invite comparisons to Shrek, or at least to Fractured Fairytales, which is in a completely different tonal universe.
3. The name is no coincidence; recall that Beatrice herself serves as Dante’s guide in Paradiso. Tempermentally, though, this Beatrice could not be further from Dante’s objectified paragon of femininity.
4. Divided into ten episodes of about twelve minutes each.
5. and rewatch for a second time, and a third, and a fourth…
6. Literally and figuratively
7. But “Langtree’s Lament” and “The Highwayman Song” are both highlights, while Potatoes and Molasses would be the Unknown’s version of a breakaway pop single.
8. Just like The Wizard of Oz. Or Die Hard.

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