We all know how frightening cartoons can be. Free from the constraints of makeup, stunts or limitations of the human body, animation can convincingly depict all the wildest fantasies live-action cannot. Most millennials recall the bizarre stylings of ’00s “CatDog” on Nickelodeon or “Courage the Cowardly Dog” on the Cartoon Network, and recent years have awarded viewers an even wider selection of dark, existential and surreal comics like “Gravity Falls” or “Adventure Time.” But “Over the Garden Wall” is unlike anything that came before it, ideal for this week’s transition of fall into winter.
It’s a miniseries (the Cartoon Network’s first) dreamt up by Patrick McHale, creative director behind “Adventure Time.” There are 10 episodes, all 12 minutes long, each tailing two brothers lost in a strange forest called The Unknown, desperately trying to wend their way home and encountering an assortment of odd creatures and places along the way. Wirt is the elder child, a neurotic and fearful fellow voiced by Elijah Wood and perpetually irritated by his younger brother Greg, a tiny sprite who is more delighted by than wary of the spooks they encounter in the woods.
Though owing much to European fairy tales and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” (among other influences), “Over the Garden Wall” is really an homage to 19th and 20th-century Americana and folklore. The setting is deeply reminiscent of New England in the autumn; golden trees, shadowy forests and small villages are depicted with ornate painted backgrounds, and the mood is alternatingly chilling and playful. Most characters the brothers meet appear far more sinister than they are eventually revealed to be, and each segment is accompanied by original songs that are sad, soulful and twee in equal measure. The voicework is one of the series’ triumphs; Christopher Lloyd, John Cleese and Melanie Lynskey breathe life into mad millionaires and talking bluebirds.
The Unknown plays host to a quaint schoolhouse where animal students wear bonnets and learn lessons from a rosy-cheeked schoolmarm singing an alphabet song about her scorned lover (“‘A’ is for the apple that he gave to me, but I found a worm inside”); a gay New Orleans-style ferry chugging down a river carting frogs dressed in finery, waltzing on board; The Beast, a menacing figure who wanders the forest and threatens the brothers; Cloud City, a sanctuary in the sky (and an overt nod to early Disney) filled with sweet cherubs and houses made out of cloud fluff; and perhaps most memorably, a person called Auntie Whispers (voiced by Tim Curry, whose praises I sung only last week in “Rocky Horror”), a fright with a bloated head and a quivering voice who apparently devours human flesh on a regular basis – or does she?