An interesting format of tale to tell in the medium of television is that of the miniseries. Though often referred to as “limited series” these days, the miniseries offers the chance to tell a large story without being chained down to the constraints of a full season’s expectations. Interestingly, there is something to notice: very rarely are there any animated miniseries. Most often, the miniseries tends to be a live-action production, usually based on a major topic and often with a sweeping scope. One would think that animation could be a strong method for presenting a miniseries, but unfortunately it has gone neglected. At least, until Patrick McHale finally made such a work. First serving as a writer and storyboard artist on The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack and then a creative director in the smash hit series Adventure Time, McHale went on to make an animated short film called Tome of the Unknown. It is from this short film that he would develop a ten-episode miniseries known as Over the Garden Wall. First airing on Cartoon Network, this miniseries take advantage of the format to unpack a tale of mystery and heart, while offering a wonderful visual style thanks to its animation.
On a dark and foreboding night, a pair of brothers named Wirt and Greg find themselves lost in a realm known as the Unknown. Though Greg is as cheery and kind as ever, Wirt is concerned about their state and wants to find their way out of the Unknown as soon as possible. However, that is a task easier said than done. The Unknown is a mysterious realm, full of mystery and magic and populated with a variety of odd characters. Though they find themselves an ally in the form of Beatrice, a young girl cursed to become a bluebird, most of the citizens they encounter seem perplexing and sometimes threatening. Most prominent of these figures they encounter is an ominous woodsman, who is obsessed with keeping his lantern lit. He warns them about a creature lurking in the Unknown, a shadowy figure known simply as the Beast. He seeks out those who are lost and have lost hope, turning them into trees that populate the Unknown and provide him with fuel. It is this creature that hunts down Wirt and Greg, adding a greater danger as they seek out a way to escape the Unknown.
Over the Garden Wall is a wonderful animated miniseries. Part of that appeal comes in the mood that pervades throughout the ten-episode run. Over the course of the ten episodes, there is a sense of wonder and playfulness that is also tempered by a sense of the Gothic and morbid. It recalls the feeling of old fairy tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm, offering enchantment and chills with each turn. Of course, classical fairy tales are not the only influence at play in the series. There is also influence from works like Fleischer Brothers cartoons and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. These disparate influences come together also with the show’s design aesthetic, which pulls from a variety of time periods. From tavern guests who would fit within the Colonial Era to riverboat-riding frogs dressed from the Edwardian Era, the variety of designs mix together in a way that gives a timeless feel to the Unknown. That atmosphere and design, in conjunction with the miniseries’s good writing, really capture the sort of fairy tale sensation which had influenced the project. More than that, all of these pieces work well in tandem with the choice to make this project a miniseries instead of a movie or full series.
Over the course of the ten episodes, the miniseries unpacks its mystery and themes with care. Though the events that Wirt and Greg go through might seem firmly episodic in form, they are united by a recurring theme. Namely, the danger of living in fear and going for an easy solution instead of directly confronting a problem. It is this theme that actually helps it to stand out somewhat in terms of the miniseries format. Oftentimes, a television miniseries will have a big topic as its subject. For instance, Roots had explored the horrors of slavery, V offered an allegory on the rise of Nazism through the lens of an alien invasion, and The Men Who Built America examined how powerful businessmen like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie made their impact on American history. Essentially, these miniseries take these sweeping subjects and carve a specific narrative to explore them. Over the Garden Wall takes a different approach. Instead of going for a massive topic, it instead turns inward for a personal core. The concerns about living in fear, of facing the choice between an easy solution and the right one, are concerns that are familiar to us all. That intimate heart, as presented through the careful structure and unfolding mystery in ten episodes, allows this animated miniseries to shine bright as a charming gem.
The image conjured by the term “miniseries” is often that of a live-action production, tackling a huge topic or story over the course of its episode. Over the Garden Wall stands out thanks to its divergence from that, presenting its story not just in a lovely animated form but also by focusing on a more personal theme.