It is rare that one can recommend an animated television show without needing to throw in a caveat. There are plenty of gems out there, but all too often cartoons are either insultingly childish, full of shock value humor, or just simply keep going long after they should have ended. “Over the Garden Wall” does not suffer from any of those problems. It is a new kind of endeavor for Cartoon Network, a short miniseries that is deceptively deep and dark in tone, telling the story of two brothers who are lost in a mysterious woods trying to find their way home. One of its main themes is that nothing is as it first appears, and this holds true for the miniseries itself. It is child friendly, as anything on at primetime Cartoon Network will be, but its tight, twisting plot and mature themes ensure that most children wouldn’t be able to scratch the surface of its depth.
One of the strongest ways that this manifests is in the constant allusions and stylistic and tonal references that the series has. The man alone in a manor who thinks he loves a ghost and fears he may be mad hearkens back to Poe, the two witch sisters have designs that call to mind the work of Hayao Miyazaki, and Greg’s dream of going to heaven is a clear homage to the oldest theatrical cartoons. It draws many of its locations and episodic plots from older American culture and folklore from a purposefully indefinable era. Even the obligatory out-of-place modern jokes and references Wirt and Greg make turn out to be foreshadowing the eventual twist, that they’re working their way through the limbo of the dead who haven’t let go.
One of the strongest and most thematically resonant parallels is to Dante’s Inferno. From the name of their treacherous but good-hearted guide, Beatrice, to the fact that Wirt is a poet whose official role in the Unknown is “pilgrim,” the foreshadowing about the true nature of the woods is much clearer to those who’ve read the classics. This lets the writers add a creepy layer of symbolism that children watching wouldn’t be able to grasp—the Beast, a clear Satan analogue, attempts to get travelers to give in to despair, which will cause them to turn into trees. In The Inferno, becoming a tree in hell is the punishment for suicide. It gives the viewer the same sense that it gives the boys in the story—wandering through a mysterious past and trying to make sense of the memories and legacies of those who are gone.
Even the darkest of implications can hardly measure up to some of the explicit action of the plot, especially the woodsman who unknowingly burns lost souls to ashes. This can be quite powerful—but it can also work against itself. Some of the trappings of child-friendliness don’t quite work out for a story as dark as this—the, dark, detailed backgrounds and monsters of the Unknown clash against the cartoony stylization of the humans, the songs not sung by the bullfrog tend to be rather jarring, and there are a few times where it feels the need to explain things that it could have more elegantly left to implication. However, this is exactly the sort of deep, mature, unique project that animation needs to get taken more seriously as a medium.