If you live in the northern hemisphere, there might be a chill in the air. If not, there’s probably one on the way. The leaves are turning. The harvest time approaches. Soon it will be time for costumes and candy. And if you’re like me, you’re preparing to watch your seasonal favorites. John Carpenter’s Halloween, The Halloween Tree, Trick ‘r Treat, Treehouse of Horror episodes — you know, the usual. But since Over the Garden Wall aired on Cartoon Network in the fall of 2014, this critically acclaimed animated mini-series has become a new Halloween classic for me. And I don’t use the word “classic” lightly. Read on to find out why this creepy cartoon masterpiece should join the ranks of your all-time Halloween favorites.
It all started here, with Tome of the Unknown: Harvest Melody. Written and directed by Patrick McHale (Adventure Time), Cartoon Network released this short to several film festivals in 2013 and 2014, where it gathered some critical acclaim. Check it out right here, free and legal.
It’s good, right? Beautiful animations, lovely music, harvest season beauty, and instantly memorable character designs. But after its festival success, Cartoon Network then offered McHale the opportunity to adapt it into a 10-chapter mini-series. Now, Tome of the Unknown serves as a non-canonical pilot for Over the Garden Wall.
Over the Garden Wall
While the central characters remained the same, the mini-series gives them different motivations. Instead of wandering through the Unknown in search of a mysterious book, brothers Greg (Collin Dean) and Wirt (Elijah Wood) are trying to find their way home. They soon meet Beatrice the bluebird, voiced by Melanie Lynskey. She proposes that they travel to meet Adelaide of the Pasture, a woman who may be able to help them. Along the way, they encounter quirky townsfolk, strange creatures, and the pumpkin-headed undead.
And in every frame along the way, the show wraps you up in wistful Autumn charm. There’s a pastoral Americana vibe to the Unknown, harkening back to colonial-era folk tales and woodcuts. It’s a world of dangerous fairy creatures, witches, and spirits. The look of series draws inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki, one of Japan’s masters of animation. Over the Garden Wall feels most akin to Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, widely considered his magnum opus. Wirt and Greg, like Chihiro in Spirited Away, must navigate a fairy realm of talking animals, dangerous beasts, and foreign customs. Both these stories were crafted in the Wizard of Oz mold but were each sculpted further into similar but singular works.
Into the Unknown
Like Miyazaki, director Nate Cash (Adventure Time, Spongebob Squarepants) and creator Patrick McHale know how to use real horror in children’s entertainment. For a children’s series, Over the Garden Wall is surprisingly frightening in parts. And while the series has its share of light-hearted episodes, the show strives to evoke a Halloween atmosphere. Scary is a crucial part of that. And for dramatic purposes, the many dangers of the Unknown are why the story satisfies so deeply at the end. McHale and his team of writers handled it all so deftly that the show never gets mired in its serious intentions.
Over the Garden Wall won two Primetime Emmys: one for Outstanding Animated Program, the other for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation. The series has also won awards for its tremendous cast, which includes Elijah Wood, Christopher Lloyd, John Cleese, and Chris Isaak. The show’s music, written by The Petrojvic Blasting Company, is awards-worthy, too. Look — I try not to be hyperbolic. And, frankly, I’m not all that into cartoons anymore. I’m boring. But Over the Garden Wall is exceptional. It’s wonderful and joyous and sad, and captures all the necessary elements of a Halloween classic. And If you watch all 10 chapters back-to-back, it’s just shy of two hours long. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have seen every minute of it. And I hope you’ll feel the same.
And if none of that convinces you to add Over the Garden Wall to your Halloween watch list this year, then maybe this will. Cartoon Network has the first chapter available free and legal on Youtube. Watch it below, and have a happy Halloween!