Being a fan and supporter of animation goes hand in hand with being frustrated with the seeming paucity of mainstream productions doing something interesting with the format. Which is not too dissimilar from being a horror fan, actually. Being a horror fan means sitting and sifting through an awful lot of junk in the hopes of stumbling over something interesting, whether that’s an under seen gem or just an individual scene or performance that elevates an otherwise lousy movie. If you’re someone with kids or younger relations, you’ll likely find yourself sitting through an inordinate amount of animated fare, and you find yourself clinging to whatever scraps of interest or entertainment that can be found in the soul-shredding wasteland that is corporate product aimed at children.
Part of what I find frustrating even in animated fare that doesn’t feature the soulless plasticine horrors that populate Disney fucking Junior is the overly-tidy nature of many of the screenplays and stories. Pixar, from the outset, mastered a system of set-up/payoff that made each of their films play like gangbusters. Everything that happens in the third act is predicated on and predicted by something said or done in the first, so everything feels of apiece.
There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with this approach, of course. It is, in fact, considered by many to be the objectively ‘correct’ way to structure a story, and you can’t say it hasn’t paid off wildly for Pixar, whether you’re talking monetarily or critically. But as more and more studios have copied from Pixar’s playbook, there increasingly seems to be a machine-like efficiency to these films, an efficiency that chokes the life and energy out of these colorful worlds and leaves the stories feeling like they exist within hermetically sealed boxes in which no life gets in or out.
When someone paints outside those lines and makes something that refuses to dot every i and cross every t, it can feel not only different, but dangerous, as if something sneaky and untoward has been pulled off in secret.
So, today let’s talk about Over the Garden Wall. Let’s talk about the black turtles. Those goddamn turtles.
For those of you who don’t know, Over the Garden Wall is a miniseries consisting of 10 episodes, all running about 11 minutes, originally airing on Cartoon Network in 2014. While a first glance at the character designs might suggest that the series is one of the innumerable Adventure Time cast-offs and clones (and indeed, Garden Wall shares some DNA. Its creator Patrick McHale was a major voice during Adventure Time’s earliest episodes), the series draws on inspiration ranging from silent cinema to Hans Christian Anderson to woodcuts to a wide range of Americana.
As the show begins, brothers Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean) are wandering through a forest in which, Wirt suddenly realizes, they have been walking for some time with no real sense of direction. He can’t even be sure how or why they came to be in said forest. It’s not long before they run across alternately friendly and threatening strangers including a talking bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey, making this miniseries a meeting ground for Peter Jackson muses) and a woodsman (Christopher Lloyd), who is desperately chopping down trees to be fed into his enchanted lantern, which he appears to do at the behest of a mysterious ‘Beast’ that lurks within the shadows between the trees. The Woodsman informs the boys that they are lost within a mysterious country known as “The Unknown”, and they must make haste to escape or else “The Beast” will find and claim them.
But the Unknown, we soon learn, is overflowing with such dangers. And perhaps most dangerous of all is the way reality seems nebulous the longer the brothers, and us, spend here. Wirt and Greg’s clothing at first seems to mark them as belonging to the same old-timey feel as the rest of the Unknown, but gradually the anachronisms in their speech and attitudes begin to accumulate and a viewer may suspect that a trick has been pulled somewhere.
That same feeling extends through much of the series, especially as Over the Garden Wall cycles through folklore and myth to create the various pitstops that Wirt and Greg stop at throughout the run of the series. Animals speak and walk on their hindlegs, witches spin yarn that clutch like octopus tendrils, pumpkin-headed folk rejoice in the new harvest. It all combines so that you never feel like you are on solid, never sure if the story is going to roll on to another piece of whimsy or skid out on a sudden onslaught of horror. When the show goes dark, and it does, often, it brings true teeth, using that Adventure Time-y style to disarm you before conjuring up an image or concept disturbing enough to linger in the mind for days and weeks afterwards.
Like the turtles. What the hell with the turtles.
OK, so here’s the thing: In the first episode, the boys get chased by a demon dog that eventually is forced into hacking up a black turtle. Once the turtle is coughed up, the demon dog is just a regular dog again. But the black turtles continue to show up throughout the story, including at one being eaten as a regular meal by a witch, but a witch that turns out to be totally benevolent. The turtles continue to creep and appear in the margins of the story throughout.
Well, that’s just it.
No one’s quite sure why, and McHale isn’t telling. And that goes for much of the Unknown and its inhabitants. Over the Garden Wall certainly gives you the pieces needed to make inferences about the inhabitants of the Unknown and the nature of their lives (or otherwise), but it is utterly unconcerned with showing you how those pieces fit together. The result is both hugely satisfying and intensely maddening, with the show’s final images taunting you almost like a dream you can’t quite remember, a dream that you can feel slipping between your fingers even as you try to seize hold of it and drag it clearer into clarity.
And that’s just the way I like it. By refusing to connect all the dots, by allowing for intimation and allusion rather than exposition, McHale has created something not only creepy and unsettling, but actually alive. The mysteries lure you in deeper and deeper, the absence of any resolution making them all the more frustrating, and all the more addictive.
And in a way, that makes Over the Garden Wall perfect viewing material for the Halloween season. Sure, we all love those movies and shows that pile on with guts and gore, or that hurl ghosts and other creatures screaming at the screen in the hopes of earning the proverbial one good scare. But there’s another side to the season, a melancholy, reflective side, as the world fades so it might be born again, an ancient cycle in which we see ourselves. And it’s into this niche that Over the Garden Wall fits, reminding us that there are things we can never understand, stories we’ll never know the end of, and so much more unknown than we can ever know.
But if I’m being honest I really do want to know what’s up with those goddamn turtles, McHale, tell me.