“Over the Garden Wall” aspires to, and in part achieves, true whimsy, which doesn’t make the outlook for this animated, not-so-grim fairy tale for adults any less cloudy. Patrick McHale’s creation has been expanded into a 10-part miniseries (each night runs a half-hour, consisting of two chapters), which Cartoon Network will air over consecutive nights. Yet while the notion of two brothers seeking a way home is simple enough, the resulting production might be a bit too mature for kids, and not edgy enough for young adults. Who that leaves is anybody’s guess, but credit the network for taking a leap of faith over this “Wall.”
The series, based on McHale’s film short, mixes various styles, juxtaposing extremely basic character design (the noses are dots and triangles) against beautiful, ornate backgrounds, filled with mood and atmosphere, and accompanied by original songs.
The story is equally rudimentary: Two brothers, the older, more serious Wirt (Elijah Wood, appropriately back on another quest) and the chipper Greg (Collin Dean), become lost in the Unknown, a mystical forest. Accompanied only by a talkative, irascible bluebird (Melanie Lynskey), they seek to find their way home, navigating past various threats, obstacles and exceedingly strange characters.
And that’s pretty much it — what amounts to an indie animated movie diced into smaller parts, mixing silliness with a mild tinge of the macabre, including a ferocious beast in the premiere and a strange town in the subsequent chapter. “You guys find this place as creepy as I do, right?” the bird asks.
Almost everything about “Over the Garden Wall” feels slightly mismatched. Just as the lovely-to-look-at backgrounds represent a detailed, classic quality that contrasts with the characters, the tone is both spooky and playful, the music folksy and quirky.
What the project hasn’t done is conjure magic or create much of an investment in the kids, who are essentially blank slates, there to be alternately scared and childlike. In that respect, there’s less interest in how they complete their journey home than in just savoring the imagery of getting there, which should appeal to a rather narrow and refined palate. The benign content also reflects a (mostly welcome) departure from the more abrasive characteristic of many Cartoon Network nighttime offerings.
This miniseries thus feels like an admirable experiment, but a bit of a tweener — one that lacks the heft to sustain the five-night commitment. All in all, though, given the glut of snide animated programs out there, Cartoon Network deserves credit for trying to do something that’s more than just another brick in the wall.