lunes, 24 de octubre de 2016
Over the Garden Wall
I'm gonna admit that I'm guilty of having lost almost my entire faith in animation right to the point where new series and installments were met with pessimism and, sometimes, watching them became a bit of a chore... but for good reasons! It seems to me that we have pulled a gigantic reversal in ourselves over the last decade or so: suddenly, the bright spots and inspired material were the exception rather than rule, and that was honestly shocking to witness. No longer did we have the power to produce entire series worth of brilliantly engaging material, outstanding visuals and relatable characters. It felt as if we -somehow- had the knowledge to keep the creative fire lit but forgot where we put the matches.
And the feeling was really difficult to shake off because it kept coming back to mind with an energy and consistency that would actually have made for some amazing stories had it been used to create and not because a certain quota of episodes needed to be met. And that right there is my major problem with most animated series to come out over the last decade: most entries on MOST series felt like the only point of their existence was to comply with a basic contractual rule... like when Disney only takes episodes in batches of twenty, for example. I think stuff like this harms the shows even before they are half-done because it forces an entire team of talented and passionate people to put something together because they NEED to do it. As if quantity was a substitute for quality... and it shows.
Even in some of my favorite shows there were times were I felt like the episodes at hand were a little tacked-on and had very little value on their own. I mean, it is common for a good show that's been in the air for long to start losing some of its thrust at later stages but we can see thru it as an audience and, sometimes, it hurts to see just how far we are going to go in order to have a pre-defined number of episodes out.
And it is for this very reason that what Cartoon Network did with Over the Garden Wall is praise-worthy. They ordered a MINI-SERIES, ten twelve-minutes installments that needed to tell a story from beginning to end while having a juicy plot and enough time to developing the characters, folklore and feels of the world they were tossed in. This basically meant "no-filler allowed" and the pay-off for this was fantastic.
The show literally throws us right into the action, when we meet our two protagonists: Wirt (voiced by Elijah Wood) and his younger brother Greg (voiced by Collin Dean). They are lost in "The Unknown", a forest where the dangerous and the absurd fuse and the borders between them blurs to the point of being almost non-existent. We don't know how they got lost and they don't know their way home either, so we tag along with them, getting to know them in detail throughout the whole thing.
And since Over the Garden Wall has the looks, feels and storytelling-devices of a fairy tale, this is a rich learning experience. Even better, things take a turn for the darker when we are introduced to the first inhabitants of The Unknown: The Woodsman (voiced by Christopher Lloyd) and the ever-so-scary Beast (voiced by Samuel Ramey in a delightful nightmare-inducing tone). It would be foolish to spoil anything here, but if you are seriously going to watch this series (which you should totally do, because it is an animated GEM) try to pay attention to the several interactions with The Woodsman... something is bond to feel off. But not even what's clearly stated by both him and The Beast would quite prepare you for the conclusion.
This is all nice, but the show doesn't truly start until after the second episode, when we meet Beatrice (voiced by Melanie Linskey). Many critics agree that she's the true stand-out characters of this series and I have no reason to disagree with them: she's the full package. A talking, somewhat unfriendly, unbelievably testy but nonetheless helpful Bluebird that tags along with them after Greg saves her from getting stuck somewhere. The development of this character is really up-there with the rest of the show's overwhelming artistic quality. And, just like The Woodsman, her character interactions feel a bit off since the very beginning. I assure you that no -spoiler-free- prediction would prepare you to face what the show has in store for her. One of the reasons for which Over the Garden Wall is such a worthwhile experience is its ability to make all the classic traits of storytelling in fairy tales seem like new and kind of unheard of. Things that shouldn't catch you off-guard will, indeed, hit you when you are not prepared.
Every episode of the show is its own self-contained story and it actually benefits from this. While there are some references to previous adventures and a delightful running gag makes its way throughout the entirety of the series, our characters only focus on what's ahead. And it sort of makes sense in a way... because no matter how many times they escape death by the inch of how many predicaments they get involved in, they are still just two lonely children looking for the way home. Moving ahead seems like what anyone would do if they were in their shoes; it's a "home wasn't back there so it must be here" way of thinking that works after you have spent some times with the characters. They are not fools, but they aren't thinking straight either.
And with such a colorful duo to move the plot forward, this is easy to forget. Take Greg for example: he's just a little kid (and the younger character in the series by far) and he should, therefore, be scared to death while marching thru The Unknown, but he's having too much fun embracing the weirdness of this unlikely world and its insane inhabitants to even care. Him being completely oblivious of the danger that surrounds him every step of the way might be a double-edged sword for the show's writing -and it sometimes feels like a bit of stretch to have him behave like this-... but, just like the show knows how to blur the line between danger and absurdity, it also knows how to do the same with foolishness and bravery. There's no actual "hero" to this tale (at least not in the most accurate definition of the concept) but Greg is as capable a hero as anyone else, and he certainly knows how to fill the role on his own term.
Wirt's writing isn't quite as wild. He definitely grows to overcome his doubts and fears in order to fulfill the role of an older brother looking after his sibling, but it is quite amusing to see him put his best judgment aside by bickering with Beatrice throughout the majority of the journey, and the lengths he's willing to cover in order annoy her. He's even put them all in danger just to prove a point (and I can't quite overlook the fact that he's been fooled into doing things that could very well have been traps without thinking that much about it -even when some of those turned out to be safe-). But for all his flaws, Wirt manages to hold on, even when he's clearly miserable, and that's part of what makes him the perfect fit to go along the happy-go-lucky Greg. Alone they would be doomed, but together they stand a chance.
Once again, all of this is very nice but not even the best writing in the world would deliver in a VISUAL medium like animation if the visuals weren't up for the task... and by God they are.
The show goes for an artistic style based on tones and shades that really suits it. When the action calls for it, everything turns into a black and gray tone that conveys danger just perfectly. And when we are strolling thru the forest in a quiet afternoon, the warmth "fall" colours take up the scene to tell us, without saying, that there's no hurry. It has been said that the best pacing is that which is invisible and now that I have experienced it first-hand, I can't do anything but agreeing with it.
The music is another winner. Each chapter comes with its own score (composed by the gypsy-folk band The Petrojvic Blasting Company) specially made to emphasize the varied nature of the episodes at hand. These are all great songs and they carry the plot just as much as the visuals (which is no small feat). In fact, the score was so well-received that Cartoon Network put out a version of the soundtrack on CASSETE (it makes sense given the context of the show) and it plans to have it out on a vinyl record as well -it's also available for download thru Soundcloud-.
I really don't have much else to say, except that I would totally encourage anyone who has two hours to kill to give this show a watch (it would be even better if you can afford to marathon thru it) because it has totally become one of my all-time favorite animated series and I would love to hear that it is now yours too.