A massive, wolflike beast with crazed glowing eyes chases both children through a wooden cabin in an unknown forest. The screaming children run to the roof, where they find themselves trapped on the edge of a dizzying height with the dark wolf’s breath on their necks.
The younger one desperately tosses out a piece of candy and the wolf jumps after it, falling off the roof into a slowly grinding mill. The mill’s crushing wheel squeezes a tiny black turtle from the monster’s mouth as it flattens his gut.
Released from the turtle’s demonic possession, the monster transforms into a friendly dog and the children are saved. Safe… at least until the eccentric, axe-wielding miller returns to his cabin.
Part of a gothic horror film? Surprisingly, no. I’m describing a scene from my four-year-old daughter’s favorite miniseries.
It’s called “Over the Garden Wall.” And it’s awesome.
It was only by chance we happened to watch this gem. While I was at the library picking up a new round of books for my kids, I happened to grab the DVD after noticing cartoon kids all over its cover.
Why not? I thought. It looked cute enough and I was dying to break up the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and My Little Pony cartels.
We went home and I popped the sucker in, expecting an adorable story about kids and flowers and talking bluebirds. I had no idea we were about to watch a show involving possessed little girls who devour people alive, dancing skeletons who make you dig your own grave, or a chirpy bluebird who is secretly trying to fulfill her devil’s pact by selling the protagonists into child slavery.
If I knew this stuff was going to happen, I would’ve never brought the film home to my kids.
I’m glad I was clueless however, because this thing is an absolute masterpiece and my daughter can’t get enough of it.
I think she was sold the moment the children wandered into a creepy town of dancing pumpkins because, as I’ve written about previously, my daughter is currently obsessed with pumpkins. She has embraced her dark side lately and “Over the Garden Wall” has just the right amount of dark side in it to utterly captivate her.
She has excellent taste. The film, which follows the journey of two lost boys who fall into a mysterious supernatural forest, contains elements of Dante’s inferno (including a bluebird guide named “Beatrice”) and early American history.
Retro elements abound, from styles evoking cartoons from the 20’s to episodes that seem as if they were pulled straight from the 18th century Calvinist imagination. We’ve got Puritan-esque fears of the devil in uncultivated woods and the belief that constant hard work will keep us from wickedness.
I can almost hear Jonathan Edwards calling us Sinners in the hands of an Angry God when I watch this thing.
And later, we see a 19th century schoolhouse with extra lashings of potatoes and molasses. The accents are vintage, the artwork looks pulled from lithographs, and the soundtrack would be at home on a phonograph.
The characters, more complex than you’d expect in any children’s cartoon, are voiced by the likes of Christopher Lloyd, Elijah Wood, and Tim Curry. They give spectacular performances throughout this odd film that feels as much the like an American historian’s brilliant LSD trip as anything.
But is it appropriate for children? I believe so.
Although dark subjects are hinted at, nothing truly graphic
appears onscreen. While
overall feel is suspenseful and foreboding, there is enough comedy to keep it balanced. The protagonists are current-day children who fall into the spookier pockets of our culture’s past, but their modern attitudes are irreverent enough to keep the mood reasonably light.
Besides, I think kids are made of tougher stuff than we give them credit for. We sometimes forget how sanitized modern childhood has become.
Mostly, this is a good thing. I’m glad four-year-olds can’t watch someone being drawn and quartered in the market square anymore, or risk Black Lung by sweeping out people’s chimneys for a handful of change.
But on the other hand, I’m not sure the bubble-wrapped, artificial world of singing bunnies and helpful mice we create for our children always does the trick. No matter how many bright colors and storybook endings we shove down our kids’ throats, they still fear the monster in their closets.
Why? How are kids still convinced they live in a realm of demons after we’ve tried so hard to remove anything scary from their universe?
Maybe a little darkness is just inherent in our makeup. You don’t survive hundreds of thousands of years of evolution by thinking the world is totally safe. Centuries of ferocious animals, droughts, famines, and hostile tribes had to have left their mark.
And maybe throwing a little light on the darkness is better than refusing to acknowledge it at all. At least to a controlled, reasonable degree.
I guess only time will tell if I’ve gone too far by letting my kids indulge in this gritty cartoon. But so far, they love it and haven’t suffered an increase in nightmares. I’d recommend it to any parent with a kid who likes peeking into shadows.