Trying to describe “Over the Garden Wall,” Cartoon Network’s first animated miniseries, is at once easy and difficult.
Easy, because the story is quite simple: Two brothers (voiced by Elijah Wood and Collin Dean) get lost in a strange land called the Unknown and must find their way home. Along the way, they meet a variety of odd characters and are accompanied by a grumpy bluebird named Beatrice (voiced by Melanie Lynskey).
But to describe the plot of “Over the Garden Wall” fails to capture the jumble of influences, emotions and textures creator Pat McHale has stuffed into it. “It’s a comedy, but first and foremost, it’s trying to be an experience for the audience,” McHale said during a recent phone interview.
Which is to say, there are laughs. But there are also some deeply creepy moments, such as a visit to a town of pumpkin-headed creatures whose intentions may or may not be friendly. And sometimes those moments are one and the same.
The 10-episode miniseries consists of 11-minute installments and features the guest voices of Chris Isaak, Bebe Neuwirth, Christopher Lloyd, John Cleese and Shannyn Sossamon. The show is slated to debut Nov. 3.
McHale, who was a creative director on Cartoon Network’s hit “Adventure Time,” adapted the miniseries from his award-winning short film, “Tome of the Unknown.” But his real inspiration comes from a variety of places, including children’s books of the 1800s, folk art and American music from the early 20th century.
“There are a lot of layouts borrowed from Gustav Doré,” McHale said. “And also from Disney’s early ‘Alice’ shorts.”
Doré was a 19th century French illustrator, most famous for his wood-engraved illustrations for “The Divine Comedy,” “Paradise Lost” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Walt Disney’s “Alice” comedies were live action-animation hybrid shorts the animator created in the 1920s before he found fame with Mickey Mouse.
There are many original songs in the series, but don’t expect it to have the feel of the latest Disney extravaganza. “Some of the characters do sing — there’s many different styles, classic American, opera singing — but it doesn’t feel like a Broadway thing,” he said.
Instead, it’s about getting lost. For the characters, they’re lost in this strange world. And for the audience, it’s about getting lost in McHale’s bizarre imagination.
The writer and animator is a graduate of CalArts and worked on “Adventure Time” before moving back to his home in Massachusetts in 2010. However, he still contributed to the show’s writing after that.
His short film was made through Cartoon Network Studios’ shorts development program and won the award for best animated short film at the Santa Barbara Film Festival earlier this year.
“To my surprise, [the channel] picked it up and wanted to do something with it,” McHale said. “We thought a miniseries would be best. I would do something that felt higher quality than what we could do with a regular series.”
The introverted McHale worked with art director Nick Cross and supervising director Nate Cash on the series with storyboard artists in New York and Chicago. “It was difficult working with people from afar,” McHale concedes. It was particularly daunting considering the idiosyncratic nature of the production.
As McHale described his vision for it: “It’s trying to capture a certain mood. If it feels right, then it’s right.”
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