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Thursday, June 20, 2024
The Observer

‘Over the Garden Wall’ and the erasure of American folklore

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Trey Paine | The Observer


There is something so American about fall. 

You may want to argue with me, cherry-picking examples of American nationalism like Fourth of July celebratory pool parties or monster trucks and Mountain Dew and mullets. You may even point at pickup trucks and blue jean shorts. 

But despite the overwhelming prevalence of summer vibes in American aesthetics, the true season of the United States is fall. 

For me, the foundation of the country was not Independence Day, but Thanksgiving — the day we all learn about in kindergarten through the story of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. Although some of it is legend, I like to think the historical feast between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims was the first instance of the great American melting pot in action. 

Then take for example other great instances of American culture: back-to-school season (in the fall), American football (in the fall), apple pies and pastries (in the fall), harvests and hay bales (in the fall), Halloween (in the fall), etc. 

This is how we set the lush autumn scene of Cartoon Network’s 2014 animated miniseries “Over the Garden Wall.” Leaves fall in a forest of orange-hued trees. Two brothers wander around in vintage clothing — overalls and a cloak. Birds talk. Frogs sing on steamboats. A small town full of pumpkin-headed people never want you to leave. There are witches and an ominous undefined entity known as The Beast. The show constantly toes the line between creepy and comfortable. But that’s because you’re in the Unknown, where nothing is as it seems.

In the same way Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films are distinctively Japanese, the creators of “Over the Garden Wall” have managed to create a show that feels distinctively American. “Over the Garden Wall” is not only timeless in its setting but in its stunning 2D animation. The almost hand-drawn style of the show is reminiscent of early Walt Disney Studios with visual inspirations that range from American animator Max Fleischer (of “Popeye” and “Betty Boop”) to vintage Halloween postcards. 

But what happens when a story that’s intended to preserve part of our culture gets lost?

Over the summer, Max announced the miniseries would be leaving the platform on Aug. 31, exactly two months before Halloween, its peak viewing period. Although there are other ways to access the series online through Hulu or Amazon Prime, some fans took this as an attack on the cult classic. Cartoon Network has notoriously treated their miniseries poorly, only showing reruns of “Over the Garden Wall” during October and relegating “Infinity Train,” another acclaimed animated miniseries, to obscurity. 

Even one of the creators of the show, Patrick McHale, was concerned, claiming he “hope[s] somebody is out there ripping & saving all the stuff on all these streaming services because I’m pretty sure so much of it is gonna just disappear and become lost media.” 

Elisa Guimarães of Collider argues that the preservation of cult classics requires streaming services to implement a curatorial component in their available selections or for more fans to invest in physical media. So far, these strategies haven’t been widely implemented.

One thing is for certain: the accessibility of “Over the Garden Wall” presents fans with an incredibly urgent question. In a modern and diverse vision of the modern United States, the American Dream looks different for everyone. So what exactly does folklore look like? Is “Over the Garden Wall” a niche piece of lost media that harkens back to a homogenous and oversimplified American identity? Or does the miniseries preserve a nostalgic aspect of American culture that we keep deciding to forget?