James’s review published on Letterboxd:
“The loveliest lies of all.”
This is a remarkably beautiful celebration of story and its inseparable tie to the human experience. At a feature length with intentional continuity, Over the Garden Wall hardly feels like a serialized cartoon, yet its episodic nature is in service of its purposes. These episodes offer, on the surface, an overarching story of Wirt and Greg, an introvert everyman teenager and his younger brother who awake in the world of The Unknown—unsure why they are there or where they are going. A bird named Beatrice guides their escape from a mysterious entity that transforms lost souls into thorny trees (thanks, Dante). Along the way, each episode introduces a new, yet intertwined folk/fairy-story that feels familiar both to us in the Western tradition and to the very characters themselves. When Beatrice admits she used to be human, Wirt muses—“I think I already knew that.” There is hardly any subtlety to the fantasy, inviting us to consider the importance of such fantasy.
The curtain abruptly falls and we see that Wirt and Greg are merely boys in the modern era who, during Halloween, fell into a pond, unconscious, and were transported into a Limbo-like realm.
The penultimate scene sees the boys return to their world, grown from their experiences. Greg returns a pet rock he (to his childish guilt) stole. Wirt is no longer a pushover, finally able to value his feelings and have the confidence to share them. Yet, just as Wirt's arc sees its final completion, the narrator jarringly interrupts to tell us: “So the story is complete and everyone is satisfied with the ending and so on and so forth and yet, over the garden wall…” He may as well be saying the main thrust of the show is not Wirt’s maturation, but the means through which he found it—The Unknown. Whether anything actually happened in The Unknown or if was all a near-death delusion is beside the point. More time is spent offering bookends to the characters in this Limbo world than to those in reality. A father is tearfully reunited with his daughter, a tormented woman finds peace, a daughter’s relationship with her family is repaired. It is here that our narrator ends the show, telling us these are “the loveliest lies of all.”
These stories, although “factually” untrue, although they are simply “lies,” are lovely. They are unashamedly fantasy, but that does not make them any less important. They helped Wirt and Greg grow into better people. It does not matter if the events happened. The Unknown represents those stories we come across, irrespective of medium, that positively shape our human experience. Those that challenge us to genuinely look outward then inward for growth. So what if these stories are not or could not be true? They invite us to draw meaning. As the narrator began: “Where have we come, and where shall we end? / If dreams can’t come true, then why not pretend?”
#6 in Top Ten of the 2010s