Animated Life Lesson #4: Growing Up

Growing up (verb phrase) – to be or become fully grown; attain mental or physical maturity

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Over the Garden Wall is one of the most bizarre, most brilliant, and most beautiful shows I’ve ever seen.  It manages in ten short episodes to convey more whimsy, danger, and dread than many shows do in an entire season, and the plot, while concise, is still wonderfully written.

The story follows half-brothers Wirt and Greg as they travel through a fantastical world trying to find their way home.  Along the way, they meet quite the cast of interesting characters, from the elderly Woodsman to the sarcastic bluebird Beatrice to the terrifying Beast.

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There’s also a town full of pumpkin-wearing skeletons, a singing frog, a young girl controlled by a magical bell, and an old woman who stuffs wool into peoples’ heads to make them her servants.  And all of these characters live in the Unknown, which is almost a character unto itself.  Wirt and Greg explore the forest, visit the mansion of a tea baron, ride a ferry full of frogs, and spend a day in a school teaching animals how to read.

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If all of that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is.  But underneath all the nonsense and eccentricity is the constant threat of the Beast, an ancient creature who uses trickery and terror to lead souls from their paths, keeping them lost until they give up and begin to transform into the Edelwood trees that the Beast needs to stay alive.  Over the Garden Wall is actually quite like a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, one that may seem fun and funny on the surface, but is actually quite dark and horrifying when you look a little closer.  However, it’s when we look at these deeper aspects that the true lessons of the show begin to appear, mainly lessons on maturity, responsibility, and finding yourself forced to grow up in a world and a place that you don’t understand.

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Wirt is the older of the two brothers, and although he may be dressed quite whimsically, he’s actually quite serious.  He’s your typical teenager that’s been thrust into a situation he doesn’t like, and his cynicism and stubbornness, while funny at times, end up causing problems for their group from time to time.  Wirt is prone to bouts of melancholy, and he’s in that stage of life when most things are embarrassing, and so he keeps a lot of secrets.  In fact, trying to avoid embarrassment was what landed him and Greg in the Unknown in the first place, although I’m certain Wirt wouldn’t see it that way.  Wirt is also the type of person who doesn’t like to take responsibility for his actions, especially if he can conceivably blame things on his brother.  To be fair, it is often Greg’s fault, but it’s Wirt’s responsibility as the older brother to be the mature one in the situation.

Unfortunately, Wirt is initially too unsure of himself to even take advantage of being in charge, as most older siblings are fond of doing.  This begins to change, though, as Beatrice pushes him into taking action, whether it’s just to get directions or to play the bassoon to keep them from getting thrown off a ferry full of frogs.  Wirt begins to imagine himself as a hero and accordingly begins to act braver.  This act only works for a while, though, until Beatrice betrays them, and Wirt beings to give up hope, leaving him open to an attack from the Beast.

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Luckily, Greg is there to save him.  Greg acts like you’d expect a younger brother to act: silly, friendly, weird, and mischievous.  He wears a teapot on his head, has a pet frog whose name changes countless times throughout the series, stores candy in his pants (not the pockets, mind you; actually in his pants), and enjoys sharing ‘Rock Facts,’ which are false facts he makes up on the spot.  But Greg is also brave, thoughtful, and endlessly optimistic, and his weird plans usually work for getting them out of a tight spot.  It’s a stark contrast to his older brother, and while Wirt gets annoyed with Greg’s antics, Greg is never too bothered by his brother’s put-downs or stern commands.  Greg is the one that keeps things light even as the darkness grows near.

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But Greg’s childish fun doesn’t mean he’s not smart; when Wirt decides to stop trying to find their way home, Greg works hard—or dreams hard—to be a good leader.  He’s willing to do whatever it takes to save them.  When he’s told that Wirt is lost and will never return home, Greg blames himself for being too busy goofing off to notice that Wirt needed his help.  Not that Wirt would’ve admitted to needing help, but it’s certainly not Greg’s fault that they’re lost in the Unknown.  And when he has the chance to save them, Greg takes it, giving himself up to the Beast in exchange for Wirt’s freedom.

It’s interesting that Greg is the one to first show signs of growing up.  He is more than happy to interact with and learn to understand the people of the Unknown, he accepts responsibility for his antics, and he’s willing to face the consequences of his and Wirt’s actions in this strange world.  Although he still carries on and goofs off like a young child, Greg is maturing and growing in his own way, and it really shows when he sacrifices himself for his brother’s mistakes.  It takes bravery and love to give himself up to the Beast, especially since he has to at least have some idea of how terrible
the Beast truly is, yet he is willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure Wirt makes it home.

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It’s actually quite sad to think about, yet it’s exactly what Wirt needs to realize that he’s been the one acting like a child.  If he hadn’t overreacted in the cemetery, they wouldn’t have landed in the Unknown.  If he would’ve waited on the Woodsman, they would’ve had help finding their way from the start.  If he would’ve listened to Beatrice, he would’ve known she wasn’t going to betray them.  If he would’ve trusted his little brother, he wouldn’t have lost hope and thus lost Greg to the Beast.  Wirt realizes it’s all been his fault, and now it’s his responsibility to make things right.

Wirt fights his way through a snowstorm to reach Greg, and when he finds his brother, he apologizes for everything.  It’s a big step for Wirt, who hasn’t apologized for anything up to this point, and it’s a sign that he, too, has grown during his time in the Unknown, so much so that he is willing to make his own deal in order to save his brother’s soul.  But Wirt is smart, and he sees through the Beast’s trick before both boys are trapped in the woods.  With some quick thinking, he manages to free the Woodsman from the duty of the Beast’s lantern, help Beatrice and her family become human again, finish the Beast, and return Greg and himself to their world.

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It’s as if Wirt has been saving up all his potential during their journey through the Unknown, and suddenly he has all the bravery and wisdom he needs to help everyone, including himself.  If he had had to make a deal with the Beast when they first arrived, Wirt would’ve been too unsure of himself to question the Beast, too afraid to do something wrong, and both he and Greg would’ve ended up trapped forever.  But having seen the way the Beast terrorized the inhabitants of the land and how he had hurt Greg, Wirt realizes that it’s his responsibility to help, and so he manages to save the day.

And the lessons they’ve learned in the Unknown aren’t forgotten when they wake up back in the real world.  Greg is just as goofy as ever, but I’m sure he would make the choice to sacrifice himself for his brother again, especially now that he knows that Wirt will come to save him.  And Wirt’s newfound bravery allows him to talk to Sara, the girl he’s been trying to impress, and invite her over to his house to listen to some tapes.  It’s a silly yet sweet ending, and it shows that although Wirt and Greg still have a lot to learn as they grow, their adventures in the Unknown showed them who they truly are and who they may grow to be.

Over the Garden Wall is weird, whimsical, and wonderful.  The art of the show is beautiful, evoking an old-timey feel even as the aesthetic changes between episodes.  The original songs are fantastic, ranging from hilarious to creepy, and they help to set the mood as the story moves along.  The whole atmosphere is that of an almost-recognizable world, one close enough to the real world to seem familiar yet different enough to make you question everything.  Wirt and Greg wonderfully represent their respective age groups, yet they don’t come across as stereotypes, and the ways they change over the course of the ten episodes is great to watch.  Greg is funny, and Wirt is moody, but they learn to appreciate one another, and it’s heartwarming to watch as their relationship goes from begrudging half-brothers to brothers who are also friends.

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I don’t think I could decide which of them is my favorite, although I have to say I really love Beatrice and the growing up she herself does throughout the story.  There’s just something about her sarcasm and older sister-like bossiness that I can really relate to, and I’m sure other adults can relate to her as well.  Both adults and kids will love this mini-series, although the things they like about the show are likely to be quite different.  But everyone can appreciate the lessons about relying on family, making the best of a bad situation, taking responsibility, and growing up in general that Wirt and Greg learn.  It’s a whimsical journey through the Unknown, but it’s one you don’t want to miss.

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