Before it was fleshed out into a 10-film miniseries (which constitutes one of the best American animated features of the 21st century, for what it’s worth), Patrick McHale’s Over the Garden Wall started its life as a more humble short film, Tome of the Unknown. It’s a charming film and an excellent taste of the series to come, although it only hints at the potential of the full series.
McHale started his TV career as a writer and creative director on Adventure Time, another series that started as a teaser of a short before growing into something more sophisticated—the pilot’s seemingly random asides became part of a nuanced, growing world filled with emotionally real characters, despite the absurd reality. With Tome of the Unknown, the missing element is the aura of the macabre that would follow through the rest of the series. Granted, the crows that turn up in Tome are startling, and even frightening for younger viewers, but McHale would develop a deeper knack for subverting expectations in ways both sweet and sinister in the course of the series.
Even in its early stages, though, Tome of the Unknown is a delight. Its central duo consists of the ever-worrying Wirt and the more gregarious Greg, and their personalities are perfect foils for one another. The world they wander, the Unknown, is a sort of amalgamation of a range of early Americana, full of songs and wonder but also dangerous and unpredictable. Picture the sort of atmosphere conjured by the weirder old Christmas cards and Valentines, vintage Fleischer Bros shorts, and the creepier fairy tales you can remember, and you’ll have the right idea of the mix of wholesome and unsettling that the series inhabits.
As with the Adventure Time pilot, Tome gives the rare chance to see the development of something brilliant. It’s magical enough on its own, but it also contains the seeds of something bigger and bolder, a timeless piece of myth-making in its earliest stages.
Tome of the Unknown
dir: Patrick McHale
syn: Two brothers find themselves lost in a mysterious place called the Unknown, a place where long-forgotten stories take shape around them as they search for a way home.