From its opening moments, Moon Garden invites you into a secret world. It is a world seen through the eyes of a four year old that carries its own magic even before the tragic events that kick the plot into motion take place. It is a world where imagination can make anything possible, where make-believe is as real as anything and where the purest form of home and safety reside in the love of a little girls’ parents.
Written and directed by Ryan Stevens Harris, Moon Garden is a visually-stunning and heartfelt journey through the darkness and back home. Emma (Haven Lee Harris) lives a happy life with her parents. Well, almost happy. Her parents are both loving, wonderful people in their own right, who both clearly care for Emma a great deal. But it’s clear from the first few moments that their marriage is crumbling. Her father Alex (Brionne Davis) is a workaholic writer and her mother Sara (Augie Duke) suffers from depression and is easily angered by Alex’s lack of attention. Emma is the bright spot in both of their lives, but even still, they are both nearing the end of their ability to stay together to try to make it work.
One night, during a particularly angry argument. Emma runs downstairs to try to escape their fighting. She trips, taking a dangerous fall down the stairs and lands, unconscious, at the bottom. When she awakens, she finds herself in a strange and twisted garden. She finds a window and is able to peer inside the house and see her parents talking to the paramedics who are working on her still body. She tries to get their attention, but to no avail. They cannot see or hear her.
What follows is Emma’s frightening journey through this dreamscape to get back to her parents and return to the waking world. One of the first people that she meets in this strange land is an organ player who gifts her with an important object - a radio. If she turns it on and dials it just right, she can hear the voices of her parents. If she follows the signal, it will take her home.
Emma begins to make her way through this strange land, letting the radio and her parents’ voices guide her. Along the way, she meets all manner of strange beings and sees wondrous things. The dream world is a very industrial landscape, full of pipes, rebar and a number of strange beings. The worst of which is a dark and horrible figure, wrapped in a long trench coat. It floats inches above the ground and announces itself with its chattering teeth. It is an evil creature that feeds on Emma’s tears and is chasing her through this strange place, trying to keep her from leaving.
Moon Garden takes a familiar story format and builds its own dark fairytale around it. We’ve seen many stories about a child being whisked away to another world, and Harris really works to put his own stamp on the trope. The elements that really stand out in this film, and create a unique world, are the art direction and the practical effects work. Beautifully lit scenes, strange landscapes and stop-motion animation create Emma’s dream world in a way that is surreal and stunning. There are a number of effects on display here, from camera tricks to hand drawn animation to lighting techniques that bring this film to life in a unique way. The look of this film is absolutely gorgeous. Until it is absolutely nightmarish. And even then, it’s still kind of pretty.
Often, films like this, where our protagonist is taken into a strange world and has to fight to return home, come in the form of coming-of-age stories. Our lead character is often an adolescent and their journey through this dreamspace is akin to them taking their first few steps into adulthood, learning something important about themselves along the way. Labyrinth, Girl Asleep and even The Neverending Story are all stellar examples. In this film however, the extremely young age of our protagonist really makes this feel like a horrifying fairytale, especially given the dark nature of the world. The stakes feel incredibly high, and we don’t have the safety net that having an older hero can provide. Emma is tiny and vulnerable; unprotected in this nightmarish land. And while not everyone that she meets means her harm, we’re terrified to think about the monster finally catching up with her.
Moon Garden is an incredible, unique film that was clearly a labor of love for everyone involved. It wears its heart on its sleeve, both in its themes and in its love for the practical, tangible world that it creates. In that, it carries its own magic that it bestows onto its audience and allows us to enjoy for a couple of hours, before we slowly fade back into the real world.
Movie Score: 4/5