MOON GARDEN (2023)
Release Date: 05/19/23 [Cinemas]
Genre: Drama. Fantasy. Horror.
Studio: Oscilloscope Laboratories
"A comatose five-year-old girl journeys through an industrial wonderland to find her way back to consciousness."
OUR MOVIE REVIEW:
A mother wakes her 5-year-old daughter in the middle of the night to surprise her with the trip of a lifetime. The two tiptoe downstairs and get in the car, but as the mom opens the garage door and starts the ignition the girl asks “Where’s Daddy?” The mom begins to sob. Not because the father is gone, but because she realizes her ploy to try and leave the daughter’s father won’t work. Shortly after, the father arrives at the garage infuriated. He pulls the girl out of the car and tells the mom they need to talk.
These are only the first five minutes of Ryan Stevens Harris’ Moon Garden. While it might seem like the beginning of a story about abuse, it’s actually a setup for something greater.
After the daughter has been tucked back into bed, the mother and father do get the chance to talk. However, that talk escalates into a screaming match that wakes the girl again. Curious to see what the noise is, she follows it to her parents’ room where she finds them arguing. When the parents finally notice her, they stop fighting and attempt to console her. She refuses their comfort and runs away. As she runs, she falls and trips down the stairs. That is when the film finally begins.
For the remainder of its runtime, we follow the 5-year-old, named Emma, stuck in a comatose state, as she attempts to find her way “home” (awake).
Now, while the idea of a child being trapped in a world without parents and forced to fend off supernatural threats isn’t all that original, Moon Garden still finds a way to stand out. Despite a somewhat morbid setup, the result is a surprisingly optimistic adventure that feels less like Skinamarink and more like a spiritual successor to Alice in Wonderland.
Make no mistake. It’s no Disney film. The morbid opening alone tells you that. But it’s not just Harris’ willingness to explore such dark themes through the lens of a child that makes this story feel so fresh. It’s also how he does it. Where most other films revolving around children cheat by giving the kids quests to complete, Moon Garden asks the question “what if the child had to figure it all out on their own.” And so Emma does. She wanders aimlessly until she comes to the shocking realization of what’s happened. It’s a brilliant choice on Harris’ part that not only makes you feel as clueless - and sometimes hopeless - as Emma. But it establishes such a solid level of engagement with the audience that it’s impossible not to feel like you’re truly on the journey with her.
Harris’ vision as a whole is worth praise. Despite some obvious budget restrictions, he manages to create some absolutely terrifying obstacles. The main one being a character simply referred to as Teeth. In case the name isn’t a big enough hint, it uses one particular body part to maximum effect, and it is every bit as nightmare-inducing as the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth.
Harris’ vision isn’t the only star though. It shares the spotlight with Haven Lee Harris, the young actress who plays Emma. On top of keeping the audience engaged during the film’s 90 minute runtime, she also acts as a fine reminder of how important emotions such as empathy and forgiveness are, and how we’re so quick to forget them as adults. Her unwavering affection for her father, who is introduced as a real-life monster, is a perfect example of this.
As previously hinted at, Moon Garden’s biggest obstacle is its budgetary restrictions. Not to say that the film ever looks cheap, but it’s not always as convincing. There are moments that might take the viewer out as a result. That’s not it’s biggest con though. That belongs to the simple fact that the father, who Emma still wants in her life, is rarely around. For example, there are a few flashes to reality while Emma is in her coma and the father is never anywhere to be found. It’s an absence that makes you wonder if he really deserves a second chance.
Those small flaws aside, Moon Garden is still a film worth your time. Sure, it’s a new take on a story that’s been done countless times before like The Wizard of Oz and even Peter Pan, but it’s twice as bold with just as much magic.