by Hope Madden
If you are looking for a wondrously macabre fairy tale, a nightmare that’s both fanciful and terrifying, writer/director Ryan Stevens Harris has a tale to tell.
Moon Garden delivers a journey through the fertile imagination of 5-year-old Emma (Haven Lee Harris). We know from Act 1 that she funnels what she picks up from the world around her into delightfully odd, even spooky fantasies for her toys to act out. So, when trouble that’s been brewing at home (and spilling into Emma’s playtime fantasies) unexpectedly puts the tot in a coma, that fantasy world drowns out reality and Emma finds herself on a very big journey indeed.
Of its many successes Moon Garden can boast set design, creature design and stop motion work at the top. All are very solid, and all collaborate to evoke a big, dark, scary world where logic bends but wonder never dies.
Creature design – particularly the first creature – lives up to the expectations set early when we see Emma’s toys. And the film benefits immeasurably from a charming and believable central performance by young Harris. Excellent editing helps to make her physical journey seem more plausible, but her laughter and tears never feel less than genuine.
Augie Duke, playing Emma’s distraught mother, and Brionne Davis as Dad Alex are less impressive, although it may be that the artistic vision is so much stronger in the fantastical storyline that the real-world of the parents received short shrift.
Other characters glimpsed briefly within the otherworldly realm are more compelling, aided by stagey old school costuming. Wisely, the filmmaker blurs lines between good and evil, giving the story itself a kind of fluidity that feels appropriate to a dreamscape and also keeps you constantly surprised.
The story, and to a degree the entire film, is hokey but Moon Garden generates more than enough of the macabre in old school fairy tales to evoke a wondrous nightmare energy.