Panic Fest 2023 Review: MOON GARDEN, A Visual Marvel, Like MAD GOD's Cousin
Directed by Ryan Steven Harris, the film stars Augie Duke, Brionne Davis, and Haven Lee Harris.
Following in the footsteps of films like Labyrinth, Coraline, Mirrormask, and others, Ryan Stevens Harris’ Moon Garden tells the story of a girl, Emma (Haven Lee Harris, daughter of the writer/director), who finds herself pulled into a mysterious, magical world.
Like the heroines in those other films, Emma’s home life is far from ideal, her mother struggles with mental health issues and her father has neither the patience nor compassion to accommodate her. But unlike the tweens and teens who lead those films, Emma is very much a young child, somewhere between four and six years old.
While her age makes the film’s loose narrative make more sense (Emma goes on a journey through what seems to be her surprisingly spooky inner world after falling into a coma), it also robs her of the agency necessary to push the narrative forward. Instead of an exciting adventure, Moon Garden feels more like following a point-of-view character through a gorgeously realized world without much in the way of stakes.
Beyond the aforementioned films, the world that Emma enters seems to be inspired by some much darker and less kid-friendly films like The Cell, Silent Hill (as well as the video games that inspired it), and Mad God. From these influences, Stevens Harris does a fantastic job creating a novel world that combines stop motion, forward and backward moving timelapses, and paper cut-out animation with a simple, but incredibly effective monster, as well as sets that are just as beautiful as they are frightening.
The scenes in Emma’s internal world are wonderful to behold. She moves through various areas, each with a specific visual style, and is introduced to several characters who send her along on her journey. But these scenes lack any sense of momentum. Even with the genuinely scary monster on her tail, it doesn’t feel like there’s any forward movement toward a goal so much as vignette-like visits to different parts of this fantastical world.
Making matters worse, the scenes in Emma’s world are punctuated by brief scenes from her family’s past and moments of Emma peering through rifts in the worlds to watch her parents fret and fight over her unconscious body. Instead of building an emotional connection to the family, these scenes draw from what is best and most exciting about the film. They pull us away from the visually thrilling journey through a magical world and ask us to care about a narrative that isn’t well enough established in the opening to have us buy in.
Moon Garden is very much worth seeking out for fans of visually exciting films, especially those that use mixed media to create new and exciting worlds. But for those who are interested in emotional or narrative stakes, the film fails to deliver.
In more ways than one the film feels like a cousin to Mad God. Like that film, Moon Garden may have been better served as a 40-60 minute film that focuses entirely on exploring the visually stunning world it's created, leaving behind any attempts at a narrative.
Oscilloscope Labs will release the film in theaters beginning in May 2023. Visit the official site for more information.