Engaging Chinese Myth, Science, and Adolescent Struggles, Glen Keane’s Netflix Feature Remains Trapped in Orbit.
DIRECTED BY GLEN KEANE/2020
On its surface, the musical animated feature Over the Moon, has several things going for it. It’s directed by a bona fide living legend in Disney animation, Glen Keane (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Tarzan, Tangled… the list goes on). It’s got the backing and resources of the most popular streaming service, Netflix. Thanks to Netflix’s relentless campaigning, it is currently positioned as a major contender for various 2020 Best Animated Film awards. Written by late film scribe Audrey Wells (The Hate U Give), Over the Moon boasts a tasteful and well-realized contemporary Chinese setting, harkening to that culture’s ancient lunar mythology of Chang’e, the immortal moon goddess.
Unfortunately, none of that is enough to land the film outside of the sea of mediocrity. Though Over the Moon makes every attempt (and then some) at earnest emotional storytelling, it repeatedly succumbs to the kind of heavy-handed on-the-nose exposition (in both its overwrought songs and its dialogue) that competing studio Pixar has built a career steering clear of. The central character, a tweenager named Fei Fei (voice of Cathy Ang) works in her father’s (John Cho) bakery making and delivering their unique mooncakes, which are derived from her late mother’s special recipe. Fei Fei’s young childhood with her mother makes up the film’s earliest moments. These sequences forcibly demonstrate just how vibrant, perky, and singularly focused on sharing the wonder of mooncakes her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) is/was. Seriously, this is the least haggard, high spirited mom on the planet. Consider the parenting curve officially thrown.
Then again, a major point of the narrative must be the degree to which Fei Fei idealizes the memory of her mother once the movie jumps ahead, four years passed her death. As Over the Moon is revealed to be the story of Fei Fei at this age, it must be begrudgingly admitted that it makes sense for her to remember her mother in a such a glowing and perfect way. Such memory is the basis for her refusal to accept her father’s new fiancée, who brings with her a younger goofball son named Chin (Robert G. Chiu).
When, following her bombastically declarative “Over the Rainbow”-type song called “Rocket to the Moon”, Chin stows away on her homemade rocket which she has indeed built-in order to go to the moon. Her mission? Find Chang’e so she can prove to some annoying relatives that the ancient goddess is real. The film is careful to demonstrate how astute Fei Fei is in the ways of science and engineering, thus establishing how she’d have the knowledge and wherewithal to build her rocket. Never mind that there’s no way that it could actually work; this Wizard of Oz variation makes sure she (and Chin) arrives to her destination.
As most of the film takes place on the particularly bright side of the moon and delivers the kind of twists common in mainstream animated fare (Chang’e is a pop star! Ken Jeong voices an annoying “comical” alien character!), all the plot resolutions can be seen from 384,400 km away. The film’s few indulgences into truly whimsical territory are too few and to spread out to feel proper within the story. What’s intended as endearing (Chin insisting he has superpowers, or Fei Fei’s pet rabbit; the under-utilized mythic moon-bound beasts of burden) don’t land.
Fei Fei is passable as a lead, but the story momentarily loses track of her just as her quest ought to be ramping up, opting to focus on the less-important plights of side characters. The film’s main quest is a frustrating one: the search for an all-important “gift” that Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) demands of Fei Fei. For the longest time, Fei Fei doesn’t know what this gift is any better than we the viewers do. For a film that goes out of its way to telegraph obligatory elements of Fei Fei’s empowering confidence and wherewithal, she’s left helpless for the longest time, with only luck as a possibility.
As family viewing on a cozy weekday night goes, one could do worse than the nicely animated Over the Moon. Within Glen Keane’s own distinguished body of work, however, one could also do far, far better. (Chang’e’s flashbacks playing out as bursts of vintage-era Keane 2-D animation is a very nice flourish). As it lands, Over the Moon never delivers on its titular euphoria. The surface of this Moon turns out to be as craterous as ever.