Over the Moon spectacularly shines a light on Chinese culture with its affective animation, touching themes, and stellar soundtrack.
For years, the acclaimed and widely adored animator Glen Keane almost solely shared his art with the world through his work at Walt Disney Animation Studios, creating characters for masterpieces of the animation medium, such as 1989’s The Little Mermaid, 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, 1992’s Aladdin, 1995’s Pocahontas, 1999’s Tarzan, and, most recently, 2010’s Tangled. His indisputable talent did not go unrecognized by the industry at large, as he won an Annie Award in 1992 for “Outstanding Individual Achievement in the Field of Animation” for Beauty and the Beast, and in 2013, he was officially named a “Disney Legend” due to his innumerable successes at the studio. Though Keane left Disney in early 2012 to pursue new projects, his triumphs outside of his time at the Mouse House have been just as rewarding and revolutionary, especially since he notably won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2018 with the late Kobe Bryant for directing and animating Dear Basketball. Now, Keane is stepping back in the director’s chair, this time for his feature film debut, with Netflix’s colorful Chinese-centric chronicle Over the Moon. And, luckily, despite being situated at a new studio, Keane’s absorbing animation remains as riveting as ever, as does his steadily stirring storytelling.
Over the Moon focuses on a fearless young girl by the name of Fei Fei (Cathy Ang, of Hulu’s Ramy and the Emmy-nominated short film Age of Sail), whose cozy childhood consisted of romping about with her rabbit Bungee (the adorable animal sidekick essential for any successful animated film) and palling around with her parents (John Cho, of Star Trek and Searching, and Ruthie Ann Miles, of Broadway’s The King and I and FX’s The Americans). Tragically, trouble arose when Fei Fei’s mother became ill and later passed away, leaving Fei Fei to bear the burden of a broken heart. Four years later, Fei Fei still finds herself struggling with her mother’s sudden demise, and these emotions are exacerbated when her father announces his intentions to wed Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh, of Sideways and BBC’s Killing Eve). Feeling lost without any apparent answers to her present plight, Fei Fei looks to the stars and remembers the myth of Chang’e (Phillipa Soo, of Hamilton fame) that her mother used to tell her when she was a child – a Chinese woman who accidentally took a magic potion that caused her to float away to the Moon, leaving her true love behind on Earth while she waited in space for their long-overdue reunion.
Convinced that getting her father to believe in Chang’e again will remind him of his devotion to his dearly departed wife, Fei Fei manufactures a rocket that can shoot her into space so she can finally meet this mythical Moon goddess. Unfortunately, things don’t go according to plan, as her soon-to-be-stepbrother Chin (Robert G. Chiu, of Nickelodeon’s Albert) stows away on her ship, and when Fei Fei ultimately does meet Chang’e, this famed figure isn’t at all what she expected. In exchange for Chang’e’s help, Fei Fei must shockingly set off on a complicated crusade to gain a “gift” for the goddess, and on this journey, she is soon joined by a gabby green Moon creature named Gobi (Ken Jeong, of The Hangover trilogy and Crazy Rich Asians). Over time, can Fei Fei come to reconcile with her remorse and learn how to move past her heartache as well?
Over the Moon was written by the late, great Audrey Wells (The Hate U Give, The Game Plan) and though the script has its fair share of solemnity, Wells finds a balance between the gravity and the glee in this touching tale, delicately depicting Fei Fei’s dejection while also accentuating all the amusement that life still has to offer in the wake of her mother’s passing. The first act sensitively sets up these critical connections between Fei Fei and her parents with a poignant prologue that mirrors the melancholy of the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up, before transitioning into an energetic exploration of Fei Fei’s community (that shows ravishing reverence for Chinese culture). Even from the start, Wells is able to weigh Fei Fei’s woes with the wonders of the world and place us right in our heroine’s multidimensional mind, allowing us to experience every frenzied feeling just as she does – all the harmonious highs and all the listless lows.
Before Fei Fei is shot off into space, it may feel like Over the Moon is spinning its wheels a bit, but every encounter in this introduction proves important to the effectiveness of the film’s ending, from Fei Fei’s initial irritation with Chin to her tenseness towards Mrs. Zhong. Nonetheless, it is true that Fei Fei’s exploits really earn our excitement when she makes her way to the Moon, primarily due to the imaginative intergalactic imagery that Keane creates, as we are enveloped in these extraterrestrial environments and captivated by all the color and chaos. Obviously, Keane is no stranger to shaping vibrant visuals for animated features, but he somehow still surpasses former feats here, cultivating a compelling chromatic climate brimming with brilliance and buoyancy. On Fei Fei’s adventure to attain Chang’e’s “gift,” you’ll even want to accompany her and cavort amongst these amusement park-esque terrains, as they are so carefully and compellingly characterized that it’s easy to imagine interacting with them yourself.
Though Fei Fei’s mission to (and on) the Moon is somewhat straightforward when all is said and done, and some of the story beats may feel familiar, Keane’s aforementioned vivid visual wizardly always keeps us engaged, as does the film’s sensational soundtrack. The melodious “Mooncakes” adds pathos to the narrative’s sentimental start, while the standout song will no doubt be Fei Fei’s “Rocket to the Moon,” a classic “I Want” carol in the vein of past Disney princesses. Chang’e gets quite a few harmonic hits as well, with the uber-catchy “Ultraluminary” proving to be the most memorable. Finally, “Love Someone New” is a tender tune that ties up all the themes of this tale in the film’s finale and allows Fei Fei and Chang’e a chance to commiserate over their personal pains and forge a new path forward in their respective lives.
In addition, Over the Moon’s voice cast is quite accomplished across-the-board, and their collective commitment to the material makes the movie that much more meaningful. Relative newcomer Ang channels Fei Fei’s sorrows and her smarts simultaneously, and she can be counted on to capably convey her character’s tear-jerking transformation as the chronicle reaches its close. Chiu is an erratic but entertaining eccentric as the crazed Chin, and despite how much he may bother Fei Fei, Chiu sells us on his fondness for his future sister spectacularly. Soo is a sassy and snarky surprise as the capricious Chang’e, while Jeong is a rollicking riot as the gut-busting Gobi, as commendably comedic as we can always count on him to be.
Over the Moon asserts Netflix’s increasing importance in the cinematic marketplace for audacious and awe-inspiring animated entertainment and additionally offers a singularly stirring and sumptuous story rooted in a reverence for Chinese culture that tackles tender and tangible thematic material all while entertaining audiences of all ages. From its spellbinding soundtrack to its charming cast of colorful characters, you’ll be hard-pressed not to be hooked by the heart inherent in this energetic epic, and you might even learn some lessons about love and life along the way.
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