Using flour, dough, and melon seeds, a young girl and her mother make mooncakes together, the popular Chinese dessert. Mooncakes are a staple in Netflix’s latest animated venture, Over the Moon – the first animated Hollywood studio film to boast an entirely Asian cast. As Hamilton‘s Phillipa Soo sings, “Are you ready to watch me be legendary? Cause I’m ultraluminary.” Well, when she puts it that way: yes!
What do a quaint Chinese village and the moon have in common? A lot it seems in this modern day fairytale. Over the Moon pays a couple of subtle nods to classics like A Trip to the Moon and The Wizard of Oz – it feels new yet extremely recognizable. At the helm of the film is Disney legend Glen Keane making his feature directorial debut. Past projects include animating Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and directing the late Kobe Bryant’s Oscar-winning short, Dear Basketball. Fei Fei (newcomer Cathy Ang) goes beyond Keane’s previous leading heroes – she wants to literally build a rocket to the moon.
Set in a charming Chinese village, the film begins in a rather Up-like prologue. Fei Fei has a seemingly normal life with her parents, voiced by John Cho (Star Trek) and Broadway vet Ruthie Ann Miles. Fei Fei’s mother introduces her to the tale of the Moon Goddess Chang’e, who spends an eternity pining for her past mortal lover Houyi. Tragedy strikes and we jump four years later to twelve year old Fei Fei honoring her mother’s memory during the Mid-Autumn Festival. To note, Over the Moon‘s global release is set for October 23 during the Festival. It’s beautiful to see this beloved holiday at the core of a children’s film similar to Día de los Muertos and Pixar’s Coco.
In preparation for the festival, Fei Fei’s father introduces his new girlfriend Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her son Chin (Robert G. Chiu). Fei Fei is not happy about this new revelation, especially when Chin follows her around like an annoying puppy. Her family comes over (Kimiko Glen and Margaret Cho among others) for a grand dinner around a round table. The easiness of the familiy banter is so relatable. At dinner, they begin to tease Fei Fei for her belief in Chang’e (mirroring her mom). This leads Fei Fei to begin her quest to reach the moon and prove her existence.
The titular ballad ‘Rocket to the Moon’ sung by Fei Fei is the most stunning sequence of the film. Using her internet research and wonderkid type astrophysics knowledge, she successfully builds the rocket. Blast off to Lunaria? The moon isn’t as barren as it seems. Instead, it’s a booming technicolor city called Lunaria and Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) is a pop Goddess. She wears a Katy Perry-esque dress and sings K-pop stylized songs. There is a castle in the sky, glowing animals, and talking colorful mooncakes. While the animation is visually out of this world, the city of Lunaria creates a noticeable shift in tone and it feels rather disjointed from the rest of the film. Though Ken Jeong (Community) finally makes his appearance as Gobi, a talking green dog that assists Fei Fei in this new terrain. Despite this tonal shift, there are still some surprises to revel in.
Penned by the late Audrey Wells (The Hate U Give), Over the Moon serves as a love letter to her daughter and the grieving process. Fei Fei and Chang’e help each other put their losses behind them and move forward. It’s a cathartic experience for those who are familiar with loss.
The Asian cast really brings the characters and animation to life. There is a sense that young kids could see themselves in Fei Fei by design and personality. It’s an important movie for Asian representation and it’s still a win despite the white director/writer duo behind the camera. However, Over the Moon still feels like two different pieces: the part set in a beautiful Chinese village rich with life and Lunaria, a modern pop daydream. It’s frustrating that the film takes on a gimmick when the best moments are of Fei Fei and her family dynamic.
The film does have sweet universal lessons – cherishing those around you and letting new ones in, which is extremely poignant for the time we’re in. It’s hard to shake off the feeling of familiarity, but hopefully its new lens encourages more diverse animation being made in the future. Over the Moon is still really charming overall and is sure to make an impact for viewers to come.