Legendary animator Glen Keane spent four decades with Disney. He is best known for his work on The Little Mermaid, Tarzan, and Tangled to name a few. After leaving the studio, his directorial work on Kobe Bryant’s Dear Basketball won him the Oscar for Best Animated Short. It’s not often that a Disney legend branches off into uncharted territory. Fans of Keane were awaiting for what could come next. Finally, he’s made his directorial animated feature debut with Over the Moon in partnership with Pearl Studios and Netflix.
Over the Moon is a rare feat within the world of animation: a big-budget feature deeply rooted in Chinese culture that is also supported by an all Asian voice cast. The story follows Fei Fei, a young girl who uses her cunning wit to literally fly to the moon in search of the Moon Goddess Chang’e. There is more to the moon than meets the eye for Fei Fei discovers Lunaria, an Oz-like technicolor city where Chang’e rocks its inhabitants with her K-pop style ballads. Taking place during the Mid-Autumn 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.” Though similar to that film, its international culture was brought to life with the great help of non-POC artists (director Glen Keane and the late screenwriter Audrey Wells in this instance).
Thankfully, the duo took on this project with great precision and used their influence to lift more Asian voices behind the scenes. We were fortunate enough to get a taste of this process with director Glen Keane himself. We talk about his transition from animator to full-fledged director and with a career as grand as his, the insight and lessons from Over the Moon are nothing short of rich. We also got a slight hint on what animated project he may be working on next!
It’s an honor to sit and speak with you. I actually attended one of your exhibitions at the Walt Disney Family Museum. It was called Make Believe and it featured your art throughout the years: Ariel, Aladdin, that whole mix.
GK: Gosh, what a wonderful opportunity that was to dig into all of my past archives and bring them all out. That was fun.
As a Disney legend, how did you take all of that experience in choosing Over the Moon as your first animated feature film to direct?
GK: Well, if your career is like a mountain, I’m at the peak. And doing this movie, I felt like everything underneath me was leading to this. For me, it’s about these characters that believe the impossible is possible. Ariel, of course, is like the epitome of that. But Fei Fei is another step beyond because it’s not a fairytale. She’s real. What I find so fascinating is animating the moment of discovery in a character. It’s something that I’m always drawn to, the eyes of a character and seeing how a character feels. I was taught, “Glen, don’t animate what the character’s doing, animate with the character’s thinking and feeling.” This is what my mentors just really drilled into me.
It’s part science and then her mom. It’s her mind and her heart together. All throughout this film, I wanted to make sure that was the thing we were always going to be returning to – experiencing all of this discovery that’s happening through Fei Fei. That was really the culmination of my career, to be able to bring all of that in Fei Fei, Chang’e, and all the characters in this film.
I love how powerful Fei Fei is and how independent she is. I wish I had a character like her growing up, and the sequence where she sings Rocket to the Moon is beautiful. I read that it was your decision to make the film into a musical. What about this story influenced you to make that call?
GK: As I was reading the script, it was not written as a musical, but the moments felt like news would lift you. There was so much emotion and desire in the script. I kept thinking of Howard Ashman and how he would take those moments and launch the story forward in a song. There are points in the movie where you can tell something more powerfully through song. The emotions of making the moon cakes, the family, the feeling, the joy and the fun of that together, and then the loss of her mom. Music comes in the back door and lifts your emotions – makes you feel in a way that nothing else can. Like in Rocket to the Moon, about a third into it, Fei Fei realizes that she’s got to build a rocket to the moon and she sings it, and then you follow it through, she’s reaching for the moon by the end of it.
I just loved the way that music could launch everything forward. I talked to Peilin [Chou] and Audrey [Wells] afterward about the possibility of this being a musical instead. I believed that songs were really needed. Both of their eyes just lit up like, “Yes, of course!’ I realized, well, that was already kind of embedded in the DNA of this story. Also, Audrey worked even just months before she passed away to make those songs work because we were adjusting the architecture of the story in order to do that.
There are so many influences of what Audrey was going through, and after knowing that, it makes the film hit even more. You visited China during the making of the film and Producer Peilin Chou gave you a tour while you were there. How important to you was it to honor the culture that Over the Moon was inspired by?
GK: You know, the things that you’re hit with are the things that you don’t know. In my first meeting with the designers at Pearl Studio in Shanghai, we sat down in a little conference room and I asked them to tell me about themselves. I thought the artists were going to talk about what art school they went to and training. Instead, the first one said, “Well, I’m from the Northern area of China and we have a flat long noodle. That’s the kind of noodle that we really like.” Then the next one talked about their noodle in the Southern area. I was like, what? I mean, I would never start talking about the food that I was connected with as an artist, but for them, food represented a shared life together. That deep generational connection, thousands of years connecting them, even just the respect they showed to people older than them.
The depth of that culture really hit me and everything that I saw, smelled, tasted, touched, heard – these were the things that I really wanted to be in the beginning and end of the movie, as we went to that little town in China. We’re going to follow Fei Fei’s journey and how she relates to her family sitting around that table, as I sat around. I was touched by their frankness, their honesty, and the way they showed love. It was absolutely a wonderful education. Something I knew was that I would not be telling an American view of this story. I needed to go and marinate myself in this culture. In my office, I had a monitor on my wall. I called it my window to the world and I was constantly talking to our team in China, as well as other teams around the world that were all working on this movie.
Yes, even the art on the food was so detail-oriented – the mooncakes, the bok choy, crabs, everything, you can see how central food is to the film. Now Over the Moon tackles many themes of love and loss, which feels extremely poignant to what’s going on now in the world. With this timely streaming release, seeing as many theaters are still closed… What other advantages do you see your film having on Netflix?
GK: Well, lots of different ways I can answer that! But someone once asked me, “Glen, do you feel as if you love people through your animation?” I said, no, I don’t think so. I mean, I am animating and I’m obsessed with it. I have to push it away to spend time with my family who I love and it’s more of a competition. He said, “I really think that you should rethink that… I think that you do, you touch people through your animation and that’s love.” So I really thought about that and in a lot of ways that this was going to be an opportunity as well for Audrey to touch not only the world but her daughter – that was constantly in my mind. It’s important how the film is experienced. Netflix is streaming in the home, in the living room with people that are sitting on the couch.
This is where life is lived. There’s something very intimate about it. On another note, yes, we’ve designed a film that is to be seen in 3D with glasses as well. The utmost sound, everything is ready for a big movie theater. My hope is that the world opens up and that this movie can then be seen that way. But there is nothing that will get in the way of touching people’s souls and hearts, seeing it in the living room and streaming with Netflix. I’m blessed that this movie is being presented to the world this way.
It’s definitely going to reach a lot of people this way, especially on Netflix and considering the circumstances. Do you plan on directing more animated films after this?
GK: Yes. As I said, this is kind of a culmination for me and my career building up to this. But, I love drawing. That’s what I do. I directed this movie on my animation desk. I drew more for this movie than any movie I’ve ever worked on. Every shot of this film has my drawings in it, to the designs of the characters. It’s the way that I communicate. Working with Guo Pei, the Costume Designer in China, she could not speak English and I couldn’t speak Chinese, but we could speak through drawing and we would. She had these wonderful gestures with her hands that I could mimic while I’m guiding the animation. Drawing those beautiful lines of actions over the top of the animation, so that Dave Smith and Sasha at Sony in inventory could capture the same thing, the feelings that were so rhythmic and important for Chang’e to have that kind of beautiful movement.
When can we expect to see your next directorial effort?
GK: I was developing a project before Peilin approached me. Jenny Rim, my producer, and I were already heading down the path to do a different film. But this one came up. I like to believe that some of the best things in life are gifts. The things that you don’t work for, that are given. You work as hard as you can, but who could have predicted Kobe [Bryant] asking me to animate or Over the Moon coming? Now that we’re done, that project is beginning to percolate, but who knows? I’m always living my life open, believing and trusting that something wonderful is coming. And I just don’t know quite what it is yet. So yes, I’m working on another movie to direct.
That’s exciting to hear! You can also tell that this was such a collaborative project, which brings me to my final question. Again, what a beautiful film and now I’m hoping that you and your team get awards recognition. Has this been on your mind?
GK: You’re not the first one to say that! I will not live for that moment, but I would love to see recognition given to this film. I’ve never worked on a film that touched me as deeply. And I’ve worked on films that have touched me deeply. There’s something about this one that feels like a way of touching the world. And at a time – the benefit of COVID is that we all have a shared experience that goes deeper than any political thing and every country in the world knows the pain. The message in this movie, of what Fei Fei goes through and she says, “I just want things to go back to the way they were.” We don’t go back. We go forward. I’m learning that lesson now. I’ve realized how much I just want to go back, but no, we have to move forward. The way Fei Fei moves forward with Chang’e, they see somebody else in pain and they help each other. That’s what is happening in the world right now. How we all share that together, no matter what country, no matter what political thing, that’s a common bond. I think the world is going to be a much richer, stronger place in the future, but we have to move forward to it.