- Over the Moon
- Directed by Glen Keane and John Kahrs
- Written by Audrey Wells
- Featuring the voices of Cathy Ang, Phillipa Soo and Ken Jeong
- Classification PG; 95 minutes
The new Netflix film Over the Moon features all the obligatory elements of a modern animated feature. It focuses on a spirited young heroine enduring familial hardships, a smattering of pop songs that are fine enough in the moment but evaporate from the mind seconds later, and a squishy bright-green alien thingy voiced by Ken Jeong in a fit of Olaf-goes-outer-space comedic relief. But Over the Moon is far more interesting than its animated contemporaries, if only for the parsing of its backstory.
Produced by the Chinese-American outfit Pearl Studio in partnership with Netflix, the film represents a fascinating attempt to appeal to young audiences on both sides of the Pacific. But much like Disney’s recent attempt to woo the entire world with its live-action Mulan, there is a seeming disconnect between the creative forces and the culture that they are exploring and then interpreting.
Taking place in an unnamed modern-day Chinese village, Over the Moon follows a 13-year-old girl named Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) who dearly misses her beloved, deceased mother. Just as her mooncake-baking father (John Cho) begins to romance a new woman (Sandra Oh), who arrives on the scene complete with her own annoying little son (Robert G. Chiu), Fei Fei starts to fantasize about the moon goddess Chang’e. From there, it’s a hop, skip and a magical-realism jump for Fei Fei and her stowaway little stepbrother to enjoy an actual rocket-ship ride to the moon, where they meet the lonely, possibly malicious Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) and a host of wacky Lunarians, before learning valuable life lessons.
From the press materials made available, it appears that screenwriter Audrey Wells and co-directors Glen Keane and John Kahrs conducted massive amounts of research for the film, diving into everything from the cultural significance of China’s mid-autumn festival to the legend of Chang’e, with the story idea itself originating from the mind of executive producer Janet Yang (The Joy Luck Club). Plus, prominent Asian performers such as Jeong, Oh, Cho and Soo would not have so readily signed on were they unsatisfied with the production’s authenticity and sincerity.
But watching Over the Moon unfold over its too-leisurely 95 minutes, the filmmakers' efforts feel rather ... not “crass,” exactly. But certainly off. There is a genuine passion and respect for Chinese culture and history on display in almost every frame of the film, which is often visually stunning. But in place of an actual cultural understanding, there is only a spirit of appreciation. That this is mixed in with the most disposable elements of contemporary Hollywood children’s entertainment – forgettable songs, annoying side characters, a back half that replaces wonder with exhaustion – only waters the film down further. In the filmmakers' bid to please both Chinese and American families, they underestimate and fail to accommodate anyone.
There are other angles to explore in Over the Moon’s genesis, all more interesting than Fei Fei’s actual onscreen journey. Wells, for instance, died early during production from cancer, although knowing that this story about the power of family would be her last. The Oscar-winning Keane is a living legend among old-school, hand-drawn Disney obsessives yet has chosen to work here mostly with computer animation. And coming so soon after Netflix’s The Willoughbys, I Lost My Body and Klaus, Over the Moon signals that the streaming giant is very much intending to be the new Disney.
But I would take a dozen Olafs over just one Gobi. And I have a hunch that your kids might feel the same.
Over the Moon is available to stream on Netflix starting Oct. 23
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.