Over the Moon reaches stratospheric heights

Netflix’s first in-house animated feature borrows extensively from Disney’s book of tricks, but still produces a moving exploration of grief heavily inspired by Chinese culture.

Starring Cathy Ang, Phillipa Soo, Ken Jeong, John Cho, Ruthie Ann Miles, Sandra Oh, and Robert G. Chiu

With Disney encroaching upon Netflix’s streaming space, it was only a matter of time before Netflix turned its hands to making a massive animated spectacular, of the kind that the House of Mouse has built its empire upon. While not the first animated film that Netflix has had a hand in, “Over the Moon” has the privilege of being the first in-house animation, made in collaboration with the Chinese animation studio Pearl.

There are a lot of recognisable features here to Disney’s beloved classics. Firstly, there’s the premise, revolving around the ancient Chinese fable of moon goddess Chang’e, who was torn away from her mortal lover as a result of taking an immortality potion. While perhaps not a well-known Western story, it’s one that Chinese children will know instinctively. That’s not where the connections end, though, with Glen Keane, the director, a Disney animator, working on Disney projects from the Renaissance, such as “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin”, even helping to co-ordinate the transition from 2D animation to CGI for “Tangled”. Keane is no longer part of the Disney family, departing as a result of his frustration with the constant push-pull of conflicting ideas when producing their animated classics.

There are the familiar story beats that seem practically ingrained within the public consciousness by now: a plucky, independent heroine who you root for, who has a tragic backstory to overcome; the obligatory “I want” song, in which you understand what they are striving towards for the rest of the movie; and adorable, vaguely irritating sidekicks: in this case, an Olaf substitute in Gobi, a fast talking and unwaveringly optimistic luminous pangolin, voiced charmingly by Ken Jeong, and an oblivious, yet endearingly energetic young boy, seeking attention and affection from their companion in a fashion reminiscent of Russell from “Up” with Fei Fei’s not-yet step-brother Chin (Robert G. Chiu).

“Over the Moon” tells a story of profound loss, as we are introduced to Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) and father (John Cho), who lovingly relay to Fei Fei the legendary tale of Chang’e, and how she waits on the Moon for her love to return to her. Unfortunately, within the first few minutes of the movie, Fei Fei’s mother becomes ill and dies. Years later, the barely healed wound is cut open again as Ba Ba prepares to remarry the entirely pleasant Mrs Zhong (Sandra Oh), who brings her son Chin along with her.

As the annual Moon Festival draws near, Fei Fei finds herself constantly reminded of her mother, when they used to make mooncakes as a family. Fearing that her father has forgotten all about his love, Fei Fei vows to travel to the moon to prove Chang’e’s existence. Putting her scientific skills to good use, and with the handy help of some flaming lion spirits, Fei Fei discovers that Chang’e is still alive, though she has become jaded and self centred as a result of her waiting for True Love Houyi.

At its heart, “Over the Moon” explores how to move on from devastating grief, while also making it palatable for a young audience and without sacrificing heart or humour. It’s worth noting that the writer herself Audrey Wells passed away in 2018 of cancer, making the conversations throughout the film about moving on after death even more poignant, as she confronted these concepts herself.

“Over the Moon” is almost perfect in this regard, but it could certainly have leaned into mourning in a more serious way than what ultimately transpires. Fei Fei’s motivation throughout the film is almost hollow; her journey to the moon mainly an excuse to shoehorn in some psychedelic visuals, and while it’s obvious that she is still processing and grieving her mother, the dramatic breakdown moment that the audience is cathartically longing for never really bursts through. The stunning view of Lunaria, pulsating with neon colour and wondrous characters, while absolutely beautiful, does detract somewhat from that grounded heartbeat of the story. Chang’e and Fei Fei are both in desperate need of actually confronting and processing their lost loves, but the moment of solemnity that occurs is almost too quiet and resigned to adequately reflect all of the pain contained within one of the greatest heartbreaks a human can endure.

Where “Over the Moon” really supernovas are its (inter)stellar visuals. The animation style is consistently stunning throughout, even featuring haute couture designed by Chinese designer Guo Pei for Chang’e’s regal appearance. When the story is Earth-based, it is grounded in hyper-realistic detail, from the sheen on pak choi, to mouth watering mooncakes. The way that the trees sway next to the river, and the movement of the feathers on a crane as it flies really helps to immerse the viewer in what they’re seeing. It’s just as spectacular once the movie moves to outer space, with the luminescent city of Lunaria resembling the Emerald City in “The Wizard of Oz”. Suddenly, the film is thrust into bonkers, psychedelic images, as we are presented with a bombastic and unexpected concert helmed by Chang’e. Looking back on the film, it seems baffling that they manage to fit in as many different locations and visuals as they do, while also managing to incorporate some gorgeous 2D animations as well.

The film is also ably lifted by the music, written by Helen Park, Christopher Curtis and Marjorie Huffield. The first few songs are heavily influenced by Chinese heritage, and feature some impressive soprano quality throughout, as well as providing the vital exposition that this story needs to thrive. “Rocket to the Moon” is a brilliant “I want” song, full to the brim with teen angst and passion, while the soundtrack takes more of a K-Pop turn with “Ultraluminary” and “Hey Boy”, both of which are massively elevated by Soo’s stunning vocals. Perhaps the most touching song on the soundtrack is “Love Someone New”, as both Chang’e and Fei Fei have to embrace the reality they find themselves in and escape the trappings of their grief. While not all of the songs are infinitely toe-tapping, and it’s not one which will be bouncing around your head afterwards, these musical numbers really enhance and assist the movie in the story it is trying to tell.

“Over the Moon” is a hugely affecting tale of loss, which is a topic that most of the audience will, unfortunately, be able to relate to. Its brilliant animation is a massive draw, and its use of tried-and-tested tropes often employed by Disney don’t detract from its appeal, but rather work in its favour. Full of heart and humour, as well as brilliant vocal performances both musically and dramatically, this is a film that is sure to be as beloved as Disney classics by those that watch it.

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