Over the Moon Review
In their latest bid to take over the world (well, the world’s screens at least), Netflix have thrown their hat into the animated musical ring with a collaboration between Sony Imageworks and China’s Pearl Studio. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see that Over the Moon largely takes advantage of the ready made formula that Disney have spent years perfecting – in fact, it’s directed by Mouse House greats Glen Keane and John Kahrs, who worked as animators on such classics as The Little Mermaid and Frozen. What results is a display of wondrous (albeit mildly hallucinogenic) night light visuals which just manage to keep afloat a shakily paced, yet morally intact narrative.
We’re introduced to our protagonist, whizz-kid Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), through an Up-esque five minute vignette, where we watch the health of her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) gradually deteriorate. Fei Fei then fully makes the switch to embittered thirteen-year-old when a few years later, her dad, who she calls Ba Ba, (John Cho) brings home another woman by the name of Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh). Feeling betrayed by her father and annoyed by the prospect of a little step-brother Chin (Robert G Chiu), she builds a rickety space shuttle in order to meet the fabled moon goddess, Chang’e, a recurring figure in the stories her mother used to tell.
Chang’e herself (Phillipa Soo, of Hamilton fame) is undoubtedly the standout performance. She waltzes amidst the glowing blobs that populate Lunaria like a middle-aged divorcée swanning around her mansion – in utterly glamorous loneliness. Her set-pieces dazzle: an electro-pop club anthem and galactic ping pong match shine out in particular. But despite all the spectacle, her character only resembles something of an almost-antagonist, hesitant to embrace much villainy before her own (admittedly moving) redemption. Without a clear external conflict to match Fei Fei’s underlying inability to move on from her mother’s death and accept a new family, the film floats along charmingly enough, but lacks real grounding.
The same goes for its plotting. It’s unclear exactly what Fei Fei wishes to achieve when she jets off in a tizz of teen anguish, apart from proving a tenuous connection between her father’s love for her mother and Chang’e’s immortal love for her long-gone husband Hou Yi; as is why Fei Fei was ever in possession of the ‘gift’ (read: MacGuffin) Chang’e seeks. Various other sequences, including the aforementioned table tennis battle and a bizarre biker chicken chase, feel somewhat shoehorned in, despite how gorgeous they look. Not to mention the appearance of Gobi (Ken Jeong), Fei Fei’s practically radioactive sidekick, who barrels in half-way through with the overly enthusiastic pep of Up’s Dug or Frozen’s Olaf.
Something Over the Moon really leans into, however, is its attention to Chinese culture. The voices provided are (mostly) those of American actors of East Asian heritage, and of course the mythology surrounding the mid-autumn festival forms the crux of the story, both in its focus on Chang’e and the holiday’s signature delicacy – mooncakes. An early number even goes through the step-by-step process of making them. It may be a bit of a faux pas to have the film both written and directed by white Americans (the script was notably penned by the late Audrey Wells in her final screen credit), but Pearl Studio’s hand in the operation allows the subject to be handled in a sensitive and sometimes beautiful way. In one arresting moment, Chang’e’s legend is intimately animated through the rippling patterns of Fei Fei’s silk scarf.
Ultimately, though, a film is only as strong as the story it tells. Yes, Over the Moon features splendid vocal performances, the vibrant and trippy world-building of Disney’s Coco, and a rousing "I want" song to set hearts racing (“Rocket to the Moon”). But its clunky pacing, not-quite-there plot logic and absence of a true adversary, are all failed storytelling devices that play a part in preventing the film from living up to its sublime exterior. While the classic accusation of ‘style over substance’ may be going a bit too far – there is a beating heart at its centre in the general message that it’s ‘ok to move on’ – without a tight execution of these core components, everything starts to sag a little at the seams.
Over the Moon is released on Netflix October 23.