(Warning: This review contains spoilers.)
Just released this past weekend is Netflix’s new animated musical about a Chinese girl who builds a rocket to the moon in an attempt to hold on to her late mother’s memory. Inspired by a popular Mid-Autumn Festival legend, Over the Moon is an ambitious but strongly familiar film whose story of grief is framed with Chinese traditions and Chinese characters delivered through a recognizably Western gaze.
Over the Moon is the directing debut of Academy Award animator Glen Keane; whose impressive portfolio includes well-known childhood favorites such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Tangled; as well as the Oscar-winning Kobe Bryant short Dear Basketball. Produced in partnership with the Shanghai-based Pearl Studio and released in the midst of a culturally diversifying industry, the Chinese-American film was definitely one that was expected to catch attention and succeed.
So here is the question: Does it?
First thing’s first, credit has to be given where credit is due. Unlike the last American depiction of everyone’s favorite cross-dressing heroine, Over the Moon is not a case that suffers from a lack of cultural sensitivity and research. In fact, there are some special points to appreciate: one, that the movie is voiced by an all-Asian cast; and two, that the beautiful traditional hanfu worn by the moon goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) was specially designed by haute couture fashion artist Guo Pei.
Additionally, with both obvious references to Chinese myths and symbolism (read: mooncakes, rabbits, and white cranes), as well as subtle cultural touches like tracksuit school uniforms and Lazy Susan tabletops, the film does try in earnest to carry as much authenticity as it can possibly bear.
But perhaps that is why it also feels like an overload of cultural pandering. After all, how many times can mooncakes be referenced in a film? Must all Chinese media include metaphors of lotus flowers and cranes? Must all Asian girls love boba milk tea? And though not particularly unwelcome, the introduction of Chang’e in some otherworldly moon-based concert hall was also a startling attempt to reference modern C-pop idol culture. At some point, the movie started to feel like a cultural checklist in its bid to make itself seem familiar to Chinese audiences.
Ironically, that is where the Western gaze makes itself known.
The Western animation formula
Stripped of its cultural minutiae, Over the Moon is a film that starts to feel overwhelmingly familiar after a mere five minutes of viewing it. That is because Hollywood has a formula. It is here where Glen Keane’s previous experiences as a Disney cartoonist are apparent.
Opening with warm family storytelling of the legend of Chang’e, Over the Moon tells the story of Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), whose mother (Ruthy Ann Miles) tragically dies of an unknown disease. When a few years pass and the family begins to manage their mooncake store with a semblance of normalcy again, Fei Fei’s father (John Cho) brings home Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her lively son Chin (Robert Chiu), introducing Fei Fei to the idea of a new family. Heartbroken, Fei Fei staunchly refuses in protest of her mother’s memory. Comforted by the stories that her mother had once told her, Fei Fei plans a trip to the moon to find proof that Chang’e exists, believing that this will make her father remember true love.
Heartrending with a Pixar film-like tone of grief, the film plays with a steady set of conventions and tropes that are both effective and easily identifiable: Firstly, there is the sympathy-grabbing sequence where Fei Fei’s mother falls ill, which is remarkably similar to the introduction of the Pixar animation Up (2009). Secondly, there is the coming-of-age female protagonist who embarks on a treacherous journey together with an animal companion. More often than not, the heroine has the spontaneous urge to burst out in song depending on the state of her mood. (In other words, Fei Fei is a Disney princess in all but name.) Then, of course, there is the inclusion of another dead Disney parent, which always scores for deeper emotional depth.
Off to the side, there are other details. One would be the obnoxious but earnest Gobi (Ken Jeong), the comic side character archetype who is greatly reminiscent of Frozen’s Olaf. Another is Chang’e, whose character calls back to the island goddess Te Fiti from Moana. Both drastically revert from being the films’ faux-antagonist to a tragic but kind-hearted figure of legend after being handed some magical green relic.
In summary, Over the Moon is an overly familiar piece with a story that begins and ends in ways that we have already seen and already know. Aside from the character conventions, the basic plot of the film is more than telling: Fei Fei’s mother dies, Fei Fei grieves, Fei Fei goes through a life-changing journey, then Fei Fei moves on. All of this is gift-wrapped with the neon-bright colors of a childhood storybook and tied together by the paralleled themes of grief shared between the main characters of the film.
So the question again: Is the film really a present worth unwrapping?
For all of its flaws, Over the Moon, at its heart, is actually a stunning work of graphic animation with a bright and exciting palette—that which perfectly captures a vivid fantasy world as seen through the eyes of a child who desperately needs it. And similar to the logic of a child, the film itself is simple, empathetic, and fun. Designed as it is for emotional resonance, there is much for viewers to feel as there is much to see.
Ultimately, my answer would be to not think too much about it. Beautifully animated and culturally aware, Over the Moon’s main fault is that it’s too formulaic. But formulas work, don’t they?
Director Glen Keane would know this. After all, when the hearts of the audiences grow, Over the Moon brightly glows.