It’s a bold move to release an animated musical when Disney has more or less monopolized that market, but Over the Moon has the benefit of having a literal Disney Legend at the helm. Making his feature-length directorial debut after decades of pioneering work in the animation industry – and coming fresh off his Oscar-winning short Dear Basketball – Glen Keane borrows plenty of storytelling techniques from the tried and true Disney formula for this modern retelling of an ancient Chinese myth. The results vary.
If the runaway success of something like Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is any indication, audiences are looking for something a bit different from the limitless medium of animation, both thematically and visually, and Over the Moon is at its best when it lets its unique style run wild rather than attempting to lean into familiar territory.
The film follows Fei Fei (Bryce Taylor Hall), an exceedingly bright and relentlessly fearless young girl who lives contently with her Ma Ma (Ruthie Ann Miles) and Ba Ba (John Cho), helping them run their small shop that they sell Ma Ma’s famous Mooncakes out of. Fei Fei’s favorite story to hear from her mother is of Chang’e, the moon goddess, who lives out her immortal life on the moon waiting for her long lost and mortal love, Houyi. As to be expected, Ma Ma passes away, and even after some time passes, a slightly older Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) is still struggling to come to terms with it. Acceptance of her mom’s untimely death is made all the more difficult when Ba Ba introduces her to his new girlfriend, Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh), and her young, noisy son, Chin (Robert G. Chiu).
Fei Fei thinks that her father has forgotten his love for Ma Ma because he’s ceased to believe in the legend of Chang’e, so she builds herself a rocket to take her to the moon, determined to bring back proof of the goddess’ existence. Naturally, Chin stows away and is brought along for the ride, and the two manage to arrive at the lunar city of Lunaria, where Chang’e (Hamilton’s Phillipa Soo) instructs them to bring her a special gift if they want to take a photo of her back to Earth. But the moon goddess isn’t exactly how Fei Fei imagined her, and her temperament threatens to put the mission in jeopardy.
Right off the bat, there’s a lot to admire in Over the Moon’s art. Ma Ma’s telling of the Chang’e myth is accompanied by traditional Chinese watercolors and tapestries, along with some gorgeous renderings of cosmic swirls and stardust. The lighting for the scenes set on Earth are impeccable, and there’s a particular emphasis put on cooking and food, which holds significance not just personally for Fei Fei and her family, but culturally as well.
But it’s once we arrive at Lunaria that the team at Pearl Studio – whose previous work includes Kung Fu Panda 3 and Abominable – is allowed to let loose. Lunaria is incredibly vibrant and colorful, and the designs of both the city and its inhabitants are exceedingly simple, much to their advantage. The simplicity allows for them to stand out in stark contrast to Fei Fei and the planet she comes from, and their movements are almost gelatinous; like extraterrestrial candy gummies come to life.
Most impressive of all is the work put into designing and animating Chang’e. With a vast array of outfits created by haute couture Chinese designer Guo Pei, she glides across the screen with a true ethereal presence. Introduced by her show-stopping pop number “Ultraluminary”, Chang’e commands attention and is instantly an iconic animated character, earning a place among the most memorable from other studios like Disney and Dreamworks. All of the visual feats are in place in Over the Moon, but its story branches off in far too many different directions to the point that almost none end up feeling properly concluded.
The film has too many side characters and animal sidekicks for its own good. Fei Fei’s pet rabbit Bungee serves very little purpose, and scenes of her with Chang’e’s companion, Jade Rabbit, feel unnecessary and distract from the main plot. Chin also has a pet, a frog that is equally as irrelevant and only seems to be there for a couple of gags where he jumps onto someone’s face. A luminous pangolin with a super-powered tongue named Gobi (Ken Jeong) is introduced late in the film to serve as yet another companion for Fei Fei, and while Jeong’s performance is charming, he’s an obvious (and tired) archetype of an animated sidekick that we’ve seen time and time again.
Over the Moon continuously feels like it loses its focus, introducing plot threads and then dropping them. A dinner conversation between Fei Fei’s extended family reveals that there are multiple variations of the moon goddess legend. These different tellings paint Chang’e in different lights, but this fails to be brought back up in any significant way. Chang’e anxiously brings up how the moon is crumbling away, introducing a ticking clock element to the film, but this is something that, once again, goes nowhere and no other character even reacts to. There’s a lot going on with a lot of different characters all at once, but very few are actually important, and the film’s script could’ve done with some significant trimming.
However, the film’s saving grace is its heartfelt message. Both Fei Fei and Chang’e are grappling with loss and change, and Over the Moon suggests that acceptance and understanding is how one learns to move on and grow. Among its tangled narrative threads, the film still manages to be rather poignant in what it really wants to be about, and joins other emotionally mature movies such as Inside Out and Frozen II in succeeding at showing children (and adults) how to deal with negative feelings in positive ways.
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Over the Moon often feels cluttered and unfocused, but its heartfelt lessons and gorgeous animation save it from itself.
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