Over the Moon (2020)
Believing is Everything
An emotional, awing, out-of-this-world adventure about one girl’s journey to the moon and the lengths she must travel to heal from the loss of a loved one, Over the Moon is an affecting tale of Chinese tradition, mixing timely messages with catchy songs and colorful, eye-popping visuals — this is a first-rate all-ages entertainer. It’s a dazzling directorial debut for animation veteran Glen Keane, who took home an Oscar in 2017 for his animated short Dear Basketball. With the help of co-director John Kahrs, Paperman (2012), Keane is able to show off his craft as a storyteller, filmmaker, and animator with Over the Moon; he brilliantly blends Chinese mythology into a present-day setting, introducing unfamiliar audiences to a classic Eastern tale, while telling a heartfelt story about a girl’s quest to build a rocket to the moon, who, across the course of the film, learns to let go and love again. Over the Moon is currently streaming on Netflix, though it really ought to be seen on a massive screen.
The film is written by Audrey Wells, The Hate U Give (2018), with additional help from Jennifer Yee McDevitt and Alice Wu. It’s Wells’ final screenplay, losing her battle with cancer late in 2018, and feels very personal, working as a sort of love letter to the daughter she was leaving behind. Over the Moon is set around the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, in a small, picturesque modern-day Chinese water town, which is stunningly brought to life by Pearl Studio — the production house behind last year’s excellent Abominable. The film follows Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), a young girl struggling with the death of her mother (Broadway star Ruthie Ann Miles), a warm, loving presence who fueled the girl’s imagination by telling her inspiring stories. Fei Fei’s favorite was that of the Moon Goddess Chang’e, whose immortality came with a cost — becoming a deity caused the woman to ascend to the moon without her lover Houyi, where she waits for him to this very day. Although death and grief have been central ideas in animated movies previously, Over the Moon’s opening is bound to swell the eyes with tears.
Some four years later, Fei Fei’s widowed father (John Cho), a man of science and proud owner of a mooncake shop, has met a new woman, named Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh), and may be on the verge of remarrying. Though her father’s new friend seems to be patient and understanding, Fei Fei (now 12) doesn’t want a bar of her; seeing him change some of the traditional family mooncake recipes causes her heartache — Fei Fei thinks that her ‘Ba Ba’ is slowly beginning to forget her about her ‘Ma Ma.’ Making matters worse, Mrs. Zhong has a son of her own, the annoying, rambunctious Chin (Robert G. Chiu), whom Fei Fei does not want to be her future stepbrother.
When Mrs. Zhong joins the extended family for the annual Moon Festival celebration and laughs off the story of Chang’e, calling it a mere fable, Fei Fei is determined to prove her wrong while showing her father that love, just like that of Chang’e and Houyi, is eternal. Thus, with her scientific knowhow and plenty of trial and error, Fei Fei designs and constructs a functioning rocket resembling a Chinese paper lantern in the shape of a rabbit, which uses fireworks to enhance its speed. With her adorable bunny Bungee by her side — a gift from her late mother — Fei Fei sets off on an adventure beyond the stars, unaware that Chin, and his pet frog Croak, have snuck onboard also.
What gives this film a unique visual flair is the gleaming city of Lunaria, Chang’e’s floating kingdom on the moon, where the bulk of Fei Fei’s physical and emotional journey plays out. This hovering city of eccentric shapes and kaleidoscopic colors is a real feast for the eyes, inspired by Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ album cover art — think of Lunaria as a fusion between Coco’s Land of the Dead, Wreck-It Ralph’s Candy Kingdom, and the technicolored Land of Oz. Populated by self-illuminating, bioluminescent beings known as Lunarians, along with shimmering space lions and large lunar leapfrogs, Emmy-winning Production Designer Céline Desrumaux, The Little Prince (2015) — a former VFX artist — has created a genuinely distinctive alien world, combining 2D and 3D art in a stunning never-seen-before way. There is a surreal, dreamlike charm about it. At the center of it all is the legendary goddess Chang’e (voiced by Hamilton star Phillipa Soo), who’s introduced as a domineering Lady Gaga-esque pop diva, accompanied by mooncake-like backup dancers, the Lunettes, performing the electro-pop jam ‘Ultraluminary’ to a crowd of colorful screaming citizens in a concert under the stars.
Once becoming acquainted with Chang’e, Fei Fei is tasked with locating a mysterious gift, which she must bring to the goddess before time runs out (before the last of the moondust falls) so that she can be reunited with her true love, Houyi. However, if Fei Fei fails, Houyi will forever perish, leaving Chang’e stuck in the Chamber of Exquisite Sadness for eternity. It’s a quest that literally takes our heroine from sparkling candy-colored streets and orbiting gas rings (where she battles some ‘Biker Chicks’) to dark, empty craters and dimensions. There’s a beautifully moving scene in the last act that demonstrates the power of shared emotion; Fei Fei begins to understand her anger over her father’s attempts at moving on through Chang’e’s conviction with everlasting love, the two women connecting through mutual grief.
Fei Fei is a strong, layered protagonist with a solid arc, who is aided by a cast of enchanting supporting characters; all of whom hammer home that universal message of love and compassion and learning to move on from those who have departed, fueling youngsters with the hope of a world beyond our own. Special mention goes to comedian Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians (2018), who plays Gobi, a glowing, green pangolin Lunarian and ex-royal advisor exiled years ago, becoming an unexpected companion for Fei Fei; the funnyman starts as an exasperating character when we first meet him but becomes endearing as the film progresses — kids will dig him.
And let’s not forget about the nine original songs (written by Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield, and Helen Park), each a different style or genre — we go from electro to swelling orchestral, and K-pop to big ballad. Furthermore, the tracks combine traditional Chinese instruments with contemporary sounds, capturing the emotion, mood, and energy of the story and scene. The highlights are ‘Rocket to the Moon,’ performed by Cathy Ang, a track about breaking through sorrow; Phillipa Soo’s boppy ‘Hey Boy’ and lively showstopper ‘Ultraluminary;’ as well as the touching ‘Love Somebody New,’ a duet between Soo and Ang.
With Asian-American talent in front and behind the camera, Over the Moon succeeds in showcasing Chinese culture, which has been excellently integrated into a narrative that explores themes that will resonate with many — when these themes crystalize, they hit hard! The striking costumes, particularly those that Chang’e wears, are worthy of praise, her elaborate, ethereal gowns and divine getups designed and created by haute couture Chinese designer Guo Pei. The characters themselves are also quite emotive and expressive, and although they’re CG animated (by whiz-kids at Sony ImageWorks) have a cool hand-drawn aesthetic about them. The locations and landscapes are authentically Asian, too, gorgeously replicating the spirit and sights of the East.
Wrapping up with a heartwarming conclusion that illuminates our real gifts in life, Over the Moon is a gift to 2020, a year that has given audiences an abundance of subpar entertainment. While the plot itself is nothing novel, the way in which it positively celebrates healing, bringing together a family that is falling apart, is something worth applauding. It’s a gem of a film, which I’m afraid may get overlooked given that it’s floating around on streaming. One thing’s for certain, though, come Oscar season, this is a surefire Best Animated Feature and Original Song contender — it’s only competition could well be Pixar’s Soul!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner