Over the Moon movie review: Netflix animated musical gets stuck in Disney-Pixar’s familiar orbit
Unlike Coco, Over the Moon is dwarfed by a sense of faux-authenticity, to present a version of China that Western audiences can more easily identify with.
castCathy Ang, Phillipa Soo, Robert G Chiu, Ken Jeong, John Cho, Ruthie Ann Miles, Margaret Cho, Sandra Oh
Over the Moon begins with an Up-like tender prologue. It instantly gives the story an emotional grounding and sets up the stakes for the adventures that follow. Its similarities to the beloved Pixar film don’t end there of course. Like it did with grumpy old Carl Fredricksen, grief has left our protagonist Fei Fei (voiced by Cathy Ang) equally lonely and angry. When she takes off on a single-minded journey to an unexplored world, her plans are disrupted by an unwelcome stowaway and a motley crew of supporting characters. In the process, she learns how to cope with loss, move on and reconnect with life by forming new meaningful relationships.
Glen Keane, the character animator behind beloved Disney classics like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Tarzan and Tangled, helms the new Netflix animated musical inspired by a popular Chinese legend. In the prologue, we see Fei Fei’s mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) recount to her the tragic love story of the moon goddess Chang’e and her archer husband Houyi. Banished to the moon for stealing the elixir of immortality, Chang’e eagerly hopes to be reunited with her husband on Earth. The whole legend is gorgeously hand-drawn in a fluid style fitting a story about love and loss, before we return to its CG-animated reality.
One song and eight minutes later, Fei Fei’s idyllic childhood is cut short by an animated movie prerequisite: the death of a parent. Four years after her mom’s death, the now 12-year-old Fei Fei still vividly remembers her mom’s story. When her father (John Cho) decides to start afresh by introducing her to his new girlfriend Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her overenthusiastic son Chin (Robert G Chiu), Fei Fei is upset that he’s moving on. Worried he’s forgotten her mother and fuelled by fairy-tale notions like “love lasts all eternity”, she builds a spaceship to the moon, determined to prove Chang’e’s existence. As she sings, “If I can prove to him her tale is true, he’ll remember you.”
Once on the Moon, Fei Fei learns the moon is not exactly like her mom described in her stories. Lunaria, as it’s called by its natives, resembles a theme park that has gone through a Pixar abstraction filter. Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) turns out to be more diva than deity, a Lady Gaga-like figure: elaborate outfits, empowerment anthems and all. When she is “astronomically upset”, huge meteor showers rain down on the moon. When she cries, the tears turn into sentient beings. In return for proof of her existence, Chang’e demands a MacGuffin vaguely called “the gift”, sending Fei Fei on a Mad Max-meets-Ad Astra adventure. Meanwhile, Chin tries to best Chang’e in a game of zero-gravity ping pong to earn his step-sister’s love and validation.
Lunaria is a kaleidoscopic ecosystem of secondary and auxiliary characters. Some exist to support Fei Fei on her journey, some to oppose, some are nothing but decorative accessories, and the rest to vocalise the film’s core themes. Biker chicks (literally) turn from allies to rivals. Adding much-needed levity to the proceedings is Gobi (Ken Jeong), a nervous-talking canine (of sorts) who deals out zingers and life lessons as they ride a giant floating frog. This eye candy of various colours, shapes and sizes should provide substantial entertainment value for the intended demographic of hyperactive five-year-olds.
However, what I couldn’t stop thinking of — even past the end credits — were the enticing mooncakes. Over the Moon is in fact rich with emotional resonance when the story is grounded to Earth. In the prologue, we watch Fei Fei’s mother and father prepare mooncakes in the family-run bakery, and it’s the elaborate preparation that draws you in, like in a Studio Ghibli movie. It may be a daily routine, but it evokes a family’s simple and pure joys. In the 20-odd minutes before the action moves to the moon, we also meet the extended family come together for the Autumn Moon Festival. They gather around the dining turntable, and exchange theories on Chang’e’s myth. Food here becomes a language of communication, the crux of all family traditions. Mrs. Zong is welcomed into Fei Fei’s family through the act of meal sharing. She welcomes them to hers, by sharing red date mooncakes prepared from her family recipe. The dinner also brings to light some of the family’s internal tensions: Fei Fei’s refusal to accept Mrs. Zong as her new mother, for instance. It reminded me of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, where food similarly helps a family's grief go down easier, and I can't help but wonder the kind of movie Over the Moon could have been if Fei Fei had stayed put on Earth.
While the setting may be Chinese and the aesthetic Pixar-ish, the treatment is Disney-esque to a fault. There’s a nagging sameness to Disney films past which undercuts its good intentions. Fei Fei’s pet rabbit Bungee is the cute merchandisable sidekick. Emotions, plot elements and themes come rushing to the surface in songs like “Rocket to the Moon” and “Love Someone New”, which can’t escape their music video trappings. “Ultraluminary” is filled with nifty borrowings from generic American pop bangers and K-Pop beats, as if one Asian pop culture can be interchanged with another. When Hollywood isn’t exoticising or appropriating other cultures, it’s regionalising.
By taking the Disney route, Over the Moon holds you in an all-too-predictable trance — and it loses its cultural authenticity in this tangled patchwork of conflicting styles. Reducing a Chinese mythical figure like Chang’e to the status of a pop diva is just another example of Hollywood co-opting a culturally specific story to appeal to the mainstream audience. Unlike Coco, Over the Moon is dwarfed by a sense of faux-authenticity, to present a version of China that Western audiences can more easily identify with. If Pixar and Ghibli are in the business of making timeless classics, Netflix seems to be in the business of churning out distractions. If Disney is worried about Netflix giving them a run for their money, they needn’t worry just yet.
Over the Moon is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —
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