Does anyone out there remember Abominable? It was nothing groundbreaking, but it was nonetheless a sweet little collaboration between DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studios of China. In fact, it was the Chinese animation studio’s first attempt at making a film for the US market, and the film was appropriately China-centric. I might also add that the film was written and directed by Pixar alumna Jill Culton, with help from Todd Wilderman of DreamWorks Animation, and influences from both companies were clearly visible in the final product.
So here’s Over the Moon, another China-centric animated film clearly made in the same style as Abominable, this time made in collaboration with Netflix. The film was chiefly written by Audrey Wells, though the screenplay was completed by Jennifer Yee McDevitt and Alice Wu after Wells’ death of cancer in 2018. (Famously, Wells passed away just before the debut of The Hate U Give, a criminally underrated film that Wells wrote the script for.)
More importantly, the film was directed by Glen Keane, whose animation credits with Disney span from The Rescuers in 1977, clear through the fabled Disney Renaissance of the ’90s, all the way up to Tangled in 2010. And yes, it’s perfectly obvious from start to finish that this is the Disney era that Over the Moon is trying to blatantly crib from.
Right off the bat, we open with Fei Fei (our young protagonist, mainly voiced by newcomer Cathy Ang) listening to stories told by her parents (voiced by Ruthie Ann Miles and John Cho). This is a family that adores the moon, to the point where their family bakery is renowned for its mooncakes.
Fei Fei and her mother are especially fond of the moon goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo). Legend has it that Chang’e once fell in love with the hunter Houyi, though she obtained immortality and he didn’t. The details are unclear and a bit controversial, but Fei Fei grew up with the belief that Chang’e is still alone on the moon, waiting for the day when her lover will come to her.
*heavy sigh* Look, I don’t mean to come off as unsympathetic here. Especially since the movie was written by a woman who herself left behind a husband and a daughter when she took ill and died at the tragically young age of 58. But with all due respect, this is an overly sentimental opening to a movie made in clear imitation of the Disney animated canon. We know what has to happen before the film can actually start.
Two songs and seven minutes later, Fei Fei’s mother finally dies of some unspecified illness. The wait was insufferable, but the payoff was suitably heartbreaking.
Anyway, cut to four years later. The teenaged Fei Fei still hasn’t moved on from her mother’s death, though her father clearly has. He’s dating Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh), an apparently sweet and well-intentioned woman whose only real flaw is that she isn’t Fei Fei’s mother. There’s also the matter of Zhong’s son (Chin, played by Robert G. Chiu), an aggressively annoying and outrageously stupid eight-year-old boy on a perpetual sugar rush.
So Fei Fei — being a child prodigy, apparently — builds herself an honest-to-goddamn rocketship and flies out to the moon in search of proof that Chang’e really does exist. I’ll try my best to explain the logic here.
First of all, I want to stress that the filmmakers never even bother trying to pretend that any of this is scientifically accurate. After all, the tone was pretty firmly set when the film opened with a myth about a moon goddess. Fei Fei launches into orbit by way of serendipitous technobabble, and it’s magic that gets her the rest of the way. This is clearly and explicitly a work of fantasy, Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon for kids of the 21st century, with a Chinese twist.
Secondly, the rest of Fei Fei’s family talks in flippant terms about the Chang’e myth. That upsets Fei Fei because she strongly associates the legend with her own mother. By Fei Fei’s logic, if the family is losing faith in Chang’e, that means they’re losing reverence for the myth and thus losing reverence for Ma Ma’s memory. Additionally, this desperate quest to reconnect with Chang’e is a symbolically poignant attempt at reconnecting with Fei Fei’s own deceased mother.
What’s more, the story of Chang’e is fundamentally a story about eternal love that transcends time and death. As Chang’e stayed eternally true to Huayi, so should Fei Fei and her dad stay eternally true to Ma Ma. Of course, that’s some patently false logic, and coming to realize that is a crucial development that beautifully dovetails the respective arcs of Fei Fei and Chang’e.
On a thematic level, it works surprisingly well. On the level of basic storytelling, it doesn’t work at all. Extraordinary actions require extraordinary motivations, and Fei Fei needed a much stronger motivation to sell something so impossibly fantastic as building a rocket ship with her bare hands to meet a mythical moon goddess. Grief over her dead mother and disgust for her would-be stepbrother are nowhere near enough to cut it.
Really, the whole movie has a problem with motivations and stakes. A key example comes when Fei Fei and Chin (who stowed away, natch) finally meet Chang’e. The moon goddess demands a certain gift from them, though our main characters have no idea what this gift is or what Chang’e wants with it. But Chang’e somehow knows that this gift is somewhere on the moon, so she challenges Fei Fei, Chin, and all of her subjects to find the gift and bring it to her within a certain time frame. And Chang’e refuses to divulge any more details about the gift because shut up.
Basically, the entire second act is a MacGuffin hunt in which nobody knows what the MacGuffin is, where it is, what it does, or why it’s so important. Thus the entire cast spends roughly 45 minutes flailing in all directions until something happens. IT DOESN’T WORK.
Even worse, we have to spend this whole time putting up with the supporting cast and the background players. There’s a veritable army of moon citizens made in a transparent attempt at ripping off the Minions. Ken Jeong is on hand to play our Olaf wannabe. (Though personally, I’ll take Ken Jeong over Josh Gad in any movie.) And depending on how you count, we’ve got at least three or four different animal sidekicks to choose from. It’s all too much, and it adds a lot more fluff than substance.
Speaking of which, Fei Fei’s animal sidekick — a rabbit, name of Bungee — was gift from her mother immediately before she passed. You’d think that would make the rabbit another powerful link to the memory of Fei Fei’s mother, but that’s completely unexamined. Such a wasted opportunity.
For that matter, where’s Chin’s father? Did he die or go missing? Did Mrs. Zhong divorce him? You’d think that could make for some powerful trauma for Fei Fei and Chin to bond over. It might even be a bridge between Fei Fei and Zhong herself. But instead, we get absolutely nothing.
I keep coming back to the themes of grief, loneliness, family, and so on, because it’s easily the strongest material that the movie has. When the filmmakers bother to slow down and get introspective with the characters, the results are powerful in a way that’s cathartic and informative for viewers of all ages. But for the other eighty percent of the film’s runtime, it’s all shallow sugary fluff.
It’s perfectly obvious that this film was made for a very, very young audience. The humor is juvenile, the colors are flashy, and everything is made to be loud. That’s not even getting started on the limp, uninspired, utterly useless musical numbers from Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield, and Helen Park. Sure, Cathy Ang sells the passion in a couple of numbers, and Phillipa Soo makes it work because she’s freaking Phillipa Soo, but that’s about it.
Over the Moon is loud and derivative, often flashy and annoying, but ultimately harmless. The film was very clearly made for the grade school set, and it should keep them entertained without melting their brains too much. Even better, the film’s got a strong beating heart for anyone with the patience to look for it.
I can appreciate the effort that went into the animation, the talent of the voice cast goes a long way, and I applaud the filmmakers for talking about grief and change in a kid-friendly way without talking down to the audience. Perhaps more importantly, Pearl Studios is 2-0 for making films with compelling young female leads, made by prominent and talented female filmmakers. That’s absolutely something we should all get behind and we can hope that Pearl Studios will continue in this.
If you’re one of the umpteen families stuck with young children who’ve grown restless after eight months in quarantine, go ahead and give the film a spin. Even so, I’d still recommend Abominable over this one.