10th Nov2020

‘Over the Moon’ Review (Netflix)

by Jason Brigger

Stars: Cathy Ang, John Cho, Ruthie Ann Mills, Edie Ichioka, Sandra Oh, Robert G. Chiu, Margaret Cho | Written by Audrey Wells, Jennifer Yee McDevitt | Directed by Glen Keane

Over the Moon is the latest animated film to premiere on Netflix and might be one of their strongest animated films yet. The computer-animated film is strange and unique, as it combines a musical, science-fiction, comedy, and drama in an Alice in Wonderland-influenced outer space setting.

Fei Fei is a young girl growing up in a small town in China with her mother and father, who run a local bakery that specializes in mooncakes. The family is living a happy life until the annual Moon Festival, her mother falls ill and eventually the happiness fades as her mother’s illness becomes worse. As a parting gift, her mother gives Fei Fei a bunny named Bungee, to watch over her daughter after she passes. Throughout her childhood, Fei Fei’s mother taught her ancient Chinese stories and her favorite is the legend of Chang’e and Houyi, two star-crossed lovers who are destined to love each other forever. Unfortunately, an incident occurs and Chang’e takes an immortality potion, causing her to become the Moon Goddess and ascend to the moon without Houyi. The legend states Chang’e, with her Space Dog and Jade the Moon Rabbit, waits for the day that Houyi can join her and live happily ever after.

Fei Fei and her father continue to grieve Fei Fei’s mother but honor her by still running the bakery and sell her famous mooncakes to the citizens of the village. Four years later, Fei Fei is still heartbroken but her father has turned his grief into love again as he falls for and becomes engaged to another woman, Ms. Zhong. Fei Fei feels her father has betrayed the memory of her mother and to make things even worse, Ms. Zhong has a son, Chin, that will be joining the family. Feeling lost in the world, Fei Fei decides to prove the existence of her mother’s favorite legend of Chang’e, by building a rocket and flying to the moon to meet her. After many attempts, the rocket almost makes it to the moon until Fei Fei realizes Chin and his pet frog snuck aboard and the added weight causes the rocket to fail. Luckily for Fei Fei and Chin, Chang’e is real as she sends her space lions to save them and deliver them to the Moon Goddess’ empire of Lunaria.

Once Fei Fei, Chin, and Bungee enter the world of Chang’e, the film changes course dramatically from a family film about grieving for a loved one to a fantasy adventure. In exchange for a picture of Chang’e and Fei Fei, proving to her family that the legend is real, the Moon Goddess challenges our young hero, along with the rest of the inhabitants of the kingdom, with searching for and finding the “gift” that will allow Houyi to join Chang’e on the moon. Along the way, Fei Fei meets strange, colorful and wonderful characters, including the citizens of Lunaria, which are mooncakes, along with Biker Chicks (yes, chickens on motorcycles), a green dog/lizard hybrid named Gobi that is just looking for a friend and many more. The characters are reminiscent of the abstract creatures in Alice in Wonderland and the world of Lunaria feels more like a psychedelic trip with mushrooms, but somehow this strangeness works wonderfully.

The film never has a main “villain” as the story focuses more on Fei Fei’s journey to find the gift and accept her ever-changing world as well as Chang’e devotion to finally seeing Houyi again. Once the story of the Moon Goddess is completed, Fei Fei and her crew return to her village and the film again reverts back to a family film about love lost and love gained.

The Good:

  • The Culture. Disney has been successful recently by focusing on cultures not often seen in film, as evident by Coco and Moana, and it works for Over the Moon. The Chinese culture is alive and well throughout the film, from the family gatherings during the Moon Festival to the ancient stories told to children to even the clothing Chang’e wears throughout the film. The film embraces the history of China and its legends and it’s beautiful. Animation studios have started to lean more into cultural folklore and it has made for amazing films and better representation than ever before.
  • Grief. Fei Fei’s, and to a lesser extent her father’s, journey from sadness to anger to accepting her mother’s death has never been told better in an animated film. I used to think the first 20 minutes of the Pixar film Up was one of the most perfect introductions to an animated film but Over the Moon may have taken the mantle. The film doesn’t jump right into Fei Fei’s mother’s sickness but rather gives the audience insight into their family, from their customs to their life to how much they love each other, and then they sucker punch the audience with the mother becoming sick. The film’s beginning and ending does a tremendous job of bookending Fei Fei’s grief and finally acceptance of her mother’s untimely death while giving insight into something so universal.
  • Fei Fei. The main character of Over the Moon is strong, intelligent, and adventurous and children will fall in love with her. Fei Fei’s love of mathematics and space exploration is a pleasure to see in an animated film as her character is not represented as the stereotypical “nerd”. Fei Fei never compromises who she is or what she loves and for that, the character is easy to cheer for on her journey. Representation is key because any time a strong, smart female lead is presented in film, especially in animated films, it’s a win for young girls (and boys) everywhere.

The Bad:

  • Citizens of Lunaria. The uniqueness of the land that Chang’e rules is magnificent and wonderful but the citizens are something that needed more work. Outside of the Biker Chicks and Gobi, the citizens are identified as nothing more than a variety of colors of mooncakes. This small issue doesn’t bog down the film or take away from this fantastical journey, but it feels the studio decided to save time and just make one type of citizens for Lunaria. Why are there not more Biker Chics or whatever Gobi is in this rich land of variety? It’s a small issue but one that stands out throughout the film.

The Middling:

  • The Songs. Over the Moon has more singing than I realized it would but while some songs are less than average, there are a few songs that are catchy and will stay with you for days. After growing up with Disney songs that are still sung decades later, it’s understandable how much work goes into crafting a song that will define a film. Over the Moon doesn’t have that “wow” song but it does have several songs that are almost at the Disney level song of greatness. Repeat viewings of the film might help the audience appreciate the songs more and cause them to be stuck in their head but there is nothing revolutionary on the soundtrack.

Final Grade: B (Very Good)

Over the Moon is a strange, unique, wonderful animated film that the whole family will enjoy. While there are a few misses with the film, overall, it’s one of the stronger animated films in the last few years and is just below the standard set by Pixar and Disney. The audience never fully knows where the story will lead them and that alone allows the film the freedom to be unique and different. The universal story of losing a loved one will pull the audience in but the mystical journey of Fei Fei chasing her dreams will keep people coming back to this truly fantastic adventure.

You can catch Jason Brigger on the geek-centric podcast, The History of Bad Ideas, as new episodes are released every week at www.nerdly.co.uk or subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher and other podcasting apps. 
You can listen to their latest episode right here.

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