This modern take on a classic Chinese fable feels like it’s trying a bit too hard to go big.
When I was looking at the Oscar nominations for animation, a couple titles stood out as obvious nods. Others, such as Shaun the Sheep and Onward, felt a bit like the Academy was coasting on safe picks from proven studios. Over the Moon stood out just because it felt out of place. First it was a Netflix collaboration, and Hollywood is usually loathe to include Netflix in the big show. Second, it had almost no fanfare. Lastly, it was not particularly beloved by critics.
I decided to check it out to see if perhaps a hidden gem had snuck onto the Academy’s list. While Over the Moon does shine in places, its composition feels like an up and coming animation studio was trying to mimic the Disney formula while also injecting as much China friendly tropes as it could pack into a standard run time.
Over the Moon (2020)
Fueled by memories of her mother, resourceful Fei Fei builds a rocket to the moon on a mission to prove the existence of a legendary moon goddess, Chang’e, and prevent her father from remarrying.
It’s a bit hard to unpack why Over the Moon’s depiction of a Chinese family, living in China, updating a classic Chinese fable feels like it’s pandering to the gigantic Chinese movie market. Perhaps it’s because the director, co-director, and writer are white Americans. It may also be because it relies on fairly unsubtle touchstones to work up its sense of identity. The ping-pong obsessed chubby younger brother kinda feels like a stereotype instead of a cultural nod.
Another bit that made me feel like the film definitely had its eye towards pleasing a Chinese audience is just how much cheer-leading it does for China. We only get to see the sunny side of everything Chinese. Films that celebrate their setting like An American Tail or Paddington feel much more genuine since not everything American or British is seen through rose-tinted glasses. It reminded me of how Abominable felt like a travel brochure for China…which I found out was no coincidence as Pearl Studios also worked on that animated film.
That Disney Feeling.
Another place where checking the resume wound up shedding light on my apprehensions about the film came from looking at the director, Glen Keane. Kean did animation for Disney on major hits like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Pocahontas. That kind of explains why the whole style of this films like somebody trying to recreate a renaissance era Disney flick.
From the proliferation and styling of the songs, to the use of cute animal sidekicks, to the strong female protagonist, it smacks of a Mouse production. The journey to redeem a princess/goddess who has strayed from the straight and narrow made me constantly view Over the Moon as “China’s answer to Frozen.”
Despite feeling that the film had identity issues, it did do a lot of good things. The animation is generally good – some of the character models looked a little on the “straight to DVD CGI cartoon” side, but the main cast is solid. The background art and settings were uniformly delightful, with a ton of color and detail. The film feels like it has a bit of a pacing problem early on, but once we’re on our journey to the moon, it felt solid and engaging.
The story of Over the Moon gets a big thumbs up from me because it tackles a thorny issue (Fei Fei’s mother dies, and eventually her father looks to remarry) in a way that will feel earnest to kids while not sugar coating it or using it just to tug the heartstrings. The loss of Fei Fei’s mother early really hit me right in the feels, and it led organically to a situation where we see our heroine acting out. Having a flawed lead, who is brilliant and hardworking but also selfish in her grief, gives the story real emotional resonance that I salute the writer and director for tackling.
I think Over the Moon is a solid effort from a fledgling animation studio and director. It does a lot of nice things, and overall I’d rate the film a solid B effort. If the talent behind the film can get over recycling their previous work and pandering to a focused audience, I think the next offering from this collaboration could really deliver on their potential.