Over the Moon

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/20/20 05:29:32

"Kids may like it; adults may not be so impressed."
3 stars (Average)

Glen Keane's job at Disney over three decades (most notably the 1990s) didn't exactly map to a specific one in live action, and you had to wait a little while to see his name in the credits but as the supervising animator and/or character designer for lead characters in "The Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast", "Aladdin", "Pocahontas", and "Tarzan", he was in many ways as much the star of those movies as the more easily-referenced voice actors. Maybe that's why "Over the Moon" occasionally feels like an actor's first feature film as a director - the result of someone who has absorbed a lot by watching how others do it from his front row seat but still has that same focus - even though his old job is a much more direct overlap.

This first feature is built around Fei Fei (voice of Cathy Ang), a bright junior high schooler who has been hanging around her parents' moon pie stand her whole life, delighting in her mother's tales of Chang'e, the goddess who floated to the moon, saw her mortal love wither and pass, but remained faithful. Her mother died four years ago, and now her father (voice of John Cho) has brought Mrs. Zhong (voice of Sandra Oh) to the moon festival, who brings with her new recipes, her exceptionally annoying eight-year-old son Chin (voice of Robert G. Chiu), and a basic threat to the idea of true love lasting forever and knowing no substitute. There's only one thing for it - build a rocket to the moon, prove Chang'e exists, and have her father abide by her example. Chin is obviously going to stow away, of course, and Chang'e (voice of Phillipa Soo) may not be what Fei Fei expects.

Though Keane was instrumental in making the movies of the Disney Renaissance whose popularity immediately spanned generations, he doesn't bring that broad appeal with him to this. Instead, it's one of those animated features that spends most its time hitting targets square on the nose in a way that may bore adult fans of animation but may work really well for the kids it targets. And that's fine, because there's a big space there for kids' movies that don't treat dead parents as a storytelling convenience but something that's at the center of a kid's life, with neither Keane nor writer Audrey Wells seeming afraid to be uncomfortably honest about that. It's direct and straightforward, but that may go over very well with kids the same age as Fei Fei and Chin.

Will they be as impressed with the rest of the film, which as you might expect seems eager to mmic the 1990s Disney formula in the way that all the other studios tried to do at the time before finding their own styles? Maybe not. Cathy Ang and Hamilton's Phillipa Soo have the voices for the requisite songs, but the songs themselves don't have the clever wordplay or the tunes that can carry a bit of visual comedy that the Disney movies featured. The animation of the earthbound action looks okay if a bit bland, pushing a fair amount of pixels but not having a lot of personality; the splashy, colorful look of the lunar city sometimes may be a way to simplify the animation, but it's at least fun to look at. There are some nifty bits, although they're not always consistent. I don't think it gets nearly as much out of imagining its goddess as a pop diva as it could, for instance, especially when the film immediately takes a more traditional track as soon as that's tricky to work with.

It's worth noting that the film is a production of Pearl studios, the former DreamWorks venture now wholly owned by their Chinese partners. They produced last year's Abominable and this has the same sort of feel that comes from American creators making a film very much set in modern China and drawing on that culture, with the idea of having it be a hit on both sides of the Pacific. It doesn't exactly feel clumsy on that account - the filmmakers don't stop everything to explain moon pies to foreign audiences, for instance - although I do wonder a bit if a "biker chicks" pun translates into Mandarin/Putonghua at all. It doesn't seem like anything that should trip a western kid up, especially since almost all will be watching it on Netflix and likely have a tablet or laptop handy to look up something they don't know, but I'd be curious how authentic it feels to Chinese or Chinese-American audiences.

"Over the Moon" doesn't have what it takes to stand aside the Disney classics to which it is clearly related, a disappointment considering that Keane already has an Oscar for short "Dear Basketball". But, then, it's not for me, and I don't have my nieces around to fill me in on how well it works for them. It's got a fair amount that should connect well to its young audience, but probably isn't one parents will be excited to watch alongside their kids.

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