First, full disclosure: I wrote the text for this movie’s coffee-table tie-in volume, which comes out next week from Titan Books. I agreed to do it only after watching a rough cut of the film, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Over the Moon is, like any animated feature, the work of many people but everyone I interviewed took inspiration from its director, master animator Glen Keane.
Glen spent 37 years at the Disney studio and brought to life some of the modern era’s most indelible characters: Ariel in The Little Mermaid, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, the young hero in Aladdin, the title characters in Pocahontas and Tarzan, and Rapunzel in Tangled, among others. Several years ago he won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Subject for Dear Basketball, a collaboration with the late Kobe Bryant.
This is officially his feature directing debut and as you would expect, he chose his team with care. That’s why Over the Moon looks so striking and its characters are so vivid. The heroine is a Chinese girl named Fei-Fei (voiced by Cathy Ang), who is disconsolate at the loss of her mother and builds a rocket that will take her to the moon, where she hopes to meet a legendary goddess. (The goddess, named Chang’e—and voiced by Hamilton’s Phillipa Soo)—is familiar to everyone in China and all but unknown here.) When we meet her she is cold and imperious, more like a villain than a deity, but Fei-Fei hopes that if she carries out a mission for her she will find happiness back in her village on earth.
Over the Moon has pleasing songs by Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield, and Helen Park and a structure that its writer (the late Audrey Wells) based on the story beats in The Wizard of Oz. Every character we meet has a crucial goal to achieve before the narrative can earn everyone a justifiable happy ending.
The challenge of engaging us in this far-flung journey rests on the shoulders of its young heroine and Fei-Fei is up to the task. We never question her emotions: she’s upset with her father for inviting a “strange” woman (Sandra Oh) to their family dinner and has no use for the woman’s rambunctious son (Robert G. Chiu). Once in the land of Lunaria on the moon, she embarks on a perilous quest that will reunite Chang’e with her long-lost love.
Several reviewers have criticized the film for being too Disney-esque. I’m not sure why that’s a bad thing. After all, Walt Disney invented a lasting template for animated features that is still widely used, but I’ll grant you that the movie feels comfortably familiar. However each component of this Chinese-American coproduction is of such quality that to complain seems downright foolish.
Keane is steeped in Disney storytelling at its best and peppers his film with welcome details that set it apart from anything we’ve seen before. His co-director John Kahrs (another Disney/Pixar veteran who won an Oscar for the ingenious short Paperman) helped realize Keane’s vision, which was fleshed out by gifted production designer Celine Desrumaux. Every creature in Lunaria is illuminated from within, while Change’s wardrobe was provided by world-class fashion designer Guo Pei.
The introductory scenes in a quiet Chinese water village where Fei-Fei and her parents make their signature moon cakes establish what home feels like to an adolescent girl… and what she most fears losing. The character animation is superior and never leans on clichéd expressions. Again, the truth is in the details, like Fei-Fei’s eyelids—a distinctive Chinese look that Americans have never completely mastered.
As I write this I am preparing to interview Glen Keane for my weekly class at USC. We are also inviting students from the School of Animation to join us, as Glen is an inspiring man who learned his craft from Disney’s first generation of animators—and still uses an old-fashioned pencil. Is it too much to hope that some young people choose him as a role model in their animation careers? You can watch Over the Moon right now on Netflix.