Directors – Glen Keane, John Kahrs – 2020 – US, China – Cert. U – 95m
A girl bereaved of her mother builds a rocket to the moon to prove the goddess Chang’e is real and convince her father not to re-marry – animated feature in cinemas from Friday, October 16th and on Netflix from Friday, October 23rd.
In Chinese mythology, archer Houyi’s wife Chang’e consumed an immortality potion then went to the moon where she mourned her lost love. The tale is also the basis of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival celebrated in many countries in the Far East. Using the mythology as a backdrop, the late screenwriter Audrey Wells crafted an extraordinary story about a girl who fails to properly deal with bereavement when her mother dies.
The figure of Chang’e acts as a metaphor for Fei Fei (voiced by Cathy Ang) who wants her dad (voice: John Cho) to be faithful to his late wife. When dad introduces a new mum Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh), with a new and irritating little brother Chin (Robert G. Chiu) in tow, she decides that to convince him to remain true to mum, she must go to the moon and prove Chang’e real, which will convince her dad to do the right thing.
Fei Fei asks her dad to let her use his credit card to buy supplies for a science project, then proceeds to build various rocket prototypes until she has a small capsule that will take her to the moon. The family run a small take away restaurant and while they are doing okay, they’re not fabulous wealthy and the fact that she spends all this money of her dad’s without him going into heavy debt or even batting an eyelid is the one thing in this narrative that doesn’t work, not to mention an element unlikely to endear itself to parents, but we’ll move on because everything else about the film is so perfectly judged.
Once she gets to the moon, Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) – introduced as a modern day singer doing eye-popping dance moves before a lunar stadium audience – turns out not so much the kindly figure Fei Fei imagined so much as one who’ll stop at nothing to perform the magic rituals needed to get her departed husband back.
After a brief introduction to get Western viewers up to speed on the Chang’e mythology, the film opens with idyllic family life, although Fei Fei’s mum (Ruthie Ann Miles) first has a minor faint, is later seen with a walking stick and then is gone, with father and daughter pushing a lily out onto the river as a way of saying goodbye in a truly heart-rending scene. Bereavement is at the heart of this film, a difficult enough subject but sensitively handled here in a way that will make sense to both children and adults. Whatever else this film may be, it’s not superficial. That’s reinforced by the writer’s having died and the producers and directors believing she’d written something really special.
The model for the film is the musical in much the same way that much of Disney’s animated output in the last eighties / early nineties was (Beauty And The Beast, Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, 1991; The Lion King, Rob Minkoff, Roger Allers, 1994). Over The Moon is similar in feel – the songs are surprisingly good, and as in those films are used to advance the narrative. Director Keane worked on many of those Disney features as supervising animator (he did the Beast in Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin in Aladdin, John Musker, Ron Clements, 1992 among others) as while co-director Kahrs worked on slightly later Disney productions in similar capacity (Tangled, Nathan Greno, Byron Howard, 2010).
You can tell they’ve trained at Disney: they have not only a profound understanding of story but also know how to fill the film with lots of little moments and details that constantly raise the bar.
For instance, Fei Fei’s rocket project undergoes an epiphany when her illicit drawing of a rocket in class is pinned up on the class noticeboard by one corner to shame her, swinging the rocket from upwards to sideways position. Having walked past the construction site of the magnetic levitation railway, she combines that technology with her rocket in her head and a viable means of getting to the moon is born.
Another example: when Chin has to play Chang’e at Ping Pong on the moon, he gives his ball a spin so that it travel in a wobbly trajectory and leaps over her bat. Both moments totally convince where in lesser hands they might have fallen flat.
This isn’t a Disney movie, though, it’s been made by Netflix in conjunction with Shanghai’s Pearl Studio and, unlike much Hollywood film making, demonstrates a real respect for Oriental (in this case Chinese) culture. The characters live in China and are clearly Chinese, even though (and it’s not a problem) they speak English. Which is to say that the film has been conceived as an English language film, although Netflix have dubbed the piece into numerous other languages for territories around the world, much like Disney do, including Chinese.
Apart from its considerable respect for Chinese culture and its top notch storytelling and animation, this bears comparison with the Disney classics with which Keane, in particular, is associated. Is this a film up there with the likes of the animated Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin and Tangled? Absolutely. See it in the cinema this week if you possibly can.
Over The Moon is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, October 16th and on Netflix from Friday, October 23rd.