Over the Moon is Netflix’s boldest step yet into the realm of producing animated films to rival those of Disney. Directed by former Disney animator Glen Keane, who was responsible for bringing films such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Tangled to life, and containing a collection of catchy and heartwarming songs, explosively colorful animation and a story immersed in Chinese culture, the film seems to have all the pieces of another animation classic. Unfortunately, Over the Moon’s confusing and meandering plot adds too many elements for it to manage, leaving a film that shoots for the stars but crashes back to Earth.
The film follows a 14-year-old Chinese girl named Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) living with her now-single father four years after the passing of her mother. Still grieving her loss, Fei Fei clings to her mother’s traditional stories of the goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) living on the moon, awaiting her departed lover, and believes that if she can prove to her father that Chang’e exists, he will follow her example and stop trying to start a new family.
Thus, Fei Fei builds a clunky rocket ship to take her to the moon, and thanks to the help of some divine intervention, arrives there with her pet rabbit Bungee (Edie Ichioka) and rambunctious stepbrother-to-be, Chin (Robert G. Chiu). There they meet Chang’e, who challenges them to bring her “the gift” before midnight so she can somehow be finally reunited with her lover.
If that sounds contrived, that’s because it is. Not only is the frustratingly vague “gift” treated as an elusive macguffin throughout Over the Moon’s second half with no real explanation, but two other macguffins exist in the form of a photo and potion, leading Fei Fei and company on a constant chase where it’s difficult for even an adult to keep track of what exactly their goal is at any given moment.
There are some fun and occasionally impactful moments that manage to break through the weakness of its overarching plot through the strength of its characters. It’s clear that Fei Fei’s often-irrational decisions stem from the confusion and grief of losing her mother, and although they don’t get much screentime together, the gradual bonding between her and her new family is still sweet. Her stepbrother Chin is far less fleshed out, but his consistently upbeat attitude and wacky antics can be endearing.
The film’s supporting cast is less successful. In the film’s eleventh hour, it introduces a fourth, now-talking, animal companion by the name of Gobi (Ken Jeong), an exiled doglike creature who lives on the moon. This lengthy segment in which Fei Fei and Gobi travel together makes the film drag even more and adds yet another needless character to a plot that already has too many balls in the air. Chang’e is among its most confusing characters, seeming to have three disparate personalities at different points and making bizarre decisions with no discernible motivation behind them.
At times, it appears that Over the Moon’s animation sequences and songs were planned first, while its plot was written to awkwardly fit them in. The themes of parental loss and remarriage may carry more weight for children in similar situations, and it appears that its creators took care to accurately represent Chinese culture through use of traditional food and stories an all-Chinese cast of characters (although I’ll leave judgment of the film’s success in that regard to Chinese critics and audiences). Nevertheless, most of its multiple crossing storylines and scenes add nothing but more confusion, (including one in which Chin and Chang’e engage in a Dragon Ball Z-style ping pong rap battle for evidently no reason) ruining any attempt at creating an emotional impact.
Even if poorly contextualized, beautiful animation sequences of Over the Moon can’t be ignored, and there are times when the colorful display is mesmerizing enough to distract from the confusion. There’s a good chance that very young kids will love the movie for its bright colors and cute animals alone, and its songs are catchy enough to not likely drive their parents up the wall upon the millionth time being played.
After having shown that Netflix can produce original series just as impactful and popular as those found on cable, the streaming platform appears to be vying for original films that can take the place of those found in theaters, something that’s especially appealing now that most are closed. It’s seen some success with films such as Extraction and The Irishmen, but animated films are a craft Disney has been perfecting since 1937. Over the Moon is a fine option for kids, but without a consistent vision, it doesn’t come close to the big mouse’s ability to create films for all ages.
Directors: Glen Keane, John Kahrs
Writer: Audrey Wells
Starring: Cathy Ang, Robert G. Chiu, Ruthie Ann Miles, John Cho, Edie Ichioka, Sandra Oh, Phillipa Soo, Ken Jeong
Release Date: October 23, 2020 (Netflix)
Joseph Stanichar is a former Paste intern who specializes in videogames. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.