You may not have noticed it, what with so much content coming out on Netflix each week, but the company has been ramping up big time on original animation over the past two years. From last year’s Oscar nominee “I Lost My Body” to internal productions “The Willoughbys” and “Klaus,” Netflix’s cartoon offerings have already reached a point to rival Pixar and DreamWorks. By 2023, the streamer estimates that it will produce more feature-length animated titles than all the Hollywood studios combined.
Timed to China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, Oct. 23 release “Over the Moon” marks a turning point in that push for world domination: It’s not just another tiny toon entry on Netflix’s slate (à la such low-cost pickups as “Fe@rLess” and “Latte & the Magic Waterstone”) but a major, Disney-level production overseen by a major, Disney-level talent, Glen Keane — the gifted artist responsible for bringing to life such characters as Ariel, Aladdin and the Beast during his days at the Mouse House.
Keane’s a veteran of Disney’s hand-drawn glory days (and an Oscar winner for the short “Dear Basketball”) making his feature directorial debut at last on an ambitious outer-space fantasy musical that today’s kids will hold as a generational touchstone. Produced in partnership with Shanghai-based Pearl Studio (the DreamWorks venture responsible for “Abominable”), “Over the Moon” celebrates Chinese culture as no mainstream American toon — not even “Mulan” — has before. But it does so in a way that’s so formulaically Western that it feels like the creative team took “Coco” and dressed it up in another country’s colors, customs and costumes.
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The plot plays off the myth of Chang’e (Phillipa Soo), goddess of the moon, who sacrificed earthly romance with handsome Houyi (Conrad Ricamora) for immortality among the stars — a legend that Keane himself hand-renders in an impressive early sequence, when the sketch decorating a silk scarf comes to life. Chinese kids know the story of moon goddess Chang’e, which sparks the movie’s main character, 13-year-old Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), to prove it’s true … by building a rocket to the moon.
If Wallace and Gromit could take off thus (in “A Grand Day Out”), why not Fei Fei? She’s a bright pupil with an aptitude for science who hatches a plan to use China’s new maglev train to launch her homemade rocket into space — which is the kind of thing one can do in an animated movie, where magical thinking trumps science every time. Probably best not to dwell on where that mentality, hammered into kids by the medium, gets us as a nation.
“Over the Moon” was written by Audrey Wells (“The Hate U Give”), who died of cancer in 2018, and it’s easy to appreciate how she made the film personal once we understand the real motivation behind Fei Fei’s mission: The girl is grieving the loss of her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles), and she’s afraid that her dad (John Cho) will forget what a wonderful woman she was when he starts to see someone else (Sandra Oh). There’s a certain poetry in that, made all the more profound by Wells’ wish that her surviving family members would understand they had her blessing to move on after her passing.
On the other hand, it’s not entirely clear what Fei Fei’s traveling to the moon was supposed to achieve. Even stranger is the spectacle that awaits her when she reaches her destination, with her adorable pet bunny Bungee and stowaway future stepbrother (Robert G. Chiu) in tow: The trio arrives just as Chang’e is about to give a high-power concert for a stadium full of phosphorescent groupies (in an inspired design choice, nearly everything in the moon world of Lunaria seems to glow with an intense inner light). Fei Fei and company have a front-row seat to the performance, as Chang’e comes out belting power anthem “Ultraluminary” like some kind of extra-terrestrial Beyoncé knockoff: Star Child meets Destiny’s Child.
It’s the defining scene of the movie — an over-the-moon solution to “Let It Go,” and the only one of the toon’s nine original songs likely to have much of a life off-screen, as this spectacular moon goddess gets away with rhymes like “I’ve heard they say that the Milky Way / can’t help but envy me.” Stunning, sure, but it makes zero sense in the context of this character. The closest thing to a villain the movie has, Chang’e is described as a tragic figure whose tears turn to stardust as she mourns the loss of her late love, Houyi. So why is someone in that frame of mind giving K-pop concerts every night on the moon?
Easy: Because we’re already more than half an hour in, and the movie desperately needs something to boost its energy going into the Oz-like section that lies ahead. For the better part of the next hour, “Over the Moon” will manufacture meaningless obstacles to fill Fei Fei and Chin’s time in Lunaria, including a stand-off with a trio of angry-bird-like Biker Chickens, a zero-gravity game of leapfrog, and a high-stakes pingpong championship. It also gives her a dopey dog-like guide in the form of Gobi (Ken Jeong), who’s amusing but a little too derivative of Josh Gad’s Olaf character from “Frozen.”
While the plot is busy connecting the dots, Keane and co-director John Kahrs focus their creative resources on making Lunaria look totally unlike anything audiences have seen before: a constellation of glowing shapes that hover like the orbs of an enormous astral mobile. Years ago, Keane was instrumental in translating the hand-drawn Disney cartoon aesthetic to CGI on “Tangled.” The characters here are consistent with that template, but the team has also found a way to convey their distinctly Chinese features, improving on the relatively generic faces seen in Asian anime. Fei Fei’s eyes are especially expressive, which makes it possible to overlook some basic lip-sync problems.
Of course, what really matters is what she’s feeling inside, and the animators handle the subtler emotions unusually well. She’s a conflicted character, and that comes through so clearly with each twitch of her brow that anyone can tell where this is headed: Fei Fei needs to realize that she’s been too inflexible on her idea of family. Traveling all the way to the moon will teach her to appreciate what she has on Earth — although that lesson seems overly obvious, almost forced. When Alice toured Wonderland, she wasn’t obliged to come home a better person. Sometimes it’s OK for an adventure to be just an adventure, and this one gets in the way of its own assets, while pointing to the potential of future journeys from the Netflix animation team.