REVIEW: Over the Moon (2020)
Animated films are no strangers to death and how it affects people. It seems like every Disney protagonist has lost someone close to them, whether to accidents, incidents, or time. In many of these types of films, however, death is a mere plot device, used to get the hero or heroine moving on their journey. Yes, they mourn whoever they’ve lost, but rarely do these stories peel back the layers to see what lies beneath the initial sadness of loss.
Over the Moon, the feature-length directorial debut of legendary animator Glen Keane, does just that. The story centers on a young girl named Fei Fei, who lives with her mother and father in a village where they bake and sell mooncakes. Her mother tells her the story of the moon goddess Chang’e and her lover Houyi, who were separated after Chang’e became a goddess; she awaits his return on the moon.
Soon, though, Fei Fei’s mother falls ill and passes away. Her emotions build up and boil over when her family implies that Chang’e is not real at their annual Moon Festival celebration, where she also learns that her father intends to remarry. Overwhelmed, Fei Fei runs off and is inspired to build a rocket to the moon to prove that Chang’e is real.
While watching, I was immediately struck by how mature a lot of these themes are for what initially seemed to be a textbook animated adventure. After all, death is ever-present in films of this ilk—but very few stories keep loss at their center. As Over the Moon progresses, it never loses sight of the tragedy that spurred the story on. Its exploration of children dealing with things like remarrying—and moving past their grief in general—is very admirable. I was frequently surprised by how emotional some of the story beats made me, which is a testament to Alice Wu, Audrey Wells, and Jennifer Yee McDevitt’s screenplay.
Now, up until this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Over the Moon is a thoroughly sombre affair. And yes, while the film does frequently take its time to slow things down and address the sadness at its core, it’s full of fun as well. After all, this is a movie where a girl builds a rocket and flies to the moon to see a goddess (who it turns out is also something of a popstar up there?) I’m here for it.
While many of the film’s big action set pieces seem to be lacking a special thrill or edge (there really isn’t anything in this department you haven’t seen before), everyone and everything in Over the Moon is so dazzlingly rendered that you can’t help but be swept up in the moment. From the fireworks exploding out the back of Fei Fei’s rocket to the hovering motorcycle chase through Chang’e’s lunar “city,” there is more than enough eye candy to keep all ages entertained.
And boy, this film sure does dazzle. Fei Fei’s quaint and cozy village is just as detailed as the alternately sparse and vibrant surface of the moon, with the animators going heavy on some seriously impressive particle effects throughout. This is a beautiful film, full of warm hues and sharp designs. The city of Lunaria has a retro-futuristic style that is injected with modern sensibilities and absolutely covered in color—it’s an optical sugar rush.
The character models are the only place where the animation feels like it could be described as lacking, but that’s only because the rest of the film feels so alive. The people are by no means badly animated or distracting, but the rest of the film’s animation makes you wish they were a bit more vibrant or unique (with the exception of Chang’e’s wardrobe). And while the film occasionally prioritizes visual spectacle over effective visual storytelling, there are plenty of standout compositions and beautiful images that linger in the mind.
It’s no surprise that Over the Moon looks as good as it does considering director Keane’s pedigree; this is the man who worked as a lead or supporting animator for classics such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Tangled. For his first full-length feature (he directed the Oscar-winning short Dear Basketball in 2017), Keane does a great job of keeping the plot moving steadily forward while also knowing exactly when to hit you in the feelings. His directing, while not groundbreaking in any sense, clearly reflects his years of industry expertise and comfort with the medium.
He also has the benefit of working with an all-star cast, including the voice talents of John Cho, Sandra Oh, Ken Jeong, Margaret Cho, and Phillipa Soo, who all do great work. Fei Fei is voiced wonderfully by Cathy Ang and Bryce Taylor Hall (who voices the younger version of the character), while her rambunctious and sweet new step-brother is voiced by Rober G Chiu. It’s delightful to see a Chinese myth get retold in a new way with such overwhelming Asian representation in the cast. In an era of whitewashing (in both live-action and voice performances), it’s heartening to see some care was taken with the casting.
This film also features plenty of original songs, and I’m pleased to report that most of them are bops. Phillipa Soo’s introduction song, “Ultraluminary,” is a standout that is sure to kick around in my head for a few days. Some other highlights include “Mooncakes,” “Wonderful,” and “Love Someone New.”
Over the Moon does not break the mold for animated films. For much of its runtime, you could assume that the film was from Pixar or Disney Animation Studios, and that’s not a bad thing. However, this film lays its heart bare in a way that few of those films ever do. Characters do not always hide their pain, and many of them have known loss in their lives. The film is not afraid to let them have awkward, somewhat clunky yet necessary conversations.
Behind all the spectacle, vibrant pop songs, and adorable sidekicks, this is a film about a young girl who has lost her mother and wants her back. It acknowledges that pain instead of brushing past it, and it never attempts to diminish or ridicule it. For audiences of any age, that’s important to see. There is power in acknowledgement.
When you couple that fully-realized emotional potency with the excitement and visual splendor of a space adventure, you get one of the year’s best animated outings. Over the Moon is packed with real heart, awe-inspiring visuals, and some of the catchiest tunes you’ll hear this year. But at the centre of it all, it tells a kind, life-affirming story about accepting loss and welcoming the future. Like Fei Fei, it shoots for the stars—and gets there, too.