One might not have expected an animated children’s film about German children who hang out with a talking beetle, to also serve as a polemic on the conflict between benevolent dictators and despotic freedom fighters. Ali Samadi Ahadi lulls you into a false sense of security before dropping in scenes in which a child maliciously electrocutes one of his classmates. Mothers and fathers who are looking for some innocuous little piece of fluff that will occupy their children’s interest for a couple of hours, should be concerned for the safety of any child that incurs the wrath of their little munchkin.
You can see why some would be fooled into thinking that this was just an ordinary science fiction romp about a dysfunctional relationship between siblings. The protagonist is a Spielbergian adolescent nerd, known as Peter, and he and his family have recently moved to a new town. He is socially awkward and is bullied by some popular kids on his first day of school. His already miserable life is complicated by his troubled relationship with his young sister Anne, who is rambunctious and impetuous. One day, she ends up being captured and brought up the Moon. Peter decides to follow her and try to bring her back down to Earth. Once there, he finds himself trying to track her down after learning that she has fallen under the command of the villainous Moon Man. He needs to bring Anne back down to Earth before the sun rises and finds himself helping Mr. Zoomzeman, a kooky beetle, to find his missing arm. As her brother tries to save her, Anne gets wrapped up in the political conflict between Moon Man and The Night Fairy. When the two of them collide, they find themselves at cross purposes.
The tension between Moon Man and Night Fairy ends up playing a bigger role than you might expect. She is presented as a beautiful, charismatic leader who ends up being all flash and no substance. Despite having the face of angel and a pleasant demeanour, she is completely incompetent and can barely understand what is happening around her. She rules over the Moon and has an entourage full of celebrities on her side, but appears to be clueless when it comes to Moon Man’s corrupt ways. He is an organised crime figure who plans to use child slavery in order to build up his empire. It seems that he has been plotting to depose Night Fairy for years and take the throne for himself, with plans of setting up some sort of military junta in place of the hereditary monarchy that she has established.
The film seems to make the argument that an incompetent but popular figurehead, who could be controlled by somebody who does understand how to rule over a nation, would be far preferable to a dictator who seeks to run the Moon like a business. It never quite puts its foot down and outright admits that it is condoning Night Fairy’s ineffective leadership style, but it does fail to provide an adequate alternative to her JFK-like ineptitude. It teaches children that there is simply no way to resolve issues with political corruption in foreign countries and you should simply try to run away from dangerous situations. It’s a depressing message and even younguns will be left wondering why it has such a downbeat, bleak tone. It tangles with some big ideas, without ever fully grasping why it can be so hard to root out an autocratic leadership style in certain countries. It doesn’t earn Kenji Mizoguchi levels of tragedy.
There’s also no way to get around the fact that it advocates for using violence to end arguments. Peter literally uses electric shocks to stop his enemy from pestering him. You would assume that the screenwriters of a film made for children would want to send the right messages about social interactions and how to deal with personality clashes. They had the opportunity to make a point about violence begetting more violence and causing a breakdown in communication, but they chose not to go down that path. Instead they suggest that using a horrible form of torture is the best course forward for a young boy who is supposed to have learned something from his experiences on the moon.
I’m sure that some will think it silly to take such a high handed, morally outraged tone when talking about a film made for very young audiences. It is important that somebody call out the screenwriters on the frankly immoral messages embedded into this story, because that should be one of the areas in which it is easiest to succeed. Producing a unique visual aesthetic, crafting witty dialogue and maintaining suspense over a long running time, should be the major challenges. Telling kids that they will make more friends if they just act like themselves shouldn’t be a massive hurdle to overcome.
Due to the fact that Moonbound (2021) is horribly deficient in most regards, it becomes difficult not to point out that it managed to fail on the most basic of levels. When you can’t help but notice that the dialogue seems to have been directly translated from German to English, without concern for the fact that some of these translations produce awkwardly phrased sentences. There are no glaring mistakes, but you can never quite believe that a young American boy is speaking in such a stilted, formal manner. If they had put in just slightly more effort, that might not have been a problem at all.
There is nothing to recommend Moonbound. If you want to show your kids a comedy with a problematic message, you would be better off letting them see Big (1988). Sure, it involves quasi-pedophilia, but when Tom Hanks is dancing on that walking piano, it’s difficult to keep the smile off your face.
Signature Entertainment presents Moonbound in Cinemas Nationwide in the UK from 6 August, 2021