Review: Over the Moon Is a Beguiling, If Obvious, Retelling of a Chinese Myth

Over the Moon mixes the unbridled free-association of playtime with an undercurrent of barbed satire.

Over the Moon
Photo: Netflix

At its most beguiling, director Glen Keane’s animated film Over the Moon mixes the unbridled free-association of playtime with an undercurrent of barbed satire. Though the film’s story is often earnest and sentimental, following yet another child who must learn that there’s no place like home, the visuals often suggest a frenetic and disreputably pleasurable kind of corruption—an insidious commodification of children’s fantasies.

This conceit is reflected most bluntly in a contrast between animation styles. When Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) is told the myth of the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e (Philippa Soo), by her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles), the young girl envisions the story of love and loss in classical pencil etchings. Though when Fei Fei eventually builds a rocket and flies to the moon, the kingdom she actually encounters, Lunaria, suggests a gaudy, hallucinatory cross between Oz, the Island of Lost Toys, Wonderland, Las Vegas, and, most pointedly, Disneyland.

Lunaria is the film’s most surprising creation—gloriously random, and in keeping with one’s imagination. The central kingdom recalls the castle of the Disney logo, and walking and talking moon cakes, which resemble bright gum drops, serve the modern Chang’e, who’s evolved into a lunar idol who sings superficially empowering songs while privately, hypocritically ordering her minions around. Such a detail is perhaps intended to shame the fawning of entertainment sites that regard pop stars as gods.


Elsewhere, we’re introduced to an elegantly animated jade rabbit, who seems to serve as a thankless Merlin figure to Chang’e, and blobby, broadly drawn biker chickens who resemble the Angry Birds and who are of course on the lookout for “biker chicks”—a pun that’s funny precisely because it’s so obvious and shameless. And there are two dogs, each poignant in his own way: One looks a little like a giant Saint Bernard and swims through space, playing catch with the moon, while the other is a neon abstraction called Gobi (Ken Jeong), who rides a giant frog in the sky with Fei Fei and helps to teach her how to live with grief.

Following the tradition of The Wizard of Oz, Keane and screenwriter Audrey Wells connect the various characters and incidents of Lunaria to elements of Fei Fei’s real life. Fei Fei lives in a lovely, very localized Chinese community that prizes the traditions of the Autumn Moon Festival, which is connected to the legend of Chang’e, and which contrasts against the real Chang’e’s corporate gaudiness. Lunaria is visually stimulating, but it’s also so overstuffed with bric-a-brac that one can’t really savor any of it, while Fei Fei’s community moves at a slower pitch and abounds in grace notes, such as a moment of communion between Fei Fei’s cute, puffy pet rabbit, a gift from her mother, and a majestic crane that seems to know more than it lets on. Lunaria represents the modern age of media overdrive, while Fei Fei’s community underscores the intimacy we’re losing. The filmmakers don’t hammer this secondary thread into the ground; they let it breathe, expressing it primarily through their images.

Over the Moon’s main thread is moving, especially given the knowledge that Wells was dying while working on the film, but obvious and limiting. Fei Fei’s need to reach Chang’e represents her struggle to accept her mother’s death, and to understand, years later, that her noble father (John Cho) is lonely and needs to move on. But it’s disappointing to reduce the craven, calculating, yet poignant Chang’e to a reflection of Fei Fei, and this flaw, along with the film’s largely forgettable songs, dilutes the unexpected sting of the satire. Adults overestimate how much children need to be preached to in their entertainment. It’s the conflicting energies of Over the Moon—between fast and freewheeling and deliberate and contemplative—that will most likely stay with them. In proportion, there’s room for both speeds.

 Cast: Cathy Ang, Phillipa Soo, Ken Jeong, John Cho, Robert G. Chiu, Sandra Oh, Margaret Cho, Conrad Ricamora, Ruthie Ann Miles, Clem Cheung, Irene Tsu, Kimiko Glenn  Director: Glen Keane  Screenwriter: Audrey Wells  Distributor: Netflix  Running Time: 95 min  Rating: PG  Year: 2020  Buy: Soundtrack

Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The AV Club, Style Weekly, and other publications.

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