Thursday, June 20, 2024

‘Over the Moon’ Almost Makes the Landing

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Over the Moon is an earnest visually dazzling kids movie that blends folklore with a child’s imagination. Though it’s also a musical and the songs don’t ever feel like they belong. But more than anything it’s also Netflix firing a shot across the bow of Disney.

Directed by Glen Keane, a former Disney animator, and co-directed by John Kahrs, a former Pixar, and Disney animator, the film comes overloaded with pedigree. Which explains why the visuals of Over the Moon are breathtaking and lovingly rendered. But it does not explain why, despite the heart and artistry on display, there is at times a curious hollowness to the story. 

Written by the late Audrey Wells, Over the Moon, at times feels exhilarating and magical. Still, at other times it feels as if it’s holding itself back. To be clear this is a children’s story but considering who wrote and directed it, it feels as if it should be better.

Part of the problem is the idea itself. Much like Disney’s MulanOver the Moon takes a Chinese story and places it in the hands of white storytellers. I know, I know, it must be tiresome to keep reading me write that but it should also show you how often it happens. Telling a story is universal but when you take a story from another culture and try to tell it in your own voice, there will be a cognitive dissonance; especially if the story comes from Eastern culture and told by Western voices.

Fei-Fei (Cathy Ang), a 14 yr old girl whose mother has died from a mysterious illness when she was younger is now faced with the fact that her father wasn’t to re-marry. I would be lying if I didn’t let out an exasperated groan when I saw Fei-Fei’s mother stumble in the kitchen. Children’s movies, like killers from a slasher movie, love killing off parents, especially mothers.

Ma Ma ( Ruthie Ann Mills), Fe-Fei’s mother, tells a story, in the beginning, about the Moon goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo). A woman who was once mortal but is now immortal because she took magical pills and is forever separated from her love Hou Yi. The tale is vague, with Fei-Fei’s family arguing over dinner during the Moon Harvest, why Chang’e’s took the pills, how many pills there were, and whether or not she loved Hou Yi.

I loved little moments like this. Stories as old as the tale of Chang’e tend to morph to the times. Gaps in stories allow for the listener’s imagination to engage and fill it in and bring a fuller meaning to the story. Not to mention scenes like these remind us that, indeed, everyone’s a critic. 

Plus the mother adds a bit in about a cosmic dog which goes to show sometimes you’ve gotta throw the audience a bone once and a while, especially when your audience is a restless little girl.

Wells’s script takes a surprising amount of time before it gets Fe-Fei to the moon, and for good reason. For all, its faults I appreciated how Over the Moon doesn’t rush past Ma Ma’s death. It shows Fe-Fei grieving as well as her struggle to live a life without her mother. It’s been a few years but the wound is still fresh and seeing Ba Ba (John Cho) with another woman infuriates her.

It doesn’t help that the new woman Zhong (Sandra Oh) has a rambunctious little boy Chin (Robert G. Chiu) who believes he can run through walls. Fei-Fei refuses to acknowledge any of this and soon begins to believe that if she can prove Chang’e is real then her dad will not marry Zhong and she won’t have an annoying little brother.

Fei-Fei is a clever girl but she is in that strange age where the real world is alive and impossible to ignore but magic and legends are no less vibrant. So, doing the math, and using the design of the new electromagnetic train in her neighborhood, she builds a rocket and flies to the moon.

Over the Moon feels like a kids’ story in the best ways. The twists and breaks from reality happen on a dime and remind us of the joy of imagination in storytelling. That she builds a rocket using science and it works, because magic, is storytelling distilled into simplicity. That it works and that Chin stows away, is of course predictable.

Once they get to the Moon though, the visuals begin to pop even more but the story starts to drag. Though I loved the idea of a goddess being introduced as if she was Lady Gaga, a pop singer belting out songs to her adoring Moon public. It accounts for the Moon-globs, little gelatin looking things that seem to have no shape, rhyme, or reason, which is fine since none of this is real.

But the story dragging comes from something else I haven’t mentioned yet. Over the Moon is a musical. The songs don’t work.

The songs themselves are fine. Though they’re not very catchy or for that matter that entertaining, and at times they feel like filler. Over the Moon has so much going for it that the musical aspect feels more like an added weight rather than something lifting the story. 

Chang’e wants “the gift” Fe-Fei brought her so she can use it with the potion that will unite her with Hou Yi. Fei-Fei doesn’t know what Chang’e is talking about but rushes back to her crash rocket to try and find it. Wells’s script again shines as I found myself genuinely perplexed about what the gift was. Over the Moon cleverly sets up about two or three possibilities and credit where credit is due I was genuinely pleased when the “gift” was revealed.

Ang’s voice is filled with emotion and passion in a way so many child actors are not in animation. Voice acting is often taken for granted but what she and Chiu pull off in Over the Moon is impressive in its own right. The two argue, much like little brothers and older sisters do, but their voices and their cadences sound much like little kids when they argue over something as silly as who holds what.

Keane and Kahrs have brought all their years and talent to bear and for the most part, have created a stunning looking kids movie. Combined with the earnestness of Wells’s script it’s impossible to not be just a little moved in moments like when Fei-Fei joins Chang’e in the Chamber of Exquisite Sadness. 

At times the imagery of Over the Moon is downright haunting such as when Keane and Kahrs, show us a shrine shrouded in fog and shadows. The duo brings texture and shading to their images as well as allowing them to stand in as visual representations for emotions, that help the scenes have a somewhat visceral impact. It’s a simple scene but it works and it sticks with you.

The biggest problem with Over the Moon, if I’m being honest, is that I am too old for it. This is one of those kids’ movies made for kids with adults as an afterthought. Perhaps the songs work for kids and maybe even I suspect the pacing which I found bothersome, seems fine to a child. After all, when everything is said and done, for an animated movie from a streaming service, Over the Moon is a captivating wonder.

Even if we judge the movie, as we should, on its own, it is a far cry from the bland photorealism we have been recently subjected to. The color scheme is a lush kaleidoscopic array and the character designs have a liveliness to them that allows for open and expressive faces. Over the Moon is made with love and it shows with every animation cell.

At the same time, it’s hard not to feel as if sometimes Over the Moon isn’t showing us Chinese culture so much what Westerners perceive as Chinese culture. One such moment, was when Chin and Chang’e face off in a game of ping-pong to decide Fei-Fei’s fate. Little things such as this start to eat away at the overall impact of the Over the Moon.

For all the bright colors, delightful character design, and emotional empathy, the film can’t help but ring empty at times. Perhaps this is the price of telling a story from the outside. The technical aspects will be pristine and it will be effective but something will be off, a grit of sand will get into the mechanics, and jam the whole thing up. 

Image courtesy of Netflix

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