The Other Side of Animation 197: Over the Moon Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com/camseyeview. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

Heads up!: I was able to watch this film before it’s release due to obtaining an advance screener from Netflix.

As I get closer and closer to reviewing 200 animated films, I hope it’s clear that, as many of these are non-Pixar/Disney, I do not hate Disney or Pixar animated films. Honestly, they can be some of my favorite films from the years they are released. I don’t have some deep-seated grudge against them. Now, I don’t like a lot of the business side of things with Disney as a whole, but in terms of what we are talking about right now, I enjoy and even love the animated films they make. However, taking out the Pixar gems, I do think something changed right around the time after Moana was released. I like Ralph Breaks the Internet and to a degree, Frozen II, but they were missing something that I think is filled by the foreign/indie scene of animation. They missed a very genuine heart, and while their last two films do have some great elements, would you consider them the best of their 2010s output? I wouldn’t. Even with the Pixar gems like Inside OutCoco, and so on, my attention and love for animation has gone into supporting what everyone else is doing. Making money and making art is a balancing act, so if you want to make it in the industry, you have to do both. I’ve seen the worst of both the money and art side, and it makes me more thankful when I get to see films like Over the Moon.

Directed by Glen Keane in his first feature film gig as a director, co-directed by John Kahrs, written by the late great Audrey Wells, and animated by Pearl Studios and Sony Pictures Imageworks, this is the newest film in the push for the streaming service Netflix to have exclusive animated features. Last year, we saw that come through with Klaus, and this year, we have The Willoughbys, Animal Crackers, and now Over the Moon. Not going to lie, if this is the level of quality a streaming service is going to be putting out in top-shelf animated features, then everyone else needs to step up after this and Wolfwalkers

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Our story revolves around Fei Fei, voiced by Cathy Ang. She lives with her mother, voiced by Ruthie Ann Miles, and her father aka Ba Ba, voiced by John Cho. Unfortunately, in animated film fashion from an ex-Disney veteran, the mom passes away while Fei Fei is young. After a few years pass, she finds out that her dad is seeing someone else, and meets a young boy who may or may not end up being her brother-in-law. His name is Chin, voiced by Robert G. Chiu. After a blow-up one night when the entire family is over, Fei Fei decides to make a rocket and head to the moon to meet the Moon Goddess that her mom told her stories about! The only catch is that her stepbrother, her rabbit, and her stepbrother’s frog get roped in, and they crash on the moon. Luckily, they are safe, but are then taken to the Goddess of the Moon named Chang’e, voiced by Phillipa Soo. Fei Fei wants to get proof that she exists, and the Goddess is willing to give her that proof. However, the catch is that Fei Fei needs to get a gift for her, and she needs to get it before the entire moon is dark. Can Fei Fei get this supposed gift and bring back proof that the Goddess is a real entity? 

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So, for Glen Keane’s first directorial feature, I think he overall did a great job with his team in crafting this film’s story. If I had to say what the film is about, in terms of story and themes, I think the film is about family, love, dealing with loss, loneliness, and pushing forward. I think one of my favorite aspects of the writing is that there are fun little symbolic elements thrown into the mix, but they have layers to them. The more you invest your time into paying attention to the story, there are satisfying payoffs. For example, Chen says he can go through walls, and anytime that he does try to, he yells “No Barriers!” Well, sure there is a payoff to that aspect of his character, but you can also see it as a way of saying ‘there are no barriers between us as brother, sister, and family”. Even during the big family dinner sequence, the grandfather will throw out a line that may be about his obsessions with hairy crabs, but it matches with what is thematically going on with Fei Fei’s character at that moment. Even Fei Fei’s hair has little story elements to it, and I adore this much detail that Glen and Audrey Wells put into the story beats. I bring up these story beats because I think the trailer undersells the actual maturity and depth that the film offers. It’s very much a Smallfoot and Abominable situation, if you catch my drift with how the marketing made the films look sillier than they are. Don’t get me wrong, this film can be silly, and not all of its jokes land, but it’s still pretty funny with a fairly universal style of humor. Still, a lot of Over the Moon reminds me of how Moana and Studio Ghibli have handled antagonistic forces in films. Chang’e might be a goddess on the moon, but she isn’t evil or wants to wreck the world or the universe. She’s alone, and bitter about what happened in her past. There is more nuance to Chang’e and Fei Fei’s connection as characters, and it reminds me of films like Song of the Sea, where it plays around with the themes of emotion, love, and connection. Even if I think some characters could have had better connections or maybe a little more plot or scenes together, I can’t think of a character that was truly superficial to what was going on in the story. I know some people cringed when they saw Ken Jeong as Gobi, and they were dreading him being the comedic side character, but I found him pretty tolerable, and his scenes with Fei Fei are cute and earnest. He even gets some lines that help the story move forward. 

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Everything feels cohesive in this film, and that includes the animation. With Pearl Studios doing the previous year’s Abominable in 2019, and Sony Pictures Imageworks helping out, the animation in this film is high quality. The humans look great, their animation is expressive, and when we get to the kingdom of the moon, it’s a rainbow of colors. Seriously, when I saw the teaser back in June, and the new trailer recently, I loved the colors. It’s very unique compared to much that has come out this year. The simplistic designs and vibrant colors remind me of Yayoi Kusama or something Science Saru would do. It even has a little bit of the online world Summer Wars has. Now, since this is directed by an ex-Disney animation legend, of course, the movie is a musical. The music has a little bit of the magic that The Little Mermaid had, and that shouldn’t be a shock, since Keane was also an animator in that movie. The songs themselves are quite good. I might like some more than others, but I couldn’t find one that was pure filler or felt out of place. The team of Steven Price, Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield, and Helen Park deserves a major shoutout for making some amazing music that captured that old Disney spirit that I think was missing from many of their recent output. It’s funny how ex-Disney animators have been able to be more Disney on top of their own identity than Disney themselves. The voice cast is also pretty strong, with a cast including Cathy Ang, Robert G Chiu, Phillipa Soo, Ken Jeong, John Cho, Ruthie Ann Miles, Margaret Cho, Sandra Oh, Kimiko Glenn, and Artt Butler. It’s a great cast, and I felt their genuine chemistry between the characters. I think my favorite moments are the scenes with the family. It reminds me of a time where we could get together for a big family meal around the holidays. 

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Now, while I think this is a very cohesive film, I do have a few complaints. I think I would have liked at least one more scene of Fei Fei and Chun bonding, because they are separated for the majority of the film, and I think it would have helped make their bond at the end stronger. I know this film was more about Fei Fei’s personal growth as an individual, but still. While I am probably more on the side of loving Ken Jeong’s character than hating him, I wanted a stronger outcome for his character. He came back after being exiled, so wouldn’t the goddess have some kind of comment about that or something? I don’t think he was added for the sake of having another animal sidekick, since the film already had two with Bungie and the frog, and even then, the frog is barely in the film. My point is, I wish there was a little more of a satisfying ending to Gobi’s arc.

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Outside of some of the secondary and minor characters getting criticized, I love Over the Moon. It’s a touching film about love and family. It’s easily one of the best animated films of the year, and in a year where animation has taken front seat even though most of the big players have delayed their releases to next year, Over the Moon would still be in my top five animated films of the year. Once it hits Netflix later this month on the 23rd, I highly recommend everyone check it out. If you need a pick-me-up for what has been going on throughout this year, Over The Moon will be that pick-me-up. So, let’s move on from our trip to the moon, and back down to the world of Lupin the 3rd. Since his newest film is coming out in the states (better have some virtual screenings of it), I think it would be fair for us to check out the last special in the trilogy of specials from The Woman Called Fujiko Mine with Lupin the 3rd: Fujiko’s Lie

Thanks for reading the review! I hope you all enjoyed reading it! If you would like to support my work, make sure to share it out, and if you want to become a Patreon supporter, then you can go to patreon.com/camseyeview. I will see you all next time! 

Rating: Go See It!

The Other Side of Animation 152: Wonder Park Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com/camseyeview. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

Like I said in my 150th review of the Godzilla Netflix Trilogy, I’m not really finding joy in reviewing movies I would consider bad. I do it, and will not falter in my opinions about them, but I take no joy in certain films that obviously had a rough development. Many things can go wrong with making animated films, and I can’t think of a rougher development for an animated film this year than Paramount and Nickelodeon’s Wonder Park. Honestly, as far as I can tell right now, Wonder Park had probably some of the most negative PR surrounding it before release. Starting development back in 2014, Wonder Park was animated by a studio in Spain called Ilion Animation Studios, the same studio that did 2009’s Planet 51 and the upcoming film Paramount/Skydance production, Luck. Then, in January of 2018, the original director, Dylan Brown, who was an animator for Pixar, was fired after sexual misconduct, and was replaced by David Feiss, Clare Kilner, and Robert Iscove. Well, you would not really know that, because the film is notorious for not having an actual literal director credit! Not even a fake director name. No one wanted full-fledged credit. Even after that trainwreck, it has been getting bombarded with negative reviews, and may be Paramount’s first flop of 2019. Yeah, let’s check it out, shall we?

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The story follows this little girl name June, voiced by Brianne Denski. June, along with her mother, voiced by Jennifer Garner, has made this beautiful, vibrant, and outlandishly-creative theme park called Wonderland, where her stuffed animals help run it. These animals include a blue bear who greets the park guests named Boomer, voiced in the US by Ken Hudson Campbell and the UK version by Tom Baker, two beavers named Gus and Cooper, voiced in the US version by Kenan Thompson and Ken Jeong and in the UK version by Ryan Fitzgerald and Wippa, a wild boar that runs everything named Greta, voiced by Mila Kunis, and a porcupine that is the safety inspector named Steve, voiced by John Oliver. However, the most important animal in the park is a chimp named Peanut, voiced by Norbert Leo Butz, who is the park icon and ride creator. Unfortunately, as June started to build a smaller scale version of Wonderland, June’s mom gets sick and has to leave for a while. They won’t say what she is sick with exactly, but that really won’t matter as the story and my review goes on. She is now stuck with her dad, voiced by Matthew Broderick, and stews away in her sadness about the possibility of not seeing her mother again. After getting sent to math camp, June escapes the bus taking her to the camp, and stumbles into a forest, and with no real explanation, ends up in Wonderland, but nature decided to take it back. She ends up seeing her stuffed animals come to life as more “realistic-looking”, and the park is overrun by this ominous cloud of darkness that has wrecked the park with the help of the Chimpanzombies. Can June find a way to get her creative spark back and save the park? What about the fate of her mother? What about the fact that this park came to life with no real reason given how? Why is there no real director credit?

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So, what happened? How did this film become such an unfocused $100 mil mess? It’s really tough to say what’s positive about it, because with every positive, comes a negative. For example, the animation is fine. It has solid enough animation, but it really doesn’t look like it cost $100 mil. Some of the movements look solid enough, but some movement styles are janky and too fast. With how fast the two beaver brothers move, you can’t really tell what they are doing when they are running or fighting with one another. The end credits literally cut out the characters from the film footage, and slaps them onto the big names. Not only that, but they either slow down or rewind the footage used to make it look like they made entirely original animation. It looks sloppy and rushed. The characters move well enough, but there aren’t that many little quirks outside of maybe Peanut and Boomer. No one has little movements that make each character feel like their own. Some of the shots and the rides are well-animated and shot well, but at other times, the camera is either too close or snapping back and forward like that one scene in Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s hard to know what’s fully going on. The film’s animation also lacks a bit of that creative spark that something like this film needs. Why don’t the animals look like their stuffed animal counterparts? They had CG models of the stuffed animals set up for each of them, but their “living” versions are just generic animals. The chimpanzombies and the Darkness could have been interesting, but due to how wonky, rushed, and undercooked the script is, they end up being very forgettable threats that you will not remember at all. I don’t really get how clunky the animation has been for Nickelodeon’s original films that get TV series. Even by the years they were released, with Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius back in 2001 and Barnyard back in 2006, they never look as good as other big studio films at those times. Oh, and Wonder Park also has this very heavy emphasis on shine and bloom effects. You know how video games during the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii generation really exploited the heck out of the bloom tool in games? That’s Wonder Park’s other notable animation issue. It looks like a short CGI film made by a student who was learning how to balance out CGI lighting tools. However, I will say that for foreign animation from Spain, it does look better than a lot of the films that I see that either look like they are almost at the Hollywood scale, or very straight-to-video.

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So, the animation is a mixed to mostly negative bag, but what about the story, writing, and characters? Well, unfortunately, the one positive/one negative trick used above is sadly usable here. The story had potential to be more complex with how June is connected to the park with the animal characters being different symbolic forms of June. For example, Peanut is her imagination and optimism, and Steve is her current mood that’s all about safety regulations. Sadly, they really don’t go into that, or expand upon it. Because of the 85-minute runtime, it’s one of the few times an animated film should have been 120 minutes. You aren’t given time to breath, or know about the characters, or how the plot works. You are never told how the park came to life, how the animals don’t know who she is, and plenty of other story elements that don’t really get fleshed out. It’s great that June is a creative and imaginative individual, and I would argue that she would make a much better protagonist if she was given a better story and overall film. If the film didn’t introduce these themes that you have seen done better in Inside Out and A Monster Calls, then we wouldn’t be criticizing how lacking in punch the overall film feels. The writing is never creative, the jokes don’t land, and I don’t remember the character’s names, their personalities, or any real scenes. Due to how much of a rush the film is in to get itself done with, you are never caring on an emotional level, and that’s a shame. Again, there is stuff that could work here, but those elements are as under-baked as most baked desserts on Chopped.

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In the end, I feel badly for the people that worked on Wonder Park. It’s the weakest animated film of 2019, and I don’t like saying that. There are elements of a much better movie hiding under all the flaws, and the fact that this entire film feels like a rush job to prepare viewers for the upcoming animated series, which may not happen now, or will go for a season before cancelation, says a lot. A lot of my issues with this film are because we know very little of what happened behind the scenes to make many of these issues center-stage, and I feel badly for the animators and production people who may or may not have had a great work schedule to get this completed. It won’t change my opinion on the film, but I would, at the very least, understand what went down. I feel like with a better direction and more time to actually flesh out certain elements of this film, it could have been a solid gem that would have found a cult following. Who knows, maybe a few years down the line we might re-review films like this, and find something we missed the first time around. I simply don’t recommend seeing Wonder Park. It will probably find its way onto Netflix in the future, and or maybe Amazon Prime. Until then, just go see How to Train your Dragon: The Hidden World, The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part, or try to find screenings for some of the upcoming foreign animated features coming out, like This Magnificent Cake!, Penguin Highway, or Okko’s Inn. Until then, just wait until Missing Link comes out in April. For now, since we have some time before Laika’s newest feature, how about we talk about some smaller releases that I think people should check out? Next time, let’s talk about a really cool female-directed animated feature called Maquia: When the Promised Flowers Bloom. Thanks for reading! I hope you all enjoyed the review, and let’s hope we can learn about Wonder Park’s development history in more educated detail in the future! I will see you all next time!

Rating: The Worst/Blacklist