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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 Out, Coco, 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Rating: Go See It!