For the longest time, it was a tradition in my family to avoid the massive crowds at the malls and stores during Black Friday, and instead take in a movie, typically one more tame than usual. We liked to go for a more family-friendly vibe in hopes that everyone could find something to enjoy, especially the friends we often invited along with us. It especially became important after I moved to Connecticut. It was all but impossible to get Christmas off in my early years at ESPN, but I could often get the Thanksgiving holiday, so I would drive the five hours home for the long weekend, and we’d take in Enchanted (which I hated, but my mom and sister loved), Goblet of Fire (we’re big Potterheads), and the Jim Carrey animated version of A Christmas Carol, among others.
The tradition has died off since my move to the west coast six years ago. Even if I could go home for the holidays this year, it would be impossible to carry on the trend, as New York theatres remain shuttered. Still, I try to find little ways to inject the pleasantries of home whenever I can, especially in a year as utterly fucked as 2020 has been. In light of that, I offer Over the Moon, a co-production of Sony and Pearl Studios, the Chinese animation wing of DreamWorks, and recently released on Netflix.
I’ll say right upfront that I didn’t like the movie nearly as much as I wanted to, but for our purposes here, it’s more than adequate. While the story lacks in certain areas, particularly in narrative logic, there’s enough good stuff here to recommend it, especially if you are looking for some family fare this season, and you’re not quite ready to go full-on Christmas, which even a pandemic couldn’t prevent some entities from trying to start back in August.
The main heft of the story focuses on a young girl named Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), who delights in stories about the Moon Goddess, Chang’e, who mourns and years for a lost love named Houyi who died after she became immortal. It’s an interesting take on the classic Chinese mythology, also incorporating the Jade Rabbit, a folk creature imagined from the shapes of craters on the side of the Moon. Fei Fei and her parents (John Cho and Ruthie Ann Miles), own a bakery where they make moon cakes while Fei Fei lives the normal life of a young girl, attending school and dreaming of being a lunar astronaut someday.
But as fate would have it – well, either fate or a checklist of every trope in an animated kids movie – Fei Fei’s mother dies of an ambiguous illness. Seriously, during a montage, she stumbles and appears to have a headache, gives Fei Fei a pet bunny (they name it Bungee), and then we cut to the funeral. I don’t know who came up with this rule, or what sick fucking reason they used to justify it, but it’s basically ironclad law that a kids movie protagonist simply can’t grow as a person and have a satisfying journey if both of their parents are alive and/or not abusive. No one can just grow up happy and still have an adventure, apparently.
That said, I will give this film credit where it’s due, in that it actually uses the grief of a lost parent to inform Fei Fei’s character and motivate her actions, instead of the usual purpose for dead relatives, which is to remove voices of reason and give the hero a built-in lone wolf mentality. Over the course of four years, Fei Fei becomes more committed to her father’s shop as well as her scientific studies because she relies more and more on the legend of Chang’e as a coping mechanism. Just as Chang’e seeks to reunite with Houyi, so too does Fei Fei believe that there’s some mystical way the Moon can give her mother new life, or at minimum keep her alive in the hearts and minds of her father and extended family. She clings to this fairy tale because it’s all she has left of her mom, and for a young child to experience loss at such an age, it’s a glimpse of human nature that’s not just relatable, but bold for a movie like this, because it engages its target audience on their level, something rarely seen these days outside of Laika Studios films.
There’s even a mature modern element thrown in with the introduction of Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her hyperactive son, Chin (Robert G. Chiu). It’s been four years since the death of Fei Fei’s mother, and her father has decided to move on, dating and eventually marrying another woman, blending their two families together. It’s another point in the film’s favor that it doesn’t take a side in the ensuing drama, because just as Fei Fei has the right to rebel against this union and deny Mrs. Zhong a place in her house because she thinks her mother is being replaced, so too does her father have the right to his own happiness and another chance at love. It’s unreasonable to expect him to be a lonely widower for the rest of his days, but the film also acknowledges the pain that Fei Fei has still not found a way to truly process. It’s to the movie’s credit that the idea of a blended family is presented as completely normal, a natural next step in the lives of all involved, even if they react in polar opposite ways.
If you had told me that this film – about a fantastical trip to the Moon – would actually have more substance in the human drama of the first act, I might not have believed you, especially after I saw the trailer and the hints of the spectacle yet to come. But I have to admit that this movie deals with loss in real terms that most other films of this type wouldn’t dare to try. It’s an expert bit of subtlety and nuance that I wish the rest of the movie had.
Oddly, the quality of the story actually starts to decline as the scope of the animation kicks into high gear. Determined to prove that Chang’e is real and that her mother can’t be replaced, Fei Fei builds a rocket ship with the intent of leaving the Earth behind. She blasts off (somehow) and almost makes escape velocity (because to hell with physics), except for the literally impossible surprise that Chin has snuck aboard without her noticing. Instead of falling to their deaths, however, they are captured in a magic moonbeam and transported to our natural satellite, and fuckery abounds.
When the reluctant step-siblings get to the Moon and meet Chang’e, the tone immediately shifts to one I don’t think the film intended. Chang’e seeks “The Gift,” which will help her see Houyi again, but instead of a woman in perpetual mourning like the stories – and the film – have suggested up to this point, when we finally meet her (voiced by Phillipa Soo of Hamilton) it’s in the form of a pop idol concert where Chang’e looks like an even more cartoonish version of Katy Perry singing a song about how awesome she is while the Jade Rabbit acts as an EDM DJ.
There’s no dignity, no grace, no hint of the character that’s been built up for the previous 30 minutes. And it doesn’t get much better. Once she ends her borderline burlesque performance (which I have no problem with, but remember the target audience), which she brands as a “gift” to Fei Fei and her Lunarian subjects, she demands that Fei Fei give her “The Gift” immediately, never considering for a moment that Fei Fei has no idea what it is, then kidnaps Chin as collateral for Fei Fei to find it. She even sends her own citizens out to find it with the promise of a huge reward to whoever does come up with it. Meanwhile, she challenges Chin to a game of ping-pong for yet another obnoxious musical number that makes her just incredibly unlikable as a character. She’s apparently on a deadline where Houyi will be lost forever if she doesn’t find “The Gift” in time, and her strategy is to sit on her ass and antagonize everyone? What the hell kind of sense does that make? It makes things even more jarring when her character suddenly shifts into the desperate and morose character we were originally anticipating in the third act.
As Fei Fei returns to her rocket’s crash site, we do get the strongest bits of animation in the film, particularly in the contrast of bright, almost neon colors set against the blackness of space. As far as “The Gift” is concerned, it’s so obvious what it is that I’m pretty sure its entire use as a MacGuffin is to give the littlest kids in the room the chance to get excited and point it out like the world’s highest budget episode of Blues Clues. But the journey itself is filled with some pretty amazing visuals, like giant frogs that float on clouds like a pod of whales (I’m deathly afraid of frogs, and even I found the designs breathtaking), or a talking magic pangolin voiced by Ken Jeong. He has the one good song on the soundtrack, a sweet little ditty called “Wonderful” which could honestly be the B-side to “Rainbow Connection.” But most importantly, his presence allows me to write the word “pangolin” a bunch of times, and I just can’t hate a movie that lets me do that.
The resolution is fairly standard, and lessons are learned about what constitutes a family and how important it is to process our grief and move on with our lives. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but again, the bright colors and fantastic designs put a fresh coat on a well-worn template. As an adult, I wish the movie would pick a lane and stick with it. It’s very good at depicting the adjustment of loss and a blended family. It’s also very good at animating a magical space adventure, even though it’s not really good at telling that aspect of the story.
But for what it’s meant to be, it works. We’ve all been hurting for a little pleasantness here and there, and this movie provides it. It’s a welcome respite from the trials and tribulations we’ve suffered this year, and the kids can marvel at the shiny colors. Yeah, the story falls apart, and yeah, Chang’e as a character just kind of sucks. But the point of a family film is to simply watch together and enjoy each other’s company, and in a year where we’ve all been shut in, this is a fairly nice way to stay inside and let your imagination wander beyond even the boundaries of the Earth itself. On the whole it’s nothing special, but like your favorite fixings on Thanksgiving, it can be satisfying in just the right way for the whole family.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What are your holiday traditions? If you met a mythological deity, what style of music would piss you off the most to see them perform? Let me know!