Navigating how to explain the process of grief can be tricky. There are numerous guidebooks, articles, etc., available at our fingertips, but the cycle hits us all differently. If there has ever been a year in modern history that’s been a testament to that, it’s 2020. While not the first film in Pearl Studios’ repertoire to explore grief, OVER THE MOON is certainly the one that hits closest to home. Even more so, when taking into account the late Audrey Wells’ personal connection to the film. Utilizing the Chinese legend of Chang’e as a focal point in this exploration of grief, it is easily one of the best children’s films out there that dives into the literal and not-so-literal phases of this complicated set of emotions.
OVER THE MOON is the latest animated film from Pearl Studio in collaboration with Netflix Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks and directed by animation legend Glen Keane. The film features the voices of newcomer Cathy Ang, Phillipa Soo (Hamilton), newcomer Robert G. Chiu, Ken Jeong (Crazy Rich Asians), John Cho (Searching), Ruthie Ann Miles (All Rise), Margaret Cho (“Drop Dead Diva”), Kimiko Glenn (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), Artt Butler (“Star vs. the Forces of Evil”), and Sandra Oh (“Killing Eve”).
To young Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), the love between her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) and father (John Cho) means the world to her. And, come the arrival of the Mid-Autumn Festival, everything seems right. The family makes their restaurant’s mooncakes and her mother tells her the story of the legendary Moon Goddess, Chang’e (Phillipa Soo). In a story that comes to reflect the future relationship between Fei Fei’s mom and Dad, the young Fei Fei learns of how Chang’e became separated from her one true love, the human archer Houyi (Conrad Ricamora), when she took a potion of immortality. Choosing to live on the moon, the two have been forever separated. It’s not long after the audience (and Fei Fei) are told the story that Fei Fei’s mother soon becomes ill and passes on. A young Fei Fei grieves, but this grief is not easily recovered from.
Four years later, an adolescent Fei Fei has not moved on. However, her father has. It’s not long before Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her young son, the incredibly hyperactive-to-a-concerning-degree Chin (Robert G. Chiu), are included in Fei Fei’s life. However, Fei Fei can’t accept this, especially when confronted with the reality that the story of Chang’e is just that – a story. Devising a plan that utilizes her passion for science and space exploration, Fei Fei builds a rocket ship to the moon to show her family that the Moon Goddess does exist. However, as things are want to go in these scenarios, she finds herself plunged into a quest that will help her uncover important answers and introduce her to a crazy fantastical world beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
As I recall back when I viewed Pearl Studios’ Abominable, the visuals are to die for. Audiences are taken through modern China, more specifically Fei Fei’s water canal town inspired by Wuzhen (乌镇), but they are transported to the fictional Lunaria, the legendary moon goddess’s kingdom. Once transported to Lunaria, Fei Fei and Chin seem much smaller and out of place. Coupled with these bright colors and nebulous shapes, it’s difficult not to say that Lunaria sets itself apart as only a space kingdom really can. You have space frogs. You have biker chicks (though said biker chicks are a not-as-welcome distraction to the story). You have flying guardian lions and much more! While the visuals of Lunaria are breathtaking, there’s an incredibly sad irony to the brightness. While all of the creatures that occupy this kingdom are self-lighting, their existence and light is as a result of the tears Chang’e has shed over the loss of Houyi.
Speaking of Chang’e, can I say that OVER THE MOON is a cool way to introduce unfamiliar audiences – both young and old – to the legendary Moon Goddess? Especially in terms of leaning into the more goddess idol-side of her image? Because it most certainly is. Leaning more into the otherworldly goddess image, this version of Chang’e is “ultraluminary” and channels her idol status to the umpteenth degree. Coupled with K-Pop-inspired songs written by Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield, Helen Park, and pretty epically directed musical scenes, it’s hard not to be caught in the character’s natural gravity. Even when she is not the maternal, nurturing figure that Fei Fei seeks, the goddess’s personality is carefully crafted and, she begins to spiral when it becomes apparent that what she seeks cannot be truly found, the true depth of her power carries significant weight. She is the moon. The moon is she. And, caught within each phase, even a goddess is trapped in grief.
Where the film struggles a bit is that it sometimes goes a bit off course in its side adventures on Lunaria as Fei Fei tries to hunt down what Chang’e seeks. It’s this hunt that lingers a bit too long and, for some viewers, may feel like it’s dragging. While the biker chicks were a fun pun to throw in, their general presence grew overwhelming and distracting when they came on screen. And, as much as we all love Ken Jeong, his character Gobi felt like an add-on rather than a necessary part of the overall plot. Once Fei Fei makes it back to the palace with the item in hand, however, things start feeling like they are back on track.
It’s not a negative, but I know that others will point out the utilization of songs throughout the course of the movie, expecting a knock out hit like ‘Let It Go’ from Disney’s Frozen. I’m not a fan of comparison and generally try to stay away from it. With that said, OVER THE MOON‘s soundtrack is wonderful. The soundtrack undergoes an evolution, taking us through a journey to traditional Chinese music to Cathy Ang singing of ‘Rocket To The Moon‘ to Chang’e’s K-pop vocal stylings and wrapping it up in a simplistic, stripped-down vocal undertaking of grief. It’s an emotional journey that can’t be summed up in one hit song. It just can’t. Much like the phases of the moon, the soundtrack takes us through the phases of our emotional journey in the film.
OVER THE MOON is a beautifully rendered tale exploring grief and moving on. Pearl Studio crafted amazing animation sequences, creating whole new worlds for both children and adults to explore. And the musical elements will make you want to listen to them on repeat again and again. What makes it even more impactful is knowing that the late screenwriter Audrey Wells wrote it as a message to her daughter for when she was gone. Grieving can be a difficult, almost cyclic process and she captured that experience perfectly in OVER THE MOON. And, for those of us who have undergone grief already, I implore you to bring tissues. Trust me when I say, you will need them.
OVER THE MOON will be available exclusively on Netflix on October 23, 2020.