Disney legend and Oscar winner Glen Keane (“Dear Basketball”) was somehow destined to direct “Over the Moon,” the eye-popping animated musical update of the ancient Chinese Moon Goddess fable from Netflix (co-produced by Shanghai-based Pearl Studio). In fact, “Over the Moon” technically marks Keane’s directorial feature debut, since a heart attack forced him to drop out of his trouble-plagued passion project, “Tangled” in 2008. (He formally left Disney in 2012 after nearly 40 years of animation glory.)
Truth be told, Keane was instantly drawn to Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), the 12-year-old girl obsessed with building a rocket to the moon to meet the legendary, nine-foot-tall goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo of “Moana” and “Hamilton”), to fill the emotional void in her life after the passing of her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles). But her journey on the enchanting and phosphorescent Lunaria forces her to accept change and rediscover love.
“I have fallen in love with the characters that I animate,” Keane said. “I remember leaving the Paris studio and Tarzan… I felt like I had my arm around him and I knew exactly what he was. It very quickly happened with Fei Fei, but what surprised me was how much I love this character. How much I believe in her.”
It began for Keane when he ran into a previous acquaintance from Disney at the Annecy festival in 2017: Pearl Studio (“Abominable”) creative head Peilin Chou, who attended his master class, and who was searching for someone to direct “Over the Moon,” scripted by the late Audrey Wells (“The Hate U Give”), who passed away in 2018 from cancer.
“Glen gave a talk that I attended about thinking like a child and his creative process,” said Chou, who shepherded “Over the Moon” as a producer and who is now at Netflix developing another animated feature. “I felt like he was telling me a secret message that he should direct ‘Over the Moon.’ It was meant to be in so many ways. I approached Glen after the talk and shared Audrey’s script, and he was deeply moved and connected with it, just as I hoped.”
So they set up “Over the Moon” at Netflix as the streamer’s first in-house animated feature. Pearl provided valuable visual development remotely, while producer Gennie Rim (“Dear Basketball”) established the central hub at Netflix’s Hollywood headquarters. And Sony Pictures Imageworks in Vancouver (the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) handled the complex character animation and world building, which required more experimentation. “We really benefited by them having just done ‘Into the Spider-Verse,'” Keane said. “They were approaching the subtlety in animation, celebrating a realism in that acting that really was just the best. I built on that whole team’s performance. We leaned heavily into drawing on ‘Over the Moon’ [which made use of 2D to visualize the Moon Goddess backstory].”
However, the level of subtlety in the character animation was even new to Keane, who focused on capturing moments of discovery with Fei Fei. “My favorite moment was a closeup of Fei Fei reacting in shock to her dad [Robert G. Chiu] touching the hand of [the widow] Mrs. Zhong [Sandra Oh],” he said. “Her eyes get bigger and her eyebrows squeeze together, and the corner of her mouth goes down. The tiniest little things that we planted in there for the animators were being used for maximum effect. Using the drawing not just as a general design but as a specific order to solve a problem. There’s the way a Chinese eye curves and reverses as it goes down through the back, and there’s a double eyelid. And we have to design this into where Fei Fei’s face is. But it’s not a formula animation face; it’s a Chinese face.”
Yet the greatest challenge was achieving something as visually stunning as “Oz” for the fantastical Lunaria in comparison to Fei Fei’s Chinese water town of Wuzhen. “Try designing Lunaria as a unique city,” Keane said. “Everything you do is going to look like modern architecture. It’s gotta be beyond that.”
So Keane turned to production designer Céline Desrumaux (“The Little Prince”), providing two ideas as inspiration: Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” album cover, with its white light turning into a prism of colors, and the surreal work of painter Joan Miró. “The way Miró did his paintings, it feels like music,” he said, “and it’s full of childlike wonder. What Céline brought was her deep study into China and the little water town we visited together. She pointed out the white walls, and I said, ‘Yeah, they’re white.’ And she said, ‘No, they’re not white! They’re green and blue and gray and brown!’ She went on about the colors and the reflected light. It was so harmonious with the elements.”
And then Desrumaux smartly flipped the aesthetic for Lunaria, going from reflected light to sourced light. “Everything is coming from Chang’e’s tears,” Keane added. “She made it all come together, and the day she showed me an image of Fei Fei standing in front of Lunaria with crazy, glowing colors, radiating light, made me laugh and then cry.” And the Sony animators applied their skills to creating a world of illuminated colors for both Lunaria and its characters, including the cute, fast-talking canine, Gobi (Ken Jeong).
“What are these characters born of tears gonna look like?,” said Keane. “They’re see through, glowing from the inside.” The animators first tried putting the eyes on the surface but they looked too much like gummy bears, so they were formed from the inside in such a way that they conveyed expression. It was a steep learning curve for Sony. It pushed them to be inventive beyond “Spider-Verse.”
And, even though Chou always envisioned “Over the Moon” as a musical, she hesitated to bring it up until Keane insisted that Wells’ script cried out for songs in the same way that Howard Ashman constructed “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Aladdin” as musicals. Keane encouraged them to hire Christopher Curtis (“Chaplin: The Musical”), and Marjorie Duffield and Helen Park (“KPOP”) to compose the original songs — (including the first single, “Rocket to the Moon” — even though the trio had never worked together. “I thought it was just like throwing animators together,” he said. “I was so naive. Songwriting is like two people doing a drawing on the same paper at the same time. There’s such a mind meld that has to work.”
“Over the Moon” had such an impact that Keane will continue drawing Fei Fei for the rest of his life: “She has this strength in her vision,” he said. “Not just in her eyes, but she sees beyond. She sees what’s not there. And the eyes to the character are so vitally important. If you’re re going to make a mistake in drawing a character, it cannot be in the eyes.”