When did American kids movies become so preoccupied with death? When did being a beloved relative in a colorful animated children’s adventure become as much of a death sentence as being a teenager in a “Final Destination” film? Loss and the lessons that come with it are somewhat foundational to a genre that’s still associated with the likes of “Bambi” and — more recently — “The Lion King,” but over the last few years it’s started to feel as if feature-length cartoons have embraced their function as surrogate grieving counselors for young people who need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
This is not a complaint: As someone raised on the grief-adjacent “My Neighbor Totoro” (and comforted much later in life by the wisdom and beauty of a film like “Kubo and the Two Strings”), I know that steering children through their worst sadness is one of the most valuable things that a movie can do. It’s just to say that Netflix’s “Over the Moon” — the story of a modern Chinese girl who thinks that proving the existence of the moon goddess Chang’e will convince her widower dad not to re-marry and “forget” her mother — might have seemed more urgent if it hadn’t come on the heels of “Kubo,” “Coco,” “Onward,” or even “Wonder Park.” If there were more of an itch for this movie to scratch, as opposed to a red patch of skin that’s already been scraped raw.
Of course, there can never really be too many stories like this, as there will always be more children who need to see them (and this one has the added heartbreak of being the last movie that screenwriter Audrey Wells left behind for her family before her death in 2018). It’s also worth noting that “Over the Moon” skews much younger than some of the films mentioned above, and in a way that might allow it to resonate with a vulnerable demographic whose shallow attention spans belie the depth of their pain. Wells’ script doesn’t focus on loss so much as the permission that grieving people need to live on and love again, and that pointedness sometimes helps this fable stand out from its forebearers.
But if “Over the Moon” launches into orbit on the strength of its specificity, much of the film is frustratingly generic for a fable so rooted in a particular sense of place, the unique traditions that come with it, and the way they help a certain little girl learn to appreciate the enduring light of her late mother’s love. The result is a taste of Chinese folklore that’s almost Disneyfied beyond recognition — a movie that gets a bit lost in space between telling a story about one kid, and telling a story that could resonate with them all.
The feature directorial debut of animation legend Glen Keane (whose character designs have defined everything from “The Rescuers” to “Tangled”), “Over the Moon” essentially builds an elaborate framing device around the ancient myth behind China’s Mid-Autumn Festival — an origin story that young people in that part of the world know by heart. Fei Fei (voiced by plucky newcomer Cathy Ang) is a bright girl who’s grown up as the only child of two loving parents who run a food stall along the banks of a historic water town south of the Yangtze River. Her childhood was as sweet as the mooncakes her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) baked every day, and as full of wonder as the stories her father told her each night (John Cho has the kind of piercingly tender dad voice that makes you want to be a better parent).
By the end of the “Up”-like prologue that ends with the death of Fei Fei’s mom, our visionary protagonist is right at that age where science and imagination start to feed off each other; she’s young enough to believe that a woman named Chang’e is actually on the moon and waiting to be reunited with the archer she left behind on Earth, but also old enough to understand the physics required to go up there and see for herself. (Fei Fei’s enthusiasm for modern engineering is expressed through her gob-smacked obsession with maglev trains, the kind of plot detail that makes you wonder if the Chinese government had some non-negotiable notes for Wells’ script.)
And that’s exactly what Fei Fei decides to do when her dad announces his engagement to the sweet-natured Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh). If she can prove to him that Chang’e is real, then perhaps he would recognize that love is forever and her mom is irreplaceable. “Over the Moon” is bound by the Western strictures of its heroine’s journey in a way that sometimes fails to accommodate Fei Fei’s magical thinking, but the full-throated anthem she belts out before launching into space — a super American “want” song in the classic vein of “Let it Go” or “Part of Your World,” and the most narratively important of the film’s nine original numbers — offers a clear window into her imagination, and caps off the best-directed sequence in the film.
Alas, the trippy, black-light wonderland that’s waiting in the heavens for Fei Fei and her stowaway future stepbrother Chin (a rambunctious little guy voiced by Robert G. Chiu) muddies it right back up again. A Day-Glo star kingdom that the needy and tempestuous Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) rules with a neon fist, the moon feels like it was decorated by the same level designers who Bowser hired to create Rainbow Road. The Pink Floyd of it all is definitely a choice, but if space chickens and a cast of Pikmin-like “lunarians” (including a dog-shaped Olaf wannabe voiced by Ken Jeong, who shows up 50 minutes into the movie and never has enough time to earn the tear-jerking wallop he’s supposed to leave it with) distract from the story’s emotional core and Chinese roots, they definitely give kids enough eye-candy to keep them entranced.
That’s also true of a moon chase that recalls “Ad Astra,” and a handful of high-energy bangers that effectively split the difference between kids music and mainstream K-pop; the tunes are credited to Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield, and Helen Park (who wrote music for the sensational off-Broadway show “KPOP”), and the ones that embrace any kind of Asian production emphasize the missed opportunities elsewhere. What does K-pop have to do with Chinese folklore? “Over the Moon” would rather you didn’t ask.
Traditional Chinese instruments like the pipa are buried amidst the layers of Steven Price’s unmemorable score, and someone delivers a chorus in Mandarin at a crucial moment in the third act, but most of the big songs can’t help but feel like thawed out “Frozen” rejects. After a half-hour of watching Fei Fei, Chin, and their obligatory cute animal companions scramble around the moon in search of the MacGuffin that Chang’e demands, it’s easy to lose sight of where these characters came from, or even what the moon goddess means to them.
It’s a shame because the myth at the heart of this story has such a rich history to it, and the film is bookended by scenes that render Fei Fei’s Chinese family with great warmth and exquisite detail. If CGI animation still can’t hope to convey the life and texture of our world or the people in it with the same vitality of hand-drawn art, Keane’s hyper-expressive character design (and mouth-wateringly photorealistic food) peels back the plastic sheen of this modern aesthetic — it doesn’t matter how rendered everything looks if you can almost taste the tofu that Fei Fei’s family serves at dinner, or smell the flour of the mooncakes that serve as vessels for her mother’s love and the past that it implies.
It’s in those earthbound moments that “Over the Moon” waxes most poetic, and dimly illuminates how the people we love can light up our lives after they’re gone; it shines just bright enough to hold kids over until they’re old enough for other, similar movies that are willing to texture that light with a little more darkness.
“Over the Moon” will be available to stream on Netflix on Friday, October 23.