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‘Over the Moon’ brings audiences to spectacular heights

Netflix’s new family fantasy adventure combines a journey through space with the resolution of sorrow

Brightly lit bakeries, mouth-watering mooncakes and felicitous festivities mark the beginning of Netflix’s latest animated feature, “Over the Moon.” Directed by legendary Disney animator Glen Keane, who worked on renowned animations including “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid,” the movie explores how a young girl comes to terms with her mother’s death and accepts her father’s remarriage with the help of a well-loved folklore.

Audiences are introduced to 12-year-old Fei Fei, who is obsessed with the legend of the Chinese goddess of the moon, Chang’e, and her human husband, the archer Houyi. Chang’e was punished for taking an immortality potion, forcing her to live on the moon without Houyi. Houyi is only allowed to visit his long-separated lover during each year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, when the moon reaches its fullest shape. It’s a story Fei Fei asks her mother to retell over and over again, despite playful protestations from her father, who prefers the “scientific explanations” behind the lunar phenomena. Set in an ambiguous, unnamed Chinese city, we see snippets of the family’s daily life before Fei Fei’s mother dies.

Four years later, when her father drops hints of remarrying a woman named Mrs. Zhong, Fei Fei struggles with the idea of her family changing and growing without her mom. These new changes are made more pointed with the introduction to her new stepbrother Chin, an energetic 8-year-old boy with a pet frog. In her grief, Fei Fei believes that if she can prove that Chang’e is real – that love can be everlasting – then her father won’t remarry and things will remain as they were. Her belief prompts her to build a rocket to the moon, determined to find proof of the goddess’ existence.

 Fei Fei’s flight takes off with promise, but the rocket suddenly falters due to the increased weight of an unexpected guest – Chin. The pair are saved from plummeting down to Earth when a ray of moonlight stops them and two brightly colored guardian lions bring the pair to Lunaria, Chang’e’s kingdom on the dark side of the moon. Here, Fei Fei’s adventure finally begins.

The movie’s attention to detail is undeniably magical. The scenes of Lunaria are just as exquisitely detailed as the landscapes on Earth, though the warm tones of the city have been swapped out for the pastel colors of the kingdom, with Chang’e as its striking and bold center. The chaotic vibrancy of the bakery, family dinners and classrooms are replaced with “a kaleidoscopic kingdom of surreal floating objects, tiny comet sentries (and) trippy giant frogs,” writes Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri in a review of the animated feature.   

 Amidst the backdrop of glowing space creatures, Fei Fei and Chin also transform in this new landscape. Their colorful outfits shine through the pastel background, almost elevating them to the same level of extravagance as the moon goddess. The animation never ceases to remind us of this distinction between the earthly and celestial, the mortal and divine.

Even more powerful, though, is the way Keane portrays Fei Fei’s grief. With all her sprightliness and excitement, her awe and wonder, it's easy to forget the reason that brought Fei Fei to Lunaria. The loss of her mother, the inconsolable longing – these emotions remain the undercurrent of the film, especially as we see it paralleled in Chang’e’s longing for Houyi. In the heart of an ancient goddess, we see the same pains that haunt a barely-teenage girl.

Fei Fei is a girl who wears her heart on her sleeve: Her sorrows and her joys are all visible in the minutiae of her expressions, which we’re allowed to parse out with the camera focusing so closely on her face. By contrast, Chang’e’s emotions are masked by the grandeur of her makeup and her robes, and we only see her true feelings towards the end of the movie when she cracks under the weight of her own grief. Together, these two characters who initially seemed at odds end up helping each other let go of the love they’ve lost to find happiness elsewhere.

However, it is undeniable that there are moments where the narrative stumbles. The beautiful backgrounds, stunning costumes and emotive storytelling fall away to the awkwardness of the soundtrack and the musical numbers. Some critical moments in the film, not just character introductions, are entrusted to the medium of song, but the lyrics and melodies seem lackluster compared to every other element of the movie.

That’s not to say the music is entirely a damper – the rap battle between Chang’e and Chin is something unexpected and remarkably refreshing in a musical coming-of-age movie; the final duet between Chang’e and Fei Fei is incredibly moving as a concluding song. Netflix’s newest animated feature is a must-watch for those who love mythology, heart-warming stories and – above all – mooncakes.


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