Film, Foreign, Netflix

An American movie with a Chinese twist: Over the Moon is beautiful

Ever since I first saw the trailer for Over the Moon, I wanted to watch it. It looked so bright, colorful, interesting, and emotional. And it was nice to see that it was also going to take advantage of the opportunity to use Chinese culture rather than just having it act as a backdrop.

And the song “Rocket to the Moon,” had such a wonderful, desperate, longing, and melancholic feeling to it…I had to know what motivated this character and see her journey. 

But my experience with Netflix original animated films made me a little hesitant. And unfortunately, this movie was not an exception.

The pacing is awkward and means that none of the characters get enough time to establish or complete their arcs, the conclusion is rushed; there’s also an unnecessary romantic side-plot and the cliché and horrid: Parent introduces their new partner to their mourning child with no warning and the relationship is pretty serious.

Seriously.

The movie focuses on a young Chinese girl named Fei Fei. Her family runs a very successful mooncake stand. All is well – until her mother dies of an unspecified illness. Four years later, on her late mother’s favorite holiday- the Moon Festival, her father introduces her to his new girlfriend and her son.

Taken aback and angered, she decides to build a rocket to visit the moon where she can meet the goddess Chang’e who is waiting for her lover – to prove that love is real. And that her father should break up with his fiancée.

Once on the Moon, Chang’e demands a gift from Fei Fei – but won’t specify it which necessitate Fei Fei going on a journey to find and return the gift so that she can receive a photo proving Change’e’s existence.

The film is noticeably influenced by classic Disney films and early Pixar movies with a focus on accepting death and learning how to cope and move on. 

And yeah, it’s kind of clichéd and we’ve seen this plot done before – but it’s interesting to see it through the perspective of a 14-year-old modern Chinese girl. (Even though I think aspects of it are kind of Americanized….) It’s one of those things where it’s more important to make sure kids can see themselves reflected in TV and movies, rather than striving to make something wholly and totally original.

Even though that would be cool too.

The different kinds of love

I have a soft spot for films that discuss the importance of different kinds of love: familial, platonic, romantic…They’re all important and necessary for a person’s well-being. 

And a huge part of the movie is how Fei Fei and Chang’e are having trouble coping with the death of their loved ones: her mother for Fei Fei and Houyi, Change’e’s former lover. It causes both of them to shut out others and not give others a chance.

Fei Fei is unwilling to even consider that her father’s new fiancée to be part of her life; but in her defense what kind of person reveals to their child that they’re suddenly engaged by bringing their partner to a holiday meal along with their kid…Like shouldn’t they have had this discussion much earlier?

I get China may have different cultural values…but this also happens in American movies. Of course, Fei Fei is upset. You can’t just drop this shit on a kid – what Fei Fei needs is a therapist. 

And I can’t blame her for being apprehensive about Chin at first.

 He’s half her age and a hyperactive little boy. He means well – but that’s going to be an adjustment. But they managed to make him a good character – because he isn’t overly annoying to the audience. And he is much more than a tag-along kid.

And even though Fei Fei is annoyed by him and doesn’t show him affection, he still considers her to be his sister and doesn’t even hesitate when he’s given a chance to help her. Even if it is through ping-pong – which he is VERY good at.

But in the end, Fei Fei accepts him as her little brother.

Change’e learns to let her love go – because there’s no way for him to return to her. He’s dead. She’s immortal. Nothing can be done. 

But she does end up finding love in the little mooncakes and the other beings that inhabit the Moon. Ones she created. Sure, it’s not the same but it’s still good to recognize there are people she can turn to.

Hell, even Fei Fei’s rabbit gets to find a new kind of love. Even though she loves Fei Fei and has been her constant companion for four years, she ends up staying on the Moon to be with the Jade Rabbit – Chang’e’s companion from the start. It’s a very odd and unnecessary story plot in my book but I guess they had to put in a romantic subplot somewhere. And at least, it does something for the plot.

It also means Fei Fei has to let go of her before she leaves. She has the choice to bring her bunny home but Fei Fei allows her to go. So maybe it’s not completely unnecessary. It is a good moment for Fei Fei.

We don’t see much of her relationship with her extended family, even though it’s clear she has a lot of aunties and uncles, as well as grandparents. 

They’re mostly there to give the audience an explanation of the different Chang’e myths and push the story along. I know there’s limited time but it would have been great to give one of the relatives more time – this is a film about family after all.

It’s called aesthetic, bitch

I absolutely, absolutely love the movie’s art style and colors.

 The kingdom of Lunaria is full of bright, flashing neon colors and smooth, simple surfaces. But it doesn’t look childish. It’s all set against a dark – almost black background which makes for a nice contrast. It looks contemporary, fanciful while still maintaining an aura of Chinese mythos with the moon-cake shaped denizens, the lantern-shaped buildings as well as the more modern- but still clearly Asian style castle.

It was kind of trippy but very fun to watch and look at.

But when it comes to aesthetics – the one character we MUST talk about is Chang’e. 

As a Moon Goddess, yes, of course, she should be fashionable. That’s not a question. There is no point in putting a goddess in your story if you aren’t going to make her visually fascinating. Chang’e goes through several costume changes, as a goddess should, and I adore how they use her clothing to signify her feelings.

The more modern clothing is when she’s acting as an antagonist and the more traditional clothing is for when she’s helping our heroes -and learning to let go. 

And as it turns out all of her outfits were designed by a premiere Chinese fashion designer…and I think that really helped cement her character.

OVER THE MOON – (L-R) “Fei Fei” (voiced by Cathy Ang) and “Chin” (voiced by Robert G. Chiu) on “Foo Dogs”. Cr. NETFLIX © 2020

So even though a lot of the story beats were clichéd and have been done a million times before – it’s the animation style, art style, and colors that set it apart.

Oh, and the music too sets it apart, of course.

The Bops

My god, the music in this movie is great. 

Though a lot of it seems a bit similar to each other – at least on my first viewing, it did. I’m sure the second one won’t be as much. But seriously, the music gets right into your emotions.

And it’s all extremely catchy. Which is great in a movie musical.

But out of them all – I’m gonna say “Rocket to the Moon,” is my favorite. The longing, desperation, and desire are so palpable in the song. You can feel how desperate Fei Fei is to get to the Moon – and you want her to do it- even though a 14-year-old should know that her plan isn’t going to work and that she can’t build a rocket.

But I think, ever since her mother died – she’s stunted. Like Chang’e.

Chang’e interestingly mostly sings in a C-pop style. Loud, ostentatious, overproduced. But her songs are great like “Ultraluminary.” Which is made great by the scenery and animation. I could even see this working as a song all its own. No context.

At first, I was confused about this a musical number for Chang’e – after all, she’s an ancient goddess. But as I thought about – this represents her character. Unlike Fei Fei – she ISN’T stunted. She buried herself in the identity of being the Moon Goddess.

And never moved on from that. Because it’s the only thing she had after her love died. The other musical numbers are also good- and I like how most of them, have their own identity and run the gamut of Chinese cultural genres.

It’s good to see that kind of stuff in a film.

Culture Wars

I haven’t seen the live-action Mulan movie and don’t plan to see it any time in the future. I have seen Xiran Jay Zhao’s YouTube video which explained all the details that made the movie inauthentic, and Americanized. Which was basically…everything.

Almost.

 Ironic considering this one was supposed to be more ‘authentic.’ But the animated one is excused because it wasn’t trying to be authentic – and was still a better story overall.

Besides, since Mulan is a Chinese legend – they have dozens of their own adaptations. Who cares about one made by Americans? 

Over the Moon had a White producer and story writer but had Asian writers involved in the screenplay and Asian producers – though not necessarily Chinese people (particularly in the voice cast.) But that’s still better than the live-action wuxia wanna-be which had an all-white production team.

I watched the film with my boyfriend who is Taiwanese-American. His parents are both immigrants – which allowed me to understand how ‘authentic’ parts of the movie were, to an extent. He mostly commented on the family dynamic during the celebration scenes; it was all very reminiscent of what he experienced, particularly when it came to people buying and consuming food; also the plates of cut fruit.

That’s a huge thing in Asian households – as I keep seeing in the media and from tweets, Tumblr, and Facebook posts. So it’s always a nice touch when you see little things like that – it’s important to remember that different cultures express their love in different ways.

My family – an Ashkenazi Jewish family is huggy. We say “I love you a lot,” and my parents worry. I’m told not to forget to eat, my mom and grandmother told me to stock up on food for this coming election week. I get reminded to turn my clock back.

A Chinese family might not be huggy – but they show affection through food, by telling stories, and not necessarily through physical affection. I would be interested in watching this movie in Chinese – to see how the dialogue changes if it does. Even if it wasn’t originally written or produced in Chinese.

And I do have my issues – though I don’t know how right I am in how this movie plays with the concept of how the Chinese mourn. I know praying to one’s ancestors is a big part and I would assume that one’s parents dying is a big deal. We do see Fei Fei either praying for or mourning her mother at her family altar – but there’s no further mention of how she can still remember and honor her mother while still moving on.

It didn’t quite feel right. It would be like if Coco ended with Miguel being sad that he couldn’t see Hector or Mama Coco again – but having them watch from the Land of the Dead rather than joining them on Dia de los Muertos.

I could be wrong. It just felt like a very American way of mourning. A very Christian way. And I know that part of the way this movie turned out was because the writer  Audrey Wells died during production and the movie was dedicated to her memory. And I don’t want to disrespect her memory in that way – but maybe…a Chinese or a Chinese American writer should have been hired for the film?

But I also acknowledge she wrote this film as a love letter to her daughter and husband – so I get the perspective to an extent

Considering that it was an American-Chinese production and supposed to be telling a Chinese story?

Wells was a very successful screenwriter, particularly with her screenplay of The Hate U Give – dying the day before its release. But that doesn’t make her the best person to write an animated screenplay -or one based on a Chinese legend.

Nor the person to write a film that so closely follows the Disney princess formula.

Pacing Pacing Pacing

The pacing of this film could use a lot of work. The focus on different aspects of the film feels unbalanced. We spend far too much time leading up to the moon travel which occurs about half an hour into an hour and a half long movie. We get so much set up of her original family dynamic, her new dynamic with her father’s partner, and a bunch of time skips before her montage and an ‘I want song.’

That leaves little time to develop the actual conflict on the Moon – trying to find out the gift Chang’e wants; Chang’e as a character, whatever the heck that glowing green thing is supposed to be, and how these characters change.

Like holy crap, I know we need to establish Fei Fei’s relationship with her parents – particularly her mom for this movie to work – but I don’t think they needed 3 major time skips in the beginning. You could have just…made her younger. Which would help with the naïveté of her character.

And we needed more time for her to bond with Chang’e and for the audience to get to know this version of Chang’e. The movie gives Fei Fei a time limit to return the present to Chang’e, but we’re never told how long this is or why it exists because it isn’t Chang’e being like -Oh you have 6 hours. Instead, it makes it seem like all of Lunaria will be destroyed if this doesn’t happen because it has fallen apart after thousands of years – but it’s never explained. A line or two would have fixed this.

And it just feels out of it when Chang’e reveals she’s hurting. 

And Gobi, the little growing green dude got banished for singing a song about moving on – but I never felt connected enough to him to feel bad because he doesn’t get a lot of screentime, and he’s annoying for a lot of it. Maybe I’m just kind of tired of goofy talking animals. At least the bunny didn’t talk.

But it would have worked better if she originally went with him instead of the biker chicks who only seem to exist for the pun.

But what is up with the bunnies – Chang’e companion the Jade Rabbit ends up falling in love with Fei Fei’s pet Bungie. And while this does give the rabbit the necessary ingredient for the immortality potion (love) I think it could have been more meaningful if it was Chin’s love for Fei Fei or vice versa that provided the ingredient instead.

It just felt kind of unnecessary.

I understand why they made these decisions, they just don’t necessarily seem like the best narratively. They seem like they’re complex, but they get so simplified that it doesn’t necessarily make much sense without more context or maturity.

I just think a lot of things could have been better established and it would have been nice for Chang’e to reference all the different stories about her taking the immortality potion and what happened to her lover’s half.

I wanted this movie to be good and while it was fine – there are so many ways it could have been ICONIC and a game-changer. But Netflix decided they wanted to play it safe – so they could make toys.

But at least now there’s another semi-major motion picture with a Chinese protagonist and a Chinese story for all the Asian girls to look up to and to relate to. She may be naive, but Fei Fei is a fucking genius, and we should appreciate that.

I wish they had gone a bit further with that,

And that’s the scoop.’

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Score: 7/10

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Year of release: 2020

Length: 100 minutes

Director: Glen Keane

Producer: Gennie Rim, Peilin Chou

Writer: Audrey Wells

Screenplay by” Alice Wu, Audrey Wells, Jennifer Yee McDevittVoice Actors: Cathy Ang, Phillipa Soo, Ken Jeon, John Cho, Ruthie Ann Miles, Margaret Cho, Sandra Oh

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If you liked this review read: Netflix finally does something (mostly) right with “Next Gen”

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