Glen Keane brings 43 years of Disney character animation experience to a new film now streaming on Netflix. From “The Little Mermaid’s” Ariel, “Beauty and the Beast’s main character—the Beast, not the Beauty—to the eponymous folks in “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas” and “Tarzan,” he’s the Disney Legend who created some of the most indelible characters of several eras.
This week he turns his eye, as character designer and director, to “Over the Moon,” a fanciful animated musical loosely based on the Chinese legend of Chang’e, starring the voices of Sandra Oh, Phillipa Soo and Ken Jeong.
The action begins in modern China, four years after the passing of Fei Fei’s (Cathy Ang) mother. She’s smart, funny and a romantic who believes in the legend her parents told her about Chang’e (Phillipa Soo), the Moon Goddess who yearns to be reunited with her true love. Fei Fei is still grieving her mother’s loss when her father (John Cho) becomes involved with another woman Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her 8-year-old child, Chin (Robert G. Chiu).
To prove that love is forever and that her father’s affection for Mrs. Zhong is misplaced, Fei Fei concocts a plan. She builds a rocket ship to visit the moon so she can get evidence of Chang’e existence to prove to her father that love burns eternal. Unbeknownst to her Chin stows away on the adventure to the moon that will help her appreciate what she thinks she is missing on Earth.
“Over the Moon” isn’t a Disney picture, but it feels like one thanks to the Keane touch. The familiar tropes, a deceased parent and adventure, are given a zippy new life with colourful, fun animation and some beautiful sequences like the cross cut between the CGI to the more traditional hand drawn animation in the telling of the legend. There are flashier more fluorescent sequences later on, particularly in the vivid and abstract Lunaria scenes, but the use of an organic style of animation to illustrate a time-honored story is the first of many of the film’s good decisions.
Also strong is the voice work. As Fei Fei, Ang is feisty and smart as a self-sufficient youngster on a journey of self-discovery. She is no damsel in distress, just a kid looking to make things right in her world. The supporting cast, like Margaret Cho in a dual role and Ken Jeong as Fei Fei’s sidekick Gobi bring the goods as does Soo, who earned a Tony nomination for her work on Broadway in “Hamilton,” but her work leads to one of the film’s minuses.
Soo is a great singer, and has one of the movie’s show-stoppers, a Broadway-by-way-of-Beyonce tune called “Ultraluminary,” but each of the songs feels tacked on in an effort to sell soundtrack downloads. A mix of show tunes, K-Pop and pop music, with the exception of “Rocket to the Moon” none of the tunes feel necessary.
“Over the Moon” is a beautiful movie that celebrates Chinese culture, tells a story of overcoming grief and has some great animation and while the main story beats feel familiar, the high gloss visuals are unpredictable and consistently interesting.