Directed by Glen Keane and co-directed by John Kahrs
Written by Audrey Wells
I do not know if you can sell a movie to more than a handful of people on the name "Glen Keane," though as I am one of that handful, I probably went into Over the Moon, his long-delayed feature animation directorial debut, with somewhat miscalibrated expectations, despite the efforts of everyone on the planet to lower them. Not least amongst that multitude was the Chinese theatergoing audience, who showed up in numbers sufficient for the film's box office in that country—the country it's about, mind you, and was sort-of made in—to end up totaling a bit less than $900,000, or, to make that number really ugly, less than one tenth of one cent per Chinese person. So, yeah, pandemic aside, I can say pretty definitively that you cannot sell a movie to China on the name "Glen Keane." As for the Netflix numbers—for that is how it's been distributed here—I assume they're better, but who the hell knows. Sadly, I cannot report that its flameout is much of a shame, for whatever its intentions were, Over the Moon comes off as exactly the kind of ephemera that's become Netflix's entire business model. It's the sort of thing that sat on their dashboard for exactly one week before sinking into eternal obscurity, and it feels like the result of a whole series of pyrrhic victories that bled it white before it could ever even begin to be made. But, you know, Pyrrhus accomplished some amazing things in the process of losing. You can credit Keane with a few spectacular victories here, too, even if by the very act of achieving them he consigned himself to losing the war.
Keane, you probably know, has spent a lifetime in animation, and it's fair to say he's earned a master's reputation in it—as I doubt any capsule biographies are required for anybody actually reading this, let's just say he was one of the vanguard figures of the Disney Renaissance—and while I don't know precisely when "director" became his life's goal, seeking out a film to call his own has defined his whole career throughout most of the 21st century, so that now almost half his working life has been spent in pursuit of it. It was denied him at Disney—despite getting so close with Tangled that he's still in many respects the person most responsible for its enormous success, or at least its success as a work of groundbreaking CG animation—and so he struck out on his own. He won an Oscar in the long interim, albeit for a short, and the best explanation for how he wound up on Over the Moon is probably just that he came into possession of a cursed monkey's paw, for it appears that former DreamWorks subsidiary Pearl Studio was interested in Keane above all because they presumed that he would compromise in every essential way in order to fulfill the company's mandate of making an algorithmic mash-up of Disney Renaissance storytelling and DreamWorks humor for the purpose of global family consumption.
Now, I'll reiterate that Keane manages to do something with this. It's just never on a narrative level, and so while "algorithmic mash-up" accurately summarizes the sensation of absorbing Over the Moon's plot and characters, what I really want to emphasize is just how robotic it is. The idea that Audrey Wells wrote her final screenplay alone (she is, in any event, Over the Moon's sole credited writer) throws a hot light on Keane's pre-release assertion that Disney and Pixar and DWA movies are made by committee, but this was, like, art—you gotta play the game, I guess—because if all a single voice managed to produce was this hollow simulacrum, then maybe a committee should have gotten involved.
It is, in any event, especially hard going at the outset, as we settle into a tale of loss and grief centering upon 14 year-old Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), whom we initially find as the daughter of a pair of loving parents (Ruthie Ann Miles and a terrific waste of John Cho's talents on approximately eight lines of dialogue), who jointly run a moonpie stand somewhere in China. As our protagonist is happy, this situation obviously cannot be allowed to stand. Thus, as Fei Fei's childhood montage proceeds, her mother starts to wobble a bit, and then stops existing in between cuts. Fei Fei has never quite gotten over this unsatisfying editing ellipsis, and despite excelling at science and math she persists in believing in comforting but childish fairy tales long past their expiry date, particularly the story her mother told her of the moon goddess Chang'e, who lost the man she loved, but never forgot him, and always honored her vows to him. Fei Fei draws a natural parallel between her father and the deity, which is why she cannot even begin to handle it when he brings home the new woman he will marry, the widow Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh). Making matters worse, Zhong comes in tandem with her son, Chin (Robert G. Chiu), the quintessential annoying stepbrother.
Fei Fei will have none of this, and uses her scientific precocity to design and build a fireworks-powered rocket to the moon, not to ask Chang'e to be her new mom or ask her to bring her mom back from the dead, nor anything useful like that, but merely beseech the goddess for proof that she's real, thereby somehow shaming her father with the example of a deity whose whole deal is that she's been cursed to eternal loneliness. Fei Fei's rocket would've made it (this is Fei Fei's assertion anyway), except that Chin smuggled himself aboard and threw off her weight calculations. Luckily, they do not plummet back to Earth and die: instead they have gained the moon's attention, and a tractor beam pulls them the rest of the way, where they find a massively colorful celestial kingdom, and learn that Chang'e (Philippa Soo) is very real indeed—though this may not necessarily be a good thing.
And all this? It takes a while, both in objective terms (I think it's at least 30 minutes out of a 100 minute film) and subjective ones (it practically feels like the movie's divided into two equal halves), and that first "half" is slow poison that it only barely survives. The dramatic stuff is boilerplate and cumbersome (Fei Fei's family evidently manages "cultural accuracy," but it's hard to see how they could manage less: they have as much substance as the characters in an insurance commercial), but still, it's at least capable of pretending to be heartfelt. By awkwardly fitting itself into the formula of a Disney Renaissance film, however, it exposes just how mechanical that formula can get, with no fewer than two songs in the first five minutes, bluntly "establishing" Fei Fei's character and motivation by way of the corpse of Howard Ashman. These songs are as clunky as they are derivative, to the extent I wonder if their language of composition was Chinese. Nothing really suggests their language of composition was English, certainly not the huge number of lyrics that don't fit the meter (I lost count of how many lines either fall into pauses or cram in three extra syllables in order to stay in time with the music).
This is dysfunctional, but sub-mediocre songs aren't really the terrible part. The terrible part is the blandly irritating comic relief that aspires to be as good as Disney's or DreamWorks'. On the Disney side of that equation, I have not mentioned that Fei Fei has a rabbit sidekick (the rabbit doesn't talk, at least, but she may be the most forcefully-gendered animal I have seen outside of a cartoon where the animals did talk, and this is hugely distracting for, like, an hour, until we finally meet the male moon rabbit she was intended for). On the DWA side, we have Chin, whose hyperactivity is best represented by his penchant for attempting to run through walls (you know how I called this script "robotic"? this is its idea of foreshadowing), and whose repartee with Fei Fei tops out at stuff like, "I have a superpower, can you guess what it is?"/"You're super-annoying?" On the moon, Chin is still around, but he's supplemented by Gobi, the toyetic Ken Jeong character who helps Fei Fei's heart grow three sizes with a nominally-endearing positive attitude—and I can probably just leave it at that.
Still, it does get better on the moon, in pretty much every possible way. (The sole thing that could be described as strong throughout is Steven Price's score, which serves even the film's reediest emotions better than it deserves.) A small part of Over the Moon "getting better" is that the situation simply improves and develops some level of compelling interest, hand-in-hand with a somewhat-steadier quality as a musical: both arrive at once with the reveal of Chang'e, who has, over the centuries, become a vain monomaniac, a reality introduced to us (and to a very-slow-on-the-uptake Fei Fei) with a rather fun take on a "Disney villain song," which is here rendered as an arrogant, self-promoting pop anthem that is also far and away the best song in the film. The second best is her, uh, ping-pong rap battle with Chin, and, well, it's hard not to sound like I'm looking down my nose at it, but it's Over the Moon's single most intense flirtation with actually-funny comedy—think "sequence inspired in equal parts by sports anime and Looney Tunes-style optional physics, but it's also in CGI." Moreover, in its minimalism, it's probably its worthiest experiment in animation, too.
"Being animation," after all, is where Over the Moon at least makes some kind of bid to be remotely worth your time. It is not the strongest bid in every regard: at best, its humanoid character animation is a very modest step forward from the most marionette-like parts of Pearl Studio's final collaboration with DWA,* Abominable; (but then, it was animated at neither DWA nor Pearl, but at Sony); likewise, the humanoid character design is largely unappealing, though Chang'e's at least interesting as a deliberate retreat from realism, with a build that's about two-thirds legs. But as for the lunar backdrop and the inhuman characters who inhabit it? They're slightly wonderful, sort of like lumps of translucent gelatin sculpted into cleanly-designed forms that faintly glow with their own inner light. One of Tangled's great leaps forward was the introduction of a subtle glow to its human characters' skin—it's one of the reasons they're amongst the first human characters in computer animation to feel legitimately alive like the best 2-D characters—and I wonder if this was Keane taking this ethos to an extreme. Either way, it gives the moon a lively, pop art quality, and can be at times abstractly beautiful, a complex hive of activity constructed out of flat, colorful shapes, and if even this too is derivative of other things (I could never think of anything else but "CGI Adventure Time," and Chang'e's living moonpie attendants are damn near actionably similar to Peppermint Butler), it's still often a joy to look at.
On the minus side, it's almost never a joy to listen to or follow as a story, and the whole thing is such an obvious metaphor for Fei Fei's emotional process that it seems faintly stupid and redundant to be "real" in the first place, let alone bring Chin along into it, whereas the quest Chang'e tasks Fei Fei with is so poorly-exposited and intentionally-vague I was genuinely confused by it. Plus, not to belabor the point, but that first act is an unbearable drag and doesn't even have the decency to take place on a candy-colored moon. (The Chinese town they live in is adequately-designed, at a maximum.) It's not really a good movie, ultimately, but if it does nothing whatsoever to establish Pearl as its own entity worth following, it does do just enough that's visually creative for one to hope that Keane's career gets a third act that does justice to the first—and next time, by way of something beyond shallow mimickry.
*Y'know, from a "studio logo" perspective, how unfortunate is it that Over the Moon wasn't made at DreamWorks?