It was only a matter of time before Netflix made its own Disney-Pixar-style movie in-house. After all, the streaming giant is to on-demand TV and film as those media powerhouses are to the theatrical experience — top dog.
There are echoes of Disney-Pixar’s filmography throughout Over the Moon: the plot plays like a variation on Coco, for example, while the characters would be at home in Big Hero 6. Where Over the Moon really seeks to differentiate itself is on the issue of representation — the story here centers on a Chinese family — something Disney has only just started to make meaningful gestures towards. Unfortunately, however, Over the Moon never manages to reconcile that well-meaning objective with Netflix’s corporate agenda. What should be a triumph of Asian representation ultimately feels like a poorly masked attempt by Netflix to retain viewers who might otherwise make the jump to Disney+.
Over the Moon is the directorial debut of journeyman animator Glen Keane. With a resume that includes work on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Tarzan, it’s hard not to feel that Netflix picked Keane because of his insider knowledge on making family-animated classics. Perhaps this is a cynical view to take, but considering his contribution toward making 3D animation more naturalistic on Tangled (the last Disney film he worked on before going solo), to say Keane is anything other than the first person you would pick to helm a project like Over the Moon would be to lie. Fittingly, the visuals are the most accomplished element of the film: Keane opts for a color-blocked design (as opposed to the gradient-style that has been popular of late) which gives the film its own distinct visual personality.
Less successful is the narrative. Like so many animated films in recent memory, Over the Moon is a film primarily concerned with grief. Young protagonist Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) is struggling to accept the death of her mother when her father (John Cho) comes home with a new woman, Mrs. Zhong (a criminally underutilized Sandra Oh). Unable to accept that her father is moving on, Fei Fei finds hope in her mother’s favorite myth: that of the goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo), who, stranded on the moon, is forever separated from her soulmate Hou Yi. Fei Fei’s thinking is that if she can prove Chang’e is real, then her father will reconsider his new relationship. This connection between the myth of Chang’e and Fei Fei’s grief is tenuous at best: it doesn’t directly parallel Fei Fei’s life at all, and only mirrors her parents’ relationship if you squint.
To put her plan into action, Fei Fei sets about constructing a rocket ship. Don’t ask how her working-class family can afford this, or where she learned these skills. The film is rife with faux-girl power, telling us again and again that Fei Fei can do it, but at no point showing us how she does it; the movie is heavy with payoff, but light on the setup. Once Fei Fei reaches the moon, the story becomes even hazier. There’s a ticking clock and two different McGuffins, but why we should care about any of them isn’t properly explained until much too late in the film. Over the Moon constantly settles for generic where specificity is needed.
This is not the first time Netflix has blatantly imitated another studio’s formula: its 2018 animated feature Next Gen, for example, plays like a Pixar film with inflections of The Iron Giant. But despite all its derivativeness, Next Gen still managed to feel fresh and fun. Not so with Over the Moon. The problem here lies in how inferior an imitation it is; the movie has all the hallmarks of a Disney renaissance classic, but none of the requisite charm. Fei Fei has an animal sidekick (a rabbit), but you’d be hard-pressed to recall their name. There are not one but two characters who are intended to fill the “Olaf” role (a la Frozen), but one is too heightened, and the other is not nearly heightened enough. There are also musical numbers, although none of them are catchy or emotional enough to stick in your memory for very long.
It’s disappointing that a film centering on Chinese culture is this uninspiring. Asian representation of any kind is hard to come by in Hollywood, and doubly so in its animated output. Over the Moon should be a leap forward, but every time it has the opportunity to make use of the most powerful storytelling tool at its disposal — the deep well of Chinese myth — it opts for a Western storytelling beat instead. When Chang’e finally arrives in the film, for example, she’s not introduced through a scene specific to her myth (or even to Chinese culture more broadly), but through a pop song that feels straight out of Trolls World Tour. It’s exhausting to watch a film miss the mark so hard and so often.
One has to wonder what might have been if Over the Moon had been made by an Asian director or written by an Asian screenwriter (the film was penned by the late Audrey Wells of The Hate U Give fame). While there is a clear understanding of and appreciation for Chinese culture here, it never feels authentic. The film certainly looks Chinese, but the story it tells — and the way it tells it — is Western to its core.