by Ken Bakely
There’s certainly a joy that comes from merely looking at Glen Keane’s Over the Moon. The film creates fantastical worlds with exuberant aplomb, splashed in bright and vivid colors, and executed with a radiant spirit. It is a movie of tremendous visual enthusiasm, but it struggles to craft a story – or even overriding moods and emotions – to match that energy. The messages are rote and the delivery is disappointing, especially when one considers the plot’s high concept. Set in a small village in China, the film follows Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), a science-loving girl whose family runs a bakery renowned for its mooncakes, which are a staple of the annual moon festival. Her childhood, once idyllic, was deeply shattered by the death of her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) some years ago. Her father (John Cho), has just become engaged to Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh), but Fei Fei is incensed by this, unwilling to accept her soon-to-be stepmother, and her soon-to-be stepbrother, a hyperactive boy named Chin (Robert G. Chiu). Her recourse to escape this situation is dramatic: she builds a rocket and shoots for the moon, hoping to meet Chang’e (Phillipa Soo), the immortal, lovelorn figure of a traditional Chinese legend that was a staple of her earliest days. She indeed reaches Chang’e’s lunar kingdom – though with Chin inadvertently accompanying her – a place where “candy-colored” is an understatement, and must undertake a treacherous quest, which, along the way, will instill some important lessons.
This eventually becomes standard kids’ movie fare; while Over the Moon retains interest by the sheer ambition of its scope, imagining fantastical elements with great excitement, there’s little that actually drives the plot in question. Once Fei Fei and Chin arrive on the moon, the film introduces o a largely predictable row of hard-to-distinguish supporting characters, each of whom alternate between status as comic foils, regular foils, or triggers of one of the story’s emotional takeaways. While Keane and company certainly deserve credit for their wholesale embrace of the film’s look, which is bold without ever feeling overstuffed or chaotic, it’s simply not enough. The movie doesn’t really impart any ideas that other film’s haven’t discussed in better ways, and the plot that’s there risks getting lost under everything else that’s happening. Similarly, a slate of musical numbers scattered throughout are a definitive mixed bag: while some provide important emotional underscoring for the characters’ emotions, others simply repeat what was already conveyed and seem to do little to move the story or develop the characters. The more that the movie distances itself from its own core, the more forgettable it is.
Therefore, it’s no coincidence that the movie’s best moments come when it explores its characters and builds its world on its own terms; everything from the neon lights of the moon kingdom to quiet moments with Fei Fei and her family can work, but Over the Moon benefits when it feels truly fearless, whether in its emotional drive or in its aesthetic vision. The film falters when it feels like it’s working along the lines of a template, with generic messages delivered along familiar points, and occasional songs to break them up. In other words, the movie demonstrates the difference between entertainment and distraction. It is abundantly clear from the jump that there’s considerable talent involved here, and the movie should be content to begin from there. But there’s a seeming sense of resignation that travels throughout large portions of it, as if there’s some list of demands for what this kind of film should be, and how it should address its audience. Its philosophy on the nature of processing grief runs true and deep, and it ends on a refreshingly grown-up note that shows true respect for its young viewers. Better yet, it can reconcile this even through the deliberate and playful excesses of its vibrant universe. But for all its moments of rousing success, there are so many others that never break through.