What do you get when you mix Chinese mooncakes, Phillipa Soo’s incredible vocal talent, and a rabbit? Netflix’s latest original animated children’s movie, Over the Moon! Directed by the well-known Disney animator Glen Keane and featuring an all-star Asian American cast of voice actors, Over the Moon not only delivers a beautifully animated and captivating story, but also brings a great example of Asian American diversity and representation to the table.
Over the Moon follows Fei Fei (newcomer Cathy Ang), a 14 year old Chinese girl living in a lively and bustling village in China. She lives with her two parents and helps them run their shop, where they bake and sell delicious-looking mooncakes. They may be animated, but the sequence where the mooncakes are made step-by-step will still make your mouth water as you watch (much like the Pixar animated short Bao). Fei Fei is fascinated by her mother’s stories of the Moon Goddess, Chang’e, and her famed, tragic love story with Houyi the archer. Chang’e became an immortal goddess, but as a result had to ascend to the moon and leave her lover behind. Such stories of the Moon Goddess can be found across several Asian cultures and folklore, with culturally appropriate variations of the classic tale.
Through the use of song (turns out this movie is a musical too!), we gradually see Fei Fei’s mother become sick, and eventually pass away. A young Fei Fei is devastated, and the pain of losing her mother is evident each time she sadly looks up at the moon. As time passes, Fei Fei finds out that her father has moved on and is now engaged to another woman, Ms. Zhong. Ms. Zhong is accompanied by her eight year old son, Chin, who will become Fei Fei’s future stepbrother. Fei Fei is, unsurprisingly, upset about this news, since she firmly believes from the stories of Chang’e that love is eternal. Feeling betrayed by her father, Fei Fei concocts a plan to fly to the moon and prove that Chang’e is real, so “things can go back to the way they were.”
What follows is an exciting and dynamic adventure to the moon, taking Fei Fei, her pet rabbit Bungee, and (unexpectedly) Chin to a bright and colorful space world, cleverly named “Lunaria” in the film. Lunaria serves as the kingdom of the Moon Goddess, filled with luminous and vibrantly colored mooncakes, chickens, and other strange but entertaining creatures. The animation throughout the film overall is excellent, but the portrayal of Lunaria is truly stunning, with its many magnificently glowing components. Despite the many different elements of Lunaria, the most stunning aspect of this world above Earth is arguably the Moon Goddess herself.
Chang’e is voiced by Phillipa Soo, who is probably best known for her role as Eliza Schuyler in the nationally acclaimed musical, Hamilton. Her role in Hamilton proved her immense singing ability, but her role in Over the Moon has now added voice acting to the list of her talents. When we first meet her, Chang’e is not at all the person we expected to see. The gorgeous watercolor-styled sequence of the Moon Goddess’s story at the beginning of the film showed an ethereal, heavenly being, who is benevolent and graceful at all times. This expectation is tossed aside when Chang’e is revealed in a more modern interpretation of the legendary figure, perhaps best described as a K-pop star. At first, she is anything but kind; she is moody, sassy, and quite the diva. She sends Fei Fei and her crew on a mission to find “the gift” so she can bring her true love, Houyi, back.
Facing obstacle after obstacle on the moon, Fei Fei feels discouraged about her original mission to change her dad’s mind about remarrying. She makes a friend along the way, an adorable and bright green moon pangolin named Gobi, voiced by the hilarious (and surprisingly good singer) Ken Jeong. While talking with Gobi, Fei Fei starts to realize that clinging to the past memories of her mother is hindering her from welcoming change and growth into her life. This lesson is further emphasized when Fei Fei must rescue Chang’e from a deep depression, called “The Darkness.” Both Chang’e and Fei Fei learn from each other that while grief is a powerful force, they should both move forward, while also treasuring the memories of the loved ones they have lost. Their mission concluded, Fei Fei and Chin return to Earth, with a more positive outlook toward the future.
While this film is undoubtedly directed towards a much younger audience, the beautiful visuals and touching story have the potential to be attractive to older viewers as well. The film’s humor and various songs may be a bit childish for people above the age of 13, but the plot still tackles serious themes like grief, depression, and the fear of moving on. Despite these darker elements, the film also offers a positive outlook on these very real issues, and demonstrates how one can still learn to move forward from them. It’s hard to not tear up a bit when Fei Fei finally learns how to accept and embrace Ms. Zhong and Chin as new members of her family.
Over the Moon has a beautiful story about love and family at its core, and this story is positively accentuated by the use of Asian characters (and Asian American voice actors to fulfill these roles). The famed Chinese legend of the Moon Goddess is elegantly incorporated into the plot, and also serves as an educational tool about Chinese culture and folklore. Asian and Asian American stories are rare in cinema to begin with, so it was really refreshing to see an animated children’s tale that includes so much valuable representation about Chinese people and their culture. Even the film’s small details, like Fei Fei sipping away at a taro boba tea drink, include important elements of daily life in Asian culture.
This film is made for kids, but my hope is that Netflix’s global platform will allow it to reach and entertain older audiences as well. The songs are catchy, the characters are interesting and multidimensional, and the original plot is just as captivating as any Disney movie. If anything, watch it for the breathtaking animation (on an HD screen too, if you can!). Over the Moon is definitely a classic that will hopefully enchant children everywhere, from all backgrounds, and also encourage more directors and creators to embrace this diversity on the big screen.