Earlier this year, Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings stated a desire to “beat Disney in family animation.” So it’s no surprise in the effort to meet that goal the streamer enlisted one of Disney’s most renowned animators, Glen Keane, to make his feature directorial debut with Over the Moon. However, the movie has many elements that are reminiscent of other animated films, and feels like a half-baked mishmash. Nonetheless, it still has enough going for it that it will likely appeal to kids, if not the adults who watch it with them.
From Up to Coco to Onward, there are an ever-growing number of animated films that deal with loss and grief, and Over the Moon takes on this theme as well. Within the first 10 minutes of the film, main character Fei Fei’s mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) has passed away, leaving her and her father (John Cho) devastated. The movie flashes forward to four years later, where despite being first in her class, Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) continues to cling to her belief in the moon goddess, Chang’e, whom her mother used to tell her stories about.
Her ingenuity and belief come together when she learns her father is planning to marry Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh). Fei Fei decides to build a rocket to the moon to reach Chang’e as she believes confirming the goddess’ existence will make her father reconsider his plans to move on from her mother. This is all done with verve and some nice songs, however the leap from one plot point to the next doesn’t feel entirely organic either.
Things become even more head-scratching when Fei Fei makes it to the moon with Chin (Robert G. Chiu), her stepbrother-to-be, in tow along with their pets, a bunny and a frog. While the look of the lunar world is distinctly otherworldly, it also doesn’t seem entirely thought out. Chang’e has (somehow) established a whole colony on the moon, that it seems she regularly performs pop concerts for. And while the songs are fun and the colors are attractive, the moon’s denizens are mostly bright, ill-defined shapes. At one point a biker gang of what look like characters from Angry Birds appear, but it’s unclear where they fit into this ecosystem. Meanwhile, Fei Fei is sent on a mission to bring Chang’e something called “the gift,” even though neither she nor Chang’e know what it actually is.
All of these story elements feel only loosely considered, and it seems like the filmmakers figured audiences would just go with it. But the best animated films require some core logic, and without it, Over the Moon is hard to fully invest in. The film attempts to distract from its shortcomings by keeping things moving along and introducing Gobi (Ken Jeong), an exuberantly talkative character who is at least somewhat entertaining. Ultimately though, the most successful part of the film is its poignant ending in which heartwarming lessons are learned and Fei Fei evolves and grows from her time on the moon; yet even that is reminiscent of the emotional beats of other, better movies.
The voice performances in the movie are top-notch. Ang has a lovely singing voice and Soo, a member of the original cast of Hamilton, proves she could be a pop star if she wanted. The character design, Keane’s specialty, is also well realized and interesting. Yet as a whole, Over the Moon isn’t in the same league as most Disney animated films. Although there’s the periodic one-liner that’s clearly been thrown in to keep older viewers amused, these rarely land. So while kids will enjoy the bright colors, catchy songs and fun characters, the story is too random and not nearly clever enough to captivate anyone else.