The Austin Chronicle

Over the Moon

Not rated, 99 min. Directed by Glen Keane, John Kahrs. Voices by Cathy Ang, Robert G. Chiu, Phillipa Soo, Ken Jeong, John Cho, Ruthie Ann Miles, Margaret Cho, Sandra Oh, Kimiko Glenn, Artt Butler.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 16, 2020

The last couple of years have seen Chinese animated films, like the lighthearted Ne Zha and its recent sequel, Jiang Ziya, make a larger splash in the U.S., but not quite manage that crossover appeal into broader audiences. At the same time, American attempts to pander to Chinese audiences, like the clunky live-action Mulan, have received a warmer reaction in America than in Asian markets. American-Chinese animated co-production Over The Moon could well cross cultural divides because although it's an extremely loose retelling of a Chinese myth it truly finds its universality by touching your heart.

Fei Fei (Ang) is growing up in a small Chinese town, making moon cakes in her family bakery and hearing the legend of Chang'e, the moon goddess who has been pining for her lost love, Hou Yi the archer, since she gained immortality and traveled to the celestial realm. It's the story that Fei Fei's mother told her before she died (yup, get ready for some sobbing over a moving montage of precious moments, and the loss of a parent told in a way that won't upset the smallest viewers too much). When her father starts to find a new love, Fei Fei decides to remind him of his late wife by building a maglev system to launch her rocket to the moon where she can meet Chang'e (Soo) and save the day. Which is exactly what she does: With her annoying stowaway soon-to-be-step-brother Chin (Chiu), she lands in a bright world of weird creatures who slowly teach her how to get over her grief and maybe find space in her heart for a new family.

Veteran Disney animation supervisor Glen Keane makes his well-overdue feature directorial debut, and the man who designed Ariel and Pocahontas has lost none of his knack for heartbreaking poignancy (the fact that he's working from a script by the late Audrey Wells adds another level of sadness to the production). While the animation has the slightly plastic feel that is popular among big-budget Chinese animation at the moment (which always looks better in motion than in stills), there's a remarkable visual creativity and fascinating stylistic innovations, with moments of sketch work and watercolors that broaden the canvas. His collaboration here with co-director John Kahrs (who picked up an Oscar of his own for the game-changing 2013 short "Paperman") has all the heart and magic you would hope for, with all the edges of a mature drama smoothed away as Fei Fei traverses the candy-colored realm of Lunaria.

Sometimes charmingly fantastical, Over the Moon definitely doesn't have the fairytale elegance of Keane's earlier work. That's exemplified by the number of adorable creature sidekicks: Between Fei Fei's fluffy rabbit Bungee, Chin's pet frog, Chang'e's mythical jade rabbit, Gobi the green glowing space dog-lizard thing (Jeong, tapping his inner Olaf to surprisingly restrained and sweet effect), a trio of biker chicks (literal space birds), and even the Lunar Rover, there's a lot going on. The soaring songs by Steven Price help buoy the story along, which a kid-friendly film where the only real villain is deep and abiding loss really needs.

Over the Moon is in cinemas now, and zooms onto Netflix on Oct. 23.

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