By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
On the heels of this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival comes “Over the Moon,” an animated children’s movie that celebrates the Moon Goddess and the holiday that originated, at least in part, to honor her legend. A joint production of Netflix in the United States and Pearl Studio in China, the film began streaming on Oct. 23 as part of Netflix’s Representation Matters Collection. It features an all-Asian cast and pays close attention to Chinese culture and traditions.
“Every single person on the creative team took great care in making sure that everyone had enough research, and also that they were telling true, authentic stories,” said Cathy Ang, who voices Fei Fei, the protagonist who struggles to adapt to the loss of her mother. When Fei Fei’s father decides it’s time to move on, and introduces a potential stepmother and stepbrother into Fei Fei’s family circle, she comes up with a plan to fly to the moon to prove that her mother’s favorite story about the Moon Goddess is true. She thinks this will force her father to “remember” his wife and stall the inevitable changes that life brings. Ultimately, Fei Fei and the Moon Goddess learn that sometimes life is about letting go.
“I think it’s a lesson that we all have to learn one way or another with different people in our lives, whether it be a relationship, a parent, a child,” said executive producer Janet Yang, whose prior projects include “The Joy Luck Club” and “Empire of the Sun.” “You have to let them go and you can do it in a very loving way.” Because she has to grow through this herself, Fei Fei is able to help Chang’e, the Moon Goddess, understand that she, too, has to let go of her dream of reuniting with her long-deceased lover, Houyi, and realize she is surrounded by love.
“I think one of the most beautiful lessons people can take away is that family comes in a lot of different forms. There are people that are willing to take care of you and want to take care of you—if you can open yourself up to them,” shared Ang, who admitted that this Moon Festival, she tried to make homemade moon cakes for the first time. “They didn’t go perfectly,” she laughed. Ang, who is Chinese Filipino, recalls that during her childhood, “We’d go to Chinatown and see the lantern festival and see dragon dancing. I feel like I really did get to share a part of my personal family traditions in this movie.”
The cultural details presented throughout the movie are evocative and detailed. “A lot of research went into all the different rituals,” confided Yang. “The food scenes, the big dinner, I could recognize every single dish on that dinner table and they’re all classic dishes,” she said. I also enjoyed the dinner scenes for the amusing banter between the aunties, and the convincing portrayal of the warmth and good cheer of holiday-time family gatherings.
While the movie does pay respectful tribute to Chinese tradition, things change a little bit when Fei Fei leaves the atmosphere. I was put off by the animation style of the Moon kingdom, where I felt propelled into a Grateful Dead meets Electric Daisy Carnival of jelly fu dogs, jelly moon cakes, and bizarre neon blobs. There are funny “biker chicks” that look suspiciously like Angry Birds, yet don’t act funny—they aren’t nice—and there are other unpleasant inclusions, such as a deadly moon beam that slices anything that passes through it, and the most cheerful inhabitant—Gobi, voiced by Ken Jeong—has been horribly outcast and exiled from the palace.
In fact, the Moon kingdom is not fun. Chang’e is not the gracious host everyone, including Fei Fei, expected. She’s been disillusioned by grief and is a raging diva. She even has security and—inexplicably —an interrogation room. Who she is interrogating on such a regular basis that she needs a dedicated room is not apparent. When we meet her, she launches into a self-adulating pop tune that I didn’t find catchy and which miscategorizes the Moon in a double entendre (she’s acting like “a star,” a celebrity) that, to me, does a disservice to children for whom such stories are educational opportunities. The movie had me wondering why children’s movies have to have music, and why the numbers didn’t have more of the “stick in your head” quality equated with the Disney blockbusters that executive producer and director Glen Keane has worked on.
It doesn’t mean the songs don’t do a good job of storytelling and creating mood. One of Yang’s favorite parts of the movie is when Fei Fei/Ang sings “Rocket to the Moon” and creates a legitimate feeling of soaring and that desire for escape that children often feel when something in their world isn’t going the way that they wanted. And Fei Fei herself provides a realistic role model of a young girl struggling to respond to life’s ups and downs.
“She’s incredibly intelligent,” described Ang. “She’s very passionate about science and problem-solving, and she has so much confidence in herself that she just doesn’t give up on anything. Finally, she’s so motivated by love…I think she’s a beautiful character that people everywhere can look up to.”
Music and psychedelic moonscape aside, the themes of the movie are heartwarming, inspiring, and, yes, educational. For those unfamiliar with the Moon Festival, the movie is sure to pique curiosity about Chinese culture, while its universal values should appeal to just about everyone. “The story about healing…is really poignant, especially right now when so many people feel like they’ve lost something or are grieving something,” said Ang. “I think it’s an important story for kids, parents, everyone in the world.”
The general appeal of “Over the Moon” at a time when race and nationality are hot button issues was something that Yang also felt optimistic about.
“It’s a difficult time these days to talk about China,” she acknowledged. “It’s become so weaponized and politicized, but what I most appreciate about [the movie] is that it’s about humans…This has always been a message that I’ve wanted to bring into all my projects—the humanization of people that might get branded or stereotyped or categorized and really we’re all just humans.”
Ang hopes that “Over the Moon” will inspire the kids of today’s generation in the same way that Mulan inspired her when she was growing up.
“I looked up to Mulan and I saw myself in her. I hope that Asian kids everywhere can feel validated by this movie. I hope that they see the rest of the world celebrating them and their culture. It will encourage kids to embrace who they are, embrace their roots, and hopefully also share their own stories.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.