While it wasn’t the most memorable film of 2019, “Abominable” served as a charming debut for the rebranded studio once called Oriental DreamWorks now called Pearl Studio. So, when Netflix picked up the studio’s second release to western audiences I found myself intrigued. Could they continue to embrace that charm and style effectively or was Pearl destined to fail in comparison to juggernauts like Disney? Well, while their new movie “Over the Moon” far from redefines the animation game it does exactly what I hoped it would, providing an effectively charming and colorful story with oriental originals that further helps define the specific style and identity Pearl seems to be shooting for in a crowded market. It’s too bad it’s promising elements are overshadowed by its overdependence on the familiar.
“Over the Moon” follows 14-year-old Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) who is struggling with her father’s decision to remarry after the loss of her mother which comes with an energetic stepbrother named Chin (Robert G. Chiu). Fei Fei holds on to the stories her mom told her about a Moon goddess who lost her lover, and decides to build a rocket ship which takes her and Chin to the moon. There she meets the goddess herself Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) and explores her colorful world. Fei Fei soon discovers Chang’e’s heartache and Fei Fei’s own inability to move on from her grief risk casting a dark shadow over the moon and those on Earth. At its core “Over the Moon” is a colorful, imaginative fantasy adventure with some important concepts to tackle, especially for its impressionable young audience. Loss and the idea of family being less cut and dry aren’t exactly new ideas in animation. Hell, Pixar tackled these same concepts earlier in 2020 with “Onward”. “Over the Moon” does just enough to put its own memorable spin on its life lessons using song and a mix of positivity and darkness to present the dangers of depression and allowing grief to dominate one’s perspective. Sadly it does little to set itself apart from every other animated movie out there thanks to it’s overdependence on animation must-haves.
“Over the Moon” moves at a strange pace, often forsaking the simple joys and lessons within its own narrative in favor of side quests and songs, and it follows a formula that has become all too common in animation thus stifling its own imagination and substance. For starters, we have the lost loved one trope that Disney so famously popularized along with the animal sidekick (in this case an admittedly adorable bunny). There’s the bubbly secondary character named Gobi and a slew of other random characters that seem tailor made to sell merchandise rather than add to the story. There’s far too little time spent on establishing the rules of the world Fei Fei and Chin enter on the moon and the story moves at such a brisk pace that the only time it seems to breath is when it stops for a song sequence which rarely builds on the story or characters the way they should. An entire musical number is spent on a ping pong match which we only barely understood as part of Chin’s personality and you’d hardly expect to play such an important role in the film. Moment’s like this feel like padding and keep the movie from being properly focused on its core message, which is sad because there was plenty of potential for a deeper narrative that could have charted its own path. Instead it feels all too comfortable borrowing animation tropes for its own needs. There’s plenty of watchability and this isn’t a bad film, but unlike “Abominable” which hid its cliché tactics well “Over the Moon” wears its formula on its sleeve and that often overshadows and betrays the better elements that make it worth experiencing.
But, there are plenty of positives too. “Over the Moon” features a great voice cast consisting of the aforementioned Cathy Ang, Robert G. Chiu and Phillipa Soo but also includes Ken Jeong, John Cho, Margaret Cho, Sandra Oh, Ruthie Ann Miles and Kimiko Glenn. Most, if not all, of the cast members are of Asian decent which fits with the eastern roots of the story. Many of the actors also do their own singing taking full advantage of their diverse talents especially Phillipa Soo who many may know from the Broadway hit “Hamilton” and is by far the strongest vocalist in this film’s lineup. The animation is beautiful mixing plenty of colorful imagery into Chang’e’s world on the moon while also creating a lively interpretation of Asian culture down here on Earth. The whole thing was fun to look at and felt unique while also clearly establishing a specific artistic style for Pearl we first experienced in “Abominable”. There’s more than enough imagination in this movie to go around in the imagery alone and it is nice to see an animated feature outside of the Anime genre that celebrates and embraces its eastern influences so shamelessly. Also, even though the darker and more meaningful lessons are sadly forsaken in the overall story “Over the Moon” does stick the landing in providing an important lesson about the limitless potential of family and the dangers of failing to deal with grief properly. In the end it has its flaws but accomplishes the goal it set out to tackle.
“Over the Moon” isn’t a bad animated movie, but it is a predictable one. I loved the imagery and imagination that went into the world, even if we don’t get to explore it much. I enjoyed the capable voice cast especially since it’s filled with talented Asian or Asian-American actors in a story celebrating elements of eastern culture. I especially enjoyed the film’s core message about extended families and the dangers of letting grief control you. I felt like the filmmakers and writers had good intentions that could have benefitted from a willingness to take chances and explore their imaginations a little further. Instead “Over the Moon” conforms to too many formulaic elements of animation, many of which feel out of place in a movie that clearly seems like it wants to do its own thing. It’s not the worst offender by any means, but in the end I feel like there’s a lot of wasted potential. What we do get though isn’t really that bad. It’s fun, colorful and makes for an entertaining, if mildly underwhelming, way to spend an hour and a half. It certainly didn’t have ME over the moon, but it didn’t leave me regretting the journey either.