Over the Moon–Leonard Maltin illuminates the journey behind Netflix’s ambitious animated film

Review by C.J. Bunce

Over the Moon is Netflix’s latest achievement in animation, a Chinese-American production with Pearl Studio about a young girl named Fei Fei (meaning “to fly”) who decides to build a rocket to the moon.  The animation style is a mix of 1990s Disney, elaborate and surreal Fantasia-inspired sequences of color and texture, with doses of Japanese anime and kawaii characters while immersed in Chinese culture–and it’s a musical.   In a word the film is ambitious… in a good way.  At its best, visually the 3D CGI visual effects may recall the groundbreaking imagery of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  The sweet and innocent girl’s story is built on the idea that a kid can actually build a ship to go into outer space (just as in the 1980s film Explorers).  But as with many animated movies, like Bambi and Dumbo, its focus is on the serious issue of overcoming grief, and in this case it’s moving on after the death of a parent, so the audience for the film may be a bit narrow.  To take Netflix viewers on a deeper journey, film critic and historian Leonard Maltin has written a behind the scenes look at the making of the film and its stunning artwork.  Below we have a preview of his Over the Moon: Illuminating the Journey for borg readers.

Fourteen-year-old Fei Fei is an only daughter, and she shares an idyllic early youth with her parents.  Her mother shares the Chinese myth of Chang’e, a moon goddess who becomes immortal and arrives at the moon without her true love, Houyi.  But early in the film Fei Fei’s mother dies, and the girl does not outgrow the myth of Chang’e.  At the annual Moon Festival Fei Fei becomes dismayed when her father announces his engagement and her new stepmother arrives with an annoying brother.  Preparation of the mooncake is a family affair, and her extended family arrives, but it’s not the same for Fei Fei.  The familial relations are all positive and encouraging, but Fei Fei, who is also intelligent with a mastery of science, decides to take her pet bunny named Bungee and build a rocket to take her to the Moon (this is a leap, since she seems a bit old to think she can journey to the Moon entirely on her own efforts).  Fei Fei is successful, and in the rocket (that looks a lot like Hayao Miyazaki’s giant cat Totoro), she arrives on the Moon with Bungee… and her brother-to-be as stowaway.  But there she meets the goddess and all is not as expected.

Director Glen Keane (Beauty and the Beast, Star Trek: The Animated Series, The Fox and the Hound, Tangled, The Little Mermaid) and producers Gennie Rim (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) and Peilin Chou (Abominable, Kung Fu Panda 3) pull in all sorts of scenes, constructs, settings, and almost an overload of visual designs, all highlighted in Maltin’s Over the Moon: Illuminating the JourneyThe high point of the film is Bungee, a modern 3D version of Thumper from Bambi, whose every facial expression will melt even the most iron-clad viewer, and the giant space dog.  The goddess Chang’e is an assemblage of many characters, but visually she commands your attention and her dazzling costumes and manner have her owning the stage similar to Maleficent in Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty.  The myth of Chang’e is told in stunning fashion via animated medieval Chinese paintings (think calligraphy and inks on silks and scrolls).  At another moment the kids are moving aloft on round sphere shapes that look like if you touched them they’d respond like balloons.  Fei Fei, voiced by Cathy Ang, is believably real especially in the CGI work of her eyes and facial expressions.

Concept art, sketches, and storyboards take on a different flare when you’re in the digital animation tech of today, but the book showcases the wide variety of styles used in the production.  Readers of Maltin’s book will find hundreds of images of developmental artistry behind the film, plus read exclusive interviews with the creators, including a foreword by producer Janet Yang.  Color is used in magical ways in the film–a pull-out page in the book features a color guide from a segment of the film.

For anyone really wanting to get immersed in Fei Fei’s world, the mooncake, used as a plot device throughout the film, is featured on a recipe card included with Over the Moon: Illuminating the Journey.

As for the musical side, the songs are unfortunately lackluster, with little rhyme or musicality, and not memorable.  This isn’t your typical Disney-type animated film.  It asks a lot of its audience.  But it’s also different, and in a span when several animated films are arriving en masse (as previewed here in our 2021 movies last last week), the uniqueness may be welcome.  Also welcome is the comedy relief coming from the voice of Ken Jeong (Community).  Other actors voicing characters that may be familiar to American audiences are John Cho (Star Trek Beyond) as Fei Fei’s father, Sandra Oh (Mulan 2) as her father’s fiancé, and Margaret Cho (Sharknado 5) as one of Fei Fei’s aunts.

Take a look at this eight-page preview of Over the Moon: Illuminating the Journey, courtesy of Titan Books:

A great follow-up and tie-in for fans of the film revealing the continued progress of animators and animation becoming more lifelike with each new production, Leonard Maltin’s Over the Moon: Illuminating the Journey is now available here at Amazon.  Over the Moon is streaming now on Netflix.

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