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Fei Fei figures she can fix a lot about her life if she could only find the Moon Goddess. Photo: AP
Ariel, Aladdin, Tarzan and Rapunzel all went on some pretty epic adventures. But Glen Keane, the acclaimed animator behind those iconic characters, is sending his new heroine further than any of his previous creations – the moon.
Twelve-year-old Fei Fei builds a rocket to blast into outer space in the new Netflix movie musical Over the Moon, the first animated film backed by a major Hollywood studio to feature an entirely Asian cast.
The film stars newcomer Cathy Ang as our plucky heroine, backed by such voice actors as Hamilton star Phillipa Soo, comedians Ken Jeong and Margaret Cho, Star Trek star John Cho, Broadway veterans Ruthie Ann Miles and Kimiko Glenn, and Killing Eve star Sandra Oh.
It opens and closes in modern-day China, but the bulk of the film is set in Lunaria, an imaginary kingdom on the dark side of the moon that’s filled with glowing, bubblegum-coloured blobs and where the laws of physics are tossed out.
The film starts with Fei Fei on her quest to meet the mythical Moon Goddess, Chang’e. The immortal goddess lives on the moon waiting to reunite with her mortal love, the archer Houyi. Fei Fei’s mother tells her the legend before she gets sick and dies.
(Grief was part of the film’s DNA: screenwriter Audrey Wells died of cancer in 2018 while the film was being made and the final product is dedicated to her memory, with some lines like “you have to move on” all the more poignant.)
The film jumps four years into the future and Fei Fei’s dad is considering re-marrying, a horrific prospect for his daughter. Fei Fei reasons that if she can prove that Chang’e – and eternal love – really do exist, her dad will ditch his new girlfriend. “I just want things back the way they were,” she says, and decides to build her spacecraft and set off for space.
The transition – from hyperreal cooked crabs that glisten in a bowl in the first 30 minutes of the film to amorphous, gooey Candyland critters 30 minutes later – is jarring. The sequences on the moon grow tiresome, despite huge toads that fly and squeaky-voiced critters.
And unfortunately, the film has echoes of previous animated fare – like the missing mother and engineering-bent of the young heroine from Wonder Park – and the assortment of adorable sidekicks from Frozen 2 . It also recalls the trippy Technicolor shift from The Wizard of Oz.
There are eight varied and delightful original songs in a range of genres:K-pop, EDM, hiphop, folk and Broadway all take turns to shine, while traditional Chinese instruments, like the pipa and guzheng, and Mandarin lyrics also feature.
Fei Fei’s build-up to her moonshot and the launch are perhaps the most thrilling elements of the film, and the animators have put a great deal of thought into making it visually appealing for viewers both young and old: the food pops and even the wind is expressive.
But the film loses coherence and urgency on the dark side of the moon.
Truth be told, Chang’e – voiced fantastically by Soo – is a bit of a Wizard-of-Oz-like dictator, a lunar diva whose emotions determine everything on Lunaria.
She introduces herself with a boastful K-pop banger Ultraluminary — “Ya ready to watch me be legendary?” – like Katy Perry on steroids.
“She’s nothing like Mama said,” Fei Fei points out .
There are also Angry Birds-like motorcycle-riding chickens – biker chicks, get it? – and a blobby lunar dog called Gobi which is a little too close to Josh Gad’s goofy and endearing Olaf character from Frozen.
Add a small frog, an adorable bunny, a possible step-brother and a magical hare and things get overloaded. It’s a shame that viewers after a while will long for the pull of gravity.