I was so ready to hate Over the Moon (2020). Mulan (1998) set the bar for Chinese representation in film low, and the 2020 live-action remake, despite its claims of greater authenticity and representation, somehow managed to lower the bar even further. Even the acclaimed Crazy Rich Asians (2018) fell flat in its attempt to highlight the diversity of Chinese diasporic experiences to me. Having thus been disappointed repeatedly by Hollywood, I went into this film with low expectations, even though the premise—local girl builds rocket ship, flies to moon in search of goddess—sounded like a dream come true.
I was prepared to be let down. And I was. But I also found myself crying less than eight minutes into the film—the first of several times I’d shed tears within the hour-and-a-half runtime.
Produced by Netflix, Over the Moon is an animated film based on the legend of Chang’e, who drank the elixir of immortality and flew up and away from her lover, tragically parting them forever. That’s not the only legend in the film: The director is Glen Keane of Disney animation fame, and the star-studded cast includes Phillipa Soo (Hamilton), Ken Jeong (Crazy Rich Asians), and John Cho (Star Trek), with even more familiar names in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it roles. The story follows Fei Fei, a spunky teenage engineer who clings to the legend of Chang’e like a lifeline after her mother passes away. If this feels tropey and derivative—how many animated mothers have we lost to an undefined (but strongly suggested to be cancer) disease?—it’s because it is. To show how much Fei Fei is obsessed with all things lunar, she’s given a pet rabbit (a reference to the rabbit in the moon), and her room is full of space-themed paraphernalia. In case you still didn’t get the point, her family’s bakery is also famous for their Mid-Autumn Festival mooncakes. (This film is many things, and “subtle” isn’t one of them. More on this later.)
Fei Fei wants to go to the moon to prove Chang’e is real and still pining after her lost love, because this will prove to her father that love is true and eternal, and he’ll remember he’s still in love with her dead mother and won’t move on with the woman he’s now engaged to. Clearly, what Fei Fei really needs is grief counseling. Instead, she MacGyvers together a rocket ship, straps in with her rabbit and a couple of stowaways (her annoying soon-to-be-stepbrother and his pet frog), and takes off.
Up to this point, the slices of life in Fei Fei’s Chinese village—and by “Chinese,” I mean actually set in a China that is modern, real, and both beautifully and accurately detailed—have been visually stunning, sweet and homey in the sort of way that makes you miss your grandmother’s cooking. But the lunar landscape she crash-lands on is an abrupt turn into neon wonderland. Think Just Dance, with its simple outlines, pop tunes, and bright colors. Add Chang’e, moon goddess-turned-K-pop star (complete with couture clothing and snappy choreography), and you’ve got the moon-city of Lunaria. It’s bright, fun, cutesy, and soulless. Apart from Chang’e, the aforementioned rabbit on the moon, and some sentient mooncakes, there is nothing even remotely Chinese about it. Though I’m sure it was intentionally styled as such, the animation even looks flat and unfinished, more 2- than 3D in its rendering of background shapes.
I’m not really going to get into the second half of the film, partly to avoid spoilers, partly because, well, nothing much happens. Fei Fei spends most of her time talking to a dorky, lovable glowworm, having been split up from both her rabbit and her stepbrother, which seems somewhat counterintuitive to the film’s message: that you can’t get back what’s lost, only move forward with the family who have rallied around you in support. Every opportunity to hammer this message home is taken, up to and including having the big, angsty climax revolve around it. I could see it coming from miles away. 238,856 miles, to be exact—the average distance from Earth to the moon.
I was about to honest-to-god roll my eyes when a slight twist—somehow both utterly predictable and gut-wrenching—had me tearing up instead. Then Philippa Soo’s golden voice started singing through Chang’e in Mandarin, and let me tell you: Reader, I bawled my eyes out.
Maybe it was the song, with its lyrics seamlessly weaving between Mandarin and English. Maybe it was how the three-minute-long scene was styled to look, sound, and feel like it came straight out of a Chinese folktale. Whatever the case, everything snapped together in that moment, and I realized that the flat emptiness of Lunaria had been crafted with this return to the heart of the Chang’e legend in mind. The contrast helped the emotional beat land, and land hard. I still wished we hadn’t spent quite so much time in that neon landscape, but I could see through my tears that it had had its desired effect.
I’m not sure if I would recommend this movie. The songs, apart from the one I mentioned above, are neither catchy nor memorable. The storytelling remains formulaic and trope-ridden. I absolutely adore Fei Fei and her brilliant engineering mind and affinity for space, but I can’t say the same for any of the anthropomorphic animal sidekicks, of which there are several too many. The film certainly doesn’t cheapen Chang’e, but I didn’t think it did her full justice, either. It’s a shame, because I can see how much potential Over the Moon had to be incredible, if only the second half were more purposeful, more character-driven, more grounded in its Chinese roots.
I’ll say this: if you’re looking for vapid whimsy with a generous helping of grief, or if you live with a child of Disney age, or if you—like me—are a sucker for space and solid Chinese representation and scruffy-haired girls in STEM, this is a decent movie for a lazy night in. Fair warning, though: you might want to keep the tissues handy.