Gorgeous animation helps balance children’s movie cliches
I began following Glen Keane in the 1990s, when my family enjoyed his children’s books involving the wayward but likable Adam Raccoon.
I soon learned that not only was he the brother of “Family Circus” creator Bill Keane, but also a rising star at Disney, where he’d worked on “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
Principally an animator (“Aladdin,” “Pocahontas,” “Tarzan,” “Tangled”), Keane also did writing and consulting for the studio, eventually being named a “Disney legend” in 2013. But the brand-new “Over the Moon,” a family adventure from Netflix, is the first feature Keane has directed
Hopefully it will not be his last.
The story involves an Asian girl named Fei Fei, who loses her mother at a young age; but having been told by Mom the legend of a goddess who lives on the moon awaiting reunion with an ancient love, Fei Fei decides to fly there herself. This is partly to provide closure (could that be where Mom is?) — and partly to escape the prospect of a new mother and little brother when Dad brings home a lady-friend.
So Fei Fei builds herself a rocket-car and heads off into space — at which point we realize this is going to be a fairly fanciful fantasy.
But it gets a lot more surreal when the lass lands on the lunar surface and winds up in Lunaria, a city peopled by neon-colored blobs and “talking mooncakes” — all under the reign of an exotic queen who is … definitely not Fei Fei’s mother!
This second half of “Over the Moon” sometimes threatens to go off the rails. But it’s held together by expert vocal work (Ken Jeong is sensational as Gobi); by a little bit of humor; and by absolutely gorgeous computer animation. It’s a balancing act from director Keane, as his jam-packed plot encompasses: annoying little brothers, the lunar cycle, mag-lev trains, middle school, a frog in a space helmet, the death of a parent, magic rabbits, biker-chicks on the moon, adjusting to a step-mother, air-borne Ping Pong, long-lost love, Asian cooking and … “Grandpa’s diapers.”
The characters burst into song too often, and most of the tunes are nothing special. Ditto several story elements that feel recycled from other family fare (cute sidekick, race against dwindling dust, rabbit falling down a hole).
Yet every now and then one song really shines — especially the mid-film “Rocket to the Moon.” Likewise, there are plenty of original plot-points, including a nice in-flight surprise (don’t watch the previews!) — but mostly, a potent meditation on how to accept loss and move on in life.
That’s heady material for an eccentric children’s film; but then, “Over the Moon” was written by Audrey Wells, who also did the critically acclaimed “Truth About Cats and Dogs,” 1999’s award-winning “Guinevere” and, most recently, “The Hate U Give.”
One day before “Give’s” 2018 release, the writer died of cancer at age 58. I dare say when it comes to pain and loss, Wells knew whereof she spoke.
“Over the Moon” is dedicated to her.