Take The Wizard of Oz, add a touch of Up, a splash of Frozen and toss well with the cultural specificity of a Coco and you’ll get a reasonable facsimile of Over the Moon, a CG-animated musical fantasy that still manages to infuse sufficient charm and genuine warmth into the inescapable familiarity.
Finding folkloric lift-off in the Chinese legend of Chang’e, the Goddess of the Moon, the contemporary update is buoyed by director Glen Keane’s richly detailed visuals and an energetic voice cast headed by Cathy Ang, Phillipa Soo and Ken Jeong — even if the film lands somewhat shy of its destination. Overall, it makes for a nice, audience-friendly fit on Netflix, where it will make its exclusive global debut on Oct. 23, coinciding with this month’s annual Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.
Knowing that the script was penned by the late Audrey Wells, who had been receiving cancer treatment at the time, adds another layer of poignancy to the tender prologue, which finds Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) grappling with the death of her young mother (Ruthie Ann Miles).
Four years later, still taking comfort in her mom’s tales about goddess Chang’e and her mortal husband, archer Houyi, 12-year-old Fei Fei returns from school one day to be informed by her bakery proprietor dad (John Cho) that she’ll soon have a new mom (Sandra Oh) and a rambunctious kid brother (Robert G. Chiu). Not taking the news well, Fei Fei reacts by using her science smarts to build a rocket that will take her to the moon. Her intention is to bring photographic proof of the existence of Chang’e back to her aunties and uncles.
Turns out that Soo’s less-than-benevolent Moon Goddess proves to be a bit of a space diva who’s fond of belting out Katy Perry-esque empowerment tunes like “Ultraluminary” against a luminescent, Candyland-on-acid backdrop.
As it so happens, the lack of gravitational pull up on Lunaria takes its toll on the production as a whole: The film proves more compelling and emotionally resonant back on earth, where it’s boosted by the same sort of acute attention to family celebration and food preparation that lent Pixar’s Coco an irresistible, around-the-table potency.
That domestic milieu plays to the strengths of veteran Disney animator Keane (the son of Family Circus cartoonist Bil) who makes his feature directorial debut here after winning an animated short Oscar for his Kobe Bryant collaboration, Dear Basketball. Self-possessed Fei Fei is right at home with such other Keane creations as The Little Mermaid’s Ariel and Rapunzel, while the animation is bright and spirited.
Likewise, the voice cast — which also includes comedians Ken Jeong as Fei Fei’s blobby Lunarian cohort, Gobi, and Margaret Cho in dual earth/moon roles — expertly delivers the character-driven goods.
But while it would be a shame not to take advantage of Soo’s lovely singing voice — which earned a Tony nomination for her Eliza Schuyler in Hamilton — one is left with the feeling that the film would have survived quite nicely without all those tunes that ping-pong restlessly between K-pop, Menken-Ashman balladry and anthemic rock. By the end of the Over the Moon, it won’t be the soundtrack you’ll want to seek out, but one of those delectable-looking mooncakes.
Production companies: Netflix, Pearl Studio, Glen Keane Prods.
Cast: Cathy Ang, Phillipa Soo, Robert G. Chiu, Ken Jeong, John Cho, Ruthie Ann Miles, Margaret Cho, Sandra Oh
Director: Glen Keane
Screenwriter: Audrey Wells
Producers: Peilin Chou
Executive producers: Janet Yang, Glen Keane, Ruigang Li, Frank Zhu, Thomas Hui
Production designer: Celine Desrumaux
Costume designer: Guo Pei
Editor: Edie Ichioka
Music: Steven Price
Songs: Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield, Helen Park
Rated PG, 94 minutes