Let’s recap the details of this unusual project. It was developed and produced at Shanghai’s Pearl Studio, formerly Oriental Dreamworks, which went independent with last year’s Abominable. In a still-unusual-but-not-unheard-of arrangement, the Chinese studio outsourced the animation to North America (specifically Sony Pictures Imageworks in Vancouver). Co-producer Netflix is releasing the film as its third original animated feature, following Klaus and The Willoughbys. At the helm is animator Glen Keane, a linchpin of the Disney Renaissance, who won an Oscar for his short Dear Basketball but has never directed a feature before.
In many ways, then, Over the Moon is a case of experienced industry players settling into new roles. That may be why it feels at once highly polished and a little jumbled. The production values are high and the animation is characterful, as we’d expect from a Keane feature. The protagonists are Chinese and sometimes behave accordingly (as the producers have stressed), but the film’s drive for cultural authenticity is delivered within a narrative framework that’s distinctly Disneyesque, complete with songs and comic sidekicks. The story is engaging and ambitious in scope, but also strangely paced and a little scattershot.
An exposition-laden first act introduces us to an idealized Chinese town, home to young Fei Fei (Cathy Ang, leading a predominantly Asian American voice cast). Her parents enchant her with tales of Chang’e, the folkloric moon deity who pines for her lost love, Hou Yi the archer. The legend, briefly evoked in a gorgeous segment of impressionistic 2d animation — done by Keane himself — continues to play on Fei Fei’s imagination even as she grows up and develops a passion for the rational world of science.