For one, it’s directed by two Disney veterans – Glen Keane, an animator on key ‘90s renaissance films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast, and co-director John Kahrs, who animated on early Pixar movies and Frozen, among others. And while it’s a collaboration between China’s Pearl Studio and Sony Pictures, the opening act of Over The Moon couldn’t feel more Disney – a compliment, since it bears all the charm, the tangible emotion, and the spine-tingling tunes that the legendary animation studio has long made its signature.
Its non-Disney non-Princess is Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), a Chinese girl with a cute rabbit called Bungee (animal sidekick – check) who’s grown up watching her parents’ mooncake business soar (depicted in warm, tender early scenes), and being told tales of the magical but heartbroken moon goddess Chang’e. It’s an idyllic life too good to last, interrupted by her mother’s (Ruthie Ann Miles) premature death. Flash forward a few years, and Fei Fei is still struggling. So when her father Ba Ba (John Cho) tries introducing Mrs Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her energetic son Chin (Robert G. Chiu) into the family unit, Fei Fei decides to seek out Chang’e for answers – but first, she has to figure out the small matter of getting to the moon. With its gorgeous scenery, real emotional weight and a belting “I want” song in breakout ballad ‘Rocket To The Moon’, it’s an effective opening reel that brings to mind the set-up of Moana and Coco.
From there, Over The Moon gets wilder and less conventional, both for better and worse. If narratively it feels loose, the central plot motivation occasionally getting lost as it blasts off into more unfamiliar territory, the animation style becomes more vivid and bold, especially on Lunaria – an illuminated spirit-world of Pixar-like visual abstraction. And when Chang’e finally emerges – as a dance-pop diva who cries bubbles of sentient light, no less, and voiced by Hamilton stand-out Phillipa Soo – she brings a welcome unpredictability to proceedings. But among those highs, the more frantic plotting brings a streak of hyperactivity to the mix, which doesn’t always gel with the sincerity elsewhere.
Despite those flaws, though, Over The Moon is emotionally resonant, boasting fresh cultural narratives in its exploration of Chinese mythology, and a handful of great songs (Chang’e’s ‘Ultraluminary’ is a catchy EDM-pop banger). Throw in a likeable central hero who’s smart, driven, and scientifically-minded – who wouldn’t feel out of place in the Magic Kingdom – and Disney has a potential competitor on its white-gloved hands.