It is always great to see Asian cultures being explored in English-language films (and children’s films), especially when they boast an all-Asian cast.
The animated musical sci-fi Over the Moon, does just that with a plot that puts a modern twist on the Legend of Chang-e – a love story of the Chinese goddess of the moon, Chang-e, and her husband, Houyi, who is lost to her when she takes an elixir of immortality and floats up to the moon with her jade rabbit – commonly told at the Mooncake Festival (also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival).
As a young child, Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) learns about Chang-e’s eternal love for Houyi (Conrad Ricamora) from her Ma Ma (Ruthie Ann Miles). But four years after her mother’s passing, Fei Fei’s Ba Ba (John Cho), meets a new woman, Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh). The prospect of a remarriage, and his disbelief in the legend of Chang-e, makes Fei Fei feel as though her father has forgotten all about Ma Ma. In a desperate bid to prove that this story of never-ending love is real, Fei Fei builds a rocket to the moon and goes to meet Chang-e (Phillipa Soo), only to find a pop-star moon goddess who is not quite what Fei Fei had expected…
The opening of the film descends rapidly into tragedy, over the course of the song Mooncakes which creates a beautiful, smooth transition from youthful joy to a heavier tone of grief. For the screenwriter Audrey Wells (known for rom-coms such as Under the Tuscan Sun) who died mid-way through production of this film after a battle with cancer, Over the Moon was meant to be something of a love letter to her daughter and husband, and that sombre tone mixed in with the message of everlasting love is definitely mirrored in Fei Fei’s journey.
The overall tone is a wholesome one of love and acceptance, interspersed with pops of comic relief. It also celebrates the power of science and math (however unrealistic that aspect of the film actually is) as cool things for children to engage in, which is a welcome deviation from the common portrayal of these subjects as nerdy and unpopular. As a whole, this film is rich and engaging, dealing with the ideas of death and blended families.
Through stunning vocals (especially from Phillipa Soo, a familiar voice from the original Broadway cast of Hamilton, and newcomer Cathy Ang) and colourful animation, the film brings to life a magical world on the moon, ruled over by Chang-e – a traditional legend turned pop goddess who sports beautiful couture outfits created by the Chinese fashion designer, Guo Pei, and performs with moves dreamt up by K-Pop group Blackpink’s choreographer, Kyle Hanagami. In the typical style of these Disney-esque animations, the film’s brilliantly catchy songs seamlessly bring to life the animated figures that deliver the story.
With the 3D-style of animation that has become increasingly common since the likes of Tangled, Moana, and Frozen, a sense of realism is lent to the animated film. The backgrounds created in the earth-based animations in particular are exquisitely detailed, with the nice touch of having all text on screen appear in Chinese characters, bringing a dynamism to the bustling setting that instantly draws you in. Although the simplistic glowing blobs that populate Lunaria does give a bit of a sense that they ran out of budget for animation when it came to the scenes on the moon, that might perhaps be seen as a directive decision to appeal more to the children that this film is targeted at.
Director Glen Keane (who has had a dazzling career in animation, working on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tarzan and Tangled) had previously mentioned that being true to Chinese culture was key to the film, and he made his first ever visit to China in order to gain a better understanding of the culture for this film. However, on this note, as an introduction for children to Chinese culture (which is what I personally felt was the most important aspect of this film) I am sorry to say that Over the Moon is an absolute failure.
Pearl Studio’s Peilin Chou had offered the project to the late Audrey Wells after it was pitched five years ago, on account of Wells ability to create a strong voice for female characters and on this count, Wells did succeed. But as someone with Chinese heritage, I still frankly found it a little offensive that Pearl Studio/Netflix had hired Wells, rather than a Chinese person – or at the very least someone with a thorough understanding of the Chinese culture – to write the screenplay.
Although the idea had been proposed by American-Chinese Hollywood producer, Janet Yang, who has a BA in Chinese studies, and there had been collaboration from American-Taiwanese screenwriter Alice Wu (who brought us a great Asian protagonist film, The Half of It, earlier this year), and Jennifer Yee McDevitt, a lot of the nuances of Chinese culture do not translate into the English-language screenplay. For instance, calling Ba Ba’s new love interest Mrs. Zhong rather than Zhong ayi (or Auntie Zhong) is such a small detail that could have been easily changed to make the English version more authentic.
This is a great disservice to anyone watching in the original English, and if you can understand Mandarin, I would even go so far as to actually recommend that you watch the film in both the original English and the Mandarin dub. The substantial changes to dialogue and the plot in general just make the story make so much more sense and, of course, brings a far a more accurate depiction of Chinese culture.
For example, that non-sensical joke about Jade Rabbit making ‘Moonmush’ that appears in the English version, is changed to a much more logical play on words about how the moon looks yellow because it is a big egg yolk. And the entirely rewritten interactions between Fei Fei and Zhong ayi (Mrs. Zhong) in the Mandarin dub also explains why the jade pendant ends up in the mooncake. The reference to the jade pendant as a token (信物 xin wu) rather than a gift (礼物 li wu), is also a subtle but important difference that brings a whole new dimension to the understanding of Chang-e’s story.
Arguably, the Mandarin dub does also take a little too much creative liberty in its interpretation, adding a whole lot of additional narration that did not appear in the original, to unnecessarily explain the symbolism of things that can be quite easily understood through the combination of animation and score. But the stark difference in the cultural understanding between the English and Mandarin versions really does point out a substantial flaw in the original screenplay.
There is no doubt that the very catchy songs that range from powerful pop to fierce rap to gentle love song and beautifully carry you through the story are far better in English (both because the words fit into the tune better as they were originally written, and because of the outstanding vocals of an extremely talented cast). The terrible mispronunciation of lyrics by Phillipa Soo and Conrad Ricamora in Forever Yours, a love song between Chang-e and Houyi that switches back and forth between Mandarin and English, does beg the question of why they bothered with this small stab at authenticity when so many other cultural details were ignored. Still, Over the Moon is an enjoyable watch that can be easily fit into an evening.
All said, Over the Moon is a brilliant film, with great animation, catchy songs, and a heartfelt message about love and family. It is definitely a movie you could watch over and over again. It is nice to see representation of Chinese culture in a mainstream English-language film. The flawed depiction of Chinese culture just shows that there is still a need for better understanding and appreciation of other cultures, when trying to bring them to life on screen for an English-speaking audience.