Glen Keane is one of modern animation’s true visionaries. Keane came to Disney in the late 1970s, when the company’s animation unit was not exactly at the height of its powers, gamely providing character animation to misfires like The Black Cauldron and The Fox and the Hound. When his generation of animator finally took over in the late 1980s, Keane flourished; he was the supervising animator on characters like Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective and Ariel in The Little Mermaid, beginning him on an unprecedented streak that saw him animate the title character in Aladdin and Pocahontas and The Beast in Beauty and the Beast, amongst many others. He quietly pushed the craft forward, embracing new technological breakthroughs on Tarzan and Treasure Planet, before getting stuck in the corporate quagmire while trying to direct his first film for Disney, a movie that would eventually become Tangled. Since leaving, he’s directed an impressionistic VR short and won an Oscar for his Kobe Bryant film “Dear Basketball.” And now, finally, his directorial feature debut is here – it’s probably not what you’d expect from the animator, both in terms of story or form, but it’s still very much worth your time.
Over the Moon, which doubles as Netflix’s big animated spectacular for the holiday season, is a modern story rooted in ancient Chinese mythology. Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) is a young girl in contemporary China whose family makes moon cakes. She’s lost her mother and is resentful of her father (John Cho) dating again, so she concocts a plan to travel to the moon, to ask the similarly lovelorn moon goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) for help. Of course, nothing goes to plan and her romantic concept of what the moon might be is upended when she actually gets there; it’s a neon-hued fantasia, full of talking moon cakes, odd creatures (like Ken Jeong’s glowing, dog-like Gobi and a gang of egg-shaped biker chickens) and a lunar empress that is more of a disaffected pop star than actual royalty. Still, she’s got to help the queen in order to get home (it doesn’t help that her dad’s girlfriend’s son has stowed away on the trip, adding another level of complexity).
And, for sure, Over the Moon is an odd choice for the very white, middle-aged Keane. Clearly, he was drawn to the emotionality of the piece, made even more heartfelt by being the last produced screenplay by writer Audrey Wells, who tragically died of cancer in 2018. And he also contributed character designs, which you can tell – every character, particularly Fei Fei, is expressive in ways that only Keane could conjure. And you can tell that his experience working in more experimental mediums since leaving Disney has paid off; the camera zooms around in ways that he could have never accomplished in traditional animation, with Keane fearlessly pushing the look and feel of the moon and its oddball inhabitants (particularly in a big, boisterous musical number that introduces the moon goddess). Over the Moon feels outside of his comfort zone, in the best possible way.
Truthfully the only time the story lags is when it feels too close to what he’s done before. Both Fei Fei and her bratty, would-be stepbrother Chin (Robert G Chiu) are saddled with adorable animal sidekicks and honestly, there is no reason that this story should be a musical, beyond it being a format that Keane was super comfortable with. The songs vary wildly in quality; for every introductory moon goddess barnstormer there’s a weepy, “I want” song that doesn’t stir much, especially when its sung by a weird glowing dog-creature. Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield and Helen Park handled the songs, and it’s unclear if they all wrote together or if some songwriters handled specific numbers. Occasionally they work splendidly, and some will get stuck in your head, but just as many are forgettable filler, which is especially depressing because it slows the otherwise propulsive movie to a crawl.
Overall, though, it’s hard not to get swept up in Over the Moon. The animation, by Sony Pictures Imageworks and Pearl Studio (formerly DreamWorks Oriental) is frequently eye-popping, especially when Keane and his collaborators really push the animation, whether it’s an anime-influenced ping pong game or a sequence told exclusively through hand-drawn animation in traditional ancient Chinese watercolor style. And it’s a testament to Keane’s experience as a character animator and veteran of the story department that he can create a character as immensely lovable and conflicted as Fei Fei, a true heroine for the modern age whose interest in math and science feels real and true (instead of the work of some executive checking off the STEM boxes). It should also be noted that Keane’s co-director, John Kahrs, directed the wonderful, Oscar-winning Disney short “Paperman,” which also combined disciplines to create something wholly unique and original.
Over the Moon is the work of some of the best minds in animation, finally given the opportunity to make a movie that moves and looks the way they want it to. When it does let loose, it’s one of the most exhilarating animated features in recent memory, and when it hems to closely to what came before it, it feels overly familiar and a little dull. (Since this is a Chinese co-production, it’s also unclear what limitations the government put on the production.) Ultimately, the movie’s big, warm heart and the striking nature of the design, make it a must-watch, even if, in some of the drearier moments, your imagination runs wild with what else could have been accomplished.
Over the Moon premieres on Netflix on October 23rd.