Over the Moon: Searching for hope through a Chinese folktale

While the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival may be over, Chang’e’s influence can be felt in Netflix’s new animated musical, Over the Moon, which pays homage to the goddess whose story lies at the heart of the celebration.

Director Glen Keane’s film follows a young Chinese girl, Fei Fei, (voiced by Cathy Ang) who is inspired by the myth of Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) and builds a rocket ship to the moon. It features a brilliant Asian American musical cast that includes actors Ken Jeong, Robert G. Chiu, Sandra Oh, and more.

A Universal Quest: Struggling with Love and Loss

Armed with boundless energy, a sassy bunny sidekick, and a new, annoying little brother, Fei Fei sets out to prove the legend of Chang’e is real to her father in the hopes that he won’t forget her departed mother. Her inventiveness and enthusiasm for technology and physics make her a spirited and delightful character to fall in love with.

Still, there’s something heartbreakingly poetic in Fei Fei’s quest to ensure her father does not forget her mother when he starts seeing someone else—Audrey Wells, the screenwriter for the film, tragically passed away in 2018, making this the last script she left behind for her family.

Rather than simply contemporizing the folktale, the film puts it in conversation with Fei Fei’s own experiences and struggles as she comes to terms with a family that, too, has been broken by the loss of a loved one.

A Modern Moon Goddess

The film handles the original legend with remarkable dexterity—bringing to life a silk scarf to tell the story of the Chinese goddess of the moon.

According to the story, there were originally ten suns orbiting the Earth. Houyi, a famed archer and Chang’e’s lover, shot down nine of them to prevent the planet from burning up. As a reward, he was made emperor and given immortality pills. 

In some versions of the narrative, he becomes the villain, and Chang’e takes the pills to save his subjects. In others, Chang’e’s own selfishness is to blame. Regardless, the outcome is the same: she takes the pills and flies up to the moon, where she waits, with only a jade rabbit to keep her company, to be reunited with her lost love.

Over the Moon
Photo credit: Radio Times

The Chang’e of Over the Moon also loses her loved one, but appears on-screen as an eclectic and occasionally volatile ping-pong master that rules the pastel kingdom of Lunaria with a neon fist. While the vivid Technicolor wonderland certainly offers beautiful eye-candy and pops against the velvet dark of space, it distracts from the complex gravity and emotional core of Fei Fei’s quest.

Similarly, a gang of space chickens, Pikmin-like civilians, and a neon green pangolin appear long enough to entertain with interesting side quests and events, but not enough for us to fully understand or invest in their relationship with Fei Fei or Chang’e.

While the colorful brilliance of Lunaria offers a creative twist on the often blank slate of the moon, its dramatic flair bounces viewers around a bit too much for a story about a kid trying to find her footing through a familiar traditional tale.

Closest to Our Hearts at Home

The effervescent beauty of the myth at the heart of this narrative comes through most clearly in the scenes that bookend Fei Fei’s time on the moon. The moments where Fei Fei is back on earth shine most brilliantly under the moonlight, remarkable for their emotional poignancy and personal relevance.

It is hard to miss the specificity and attention to detail when Fei Fei and her family members are gathered around the dinner table, from the teasing family banter, all the way down to the mouth-wateringly detailed food.

Over the Moon doesn’t focus on the loss of a loved one so much as it acknowledges the often personal and internal permission that grieving people need to live on and love again. 

Fei Fei’s relationships and interactions with her family and community illuminate how the people around us brighten up our lives, and how hope, love, and vulnerability can create enough space in our hearts for the past, present, and buoyant future.

Over the Moon makes its global debut on Netflix this October 23.

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