Chang’e is the Chinese goddess of the moon. As the legend goes, there used to be 10 suns which took turns to cross the sky every day, but one day, all 10 of them came out, roasting the world with their combined radiance. In response, Hou Yi heroically shot down 9 of them, and in return, he was awarded an elixir of immortality by the goddess Xiwangmu (Queen Mother of the West), but the dose is only sufficient to turn one person immortal. There are several versions detailing what happened next. In one, Hou Yi’s apprentice, Peng Meng, attempted to steal the elixir for himself but Hou Yi’s wife, Chang’E swallowed the elixir to thwart him and had to leave Earth because she is now divine or something—and forever after, they pined for one another. In another, Chang’E coveted the elixir for herself and took it while Hou Yi was out hunting. In yet another version, Hou Yi was proclaimed to be king for his service in fixing runaway global warming due to the 10 suns but he turned out to be a cruel tyrant. To prevent Hou Yi from being a dictator-for-eternal-life, Chang’E decided to deny Hou Yi of the elixir by consuming it herself. Regardless of which choose-her-own-adventure route was taken, Chang’E eventually settled on the moon as the resident goddess there.
I love how Over the Moon alludes to the existence of the different interpretations of the myth. The protagonist, Fei Fei, was told a sanitised, romantic version by her mother that showed Chang’E in a good light as the person who took the elixir to deny Peng Meng of it, but an aunt sarcastically commented about how convenient it was that Chang’E put the elixir of immortality in her mouth as a hiding place. A huge part of this film deals with the themes of loss, grief, and longing. Fei Fei loses her mother and faces the frightening prospect of her father remarrying—a development which, in her mind, threatens the memory of her mother and her belief that true love is everlasting. So she set out to build a rocket ship and travel to the moon to prove Chang’E’s existence, to validate her faith in eternal love, and hopefully, it would be enough to stop her father from moving on. The fact that Audrey Wells, the writer, wrote Over the Moon as a love letter to her daughter and husband before she died added a meta layer of tear-jerking profundity to the film that (I am sorry to say) I don’t think it fully deserves.
I think that central premise is great. I love how the film uses the myth of Chang’E as a counterpoint to a story about a young girl dealing with the death of her mother, but I must say that I was a little disappointed with the direction they went with. The story of the film is carried by three main characters: Fei Fei, her potential little stepbrother Chin (whom she is rejecting), and Chang’E (on whom she relies on to fix her own crisis of faith), and for most of the time film’s runtime, Fei Fei was separated from both of them to fulfill some stupid fetch quest instead of developing a relationship with either so when the emotional climax arrived, it felt unearned to me. And it seemed to me that Chang’E does not have a well-defined personality, and she felt like different characters from scene to scene, depending on what the plot calls for.
What this film did very well instead is the art design, particularly when it came to Chang’E. Firstly, I love how they gave her freakishly long legs that no other character in this film have and then have her wear high heels or platform shoes as well. And her wardrobe is just visually stunning. They hired Chinese fashion designer, Guo Pei, to help create her look and I love every piece they put on her gangly frame. That spacey glamorous layered skirt bounced beautifully as she strutted and danced on stage in that pop star introduction to the character. And when she challenged Chin to a ping pong match, the sportswear she had on looks like the perfect marriage of modern and traditional aesthetics (I especially love the long sleeves that flow beautifully with her every swerve, and her ping pong bat that looks like a fan). When they revealed Chang’E’s gorgeously embroidered royal garb for the first time in that unexpected snap wardrobe transition, my jaw was knocked clean off my face. She looked effortlessly regal. If she tells you that she is better than you and that you should grovel at her feet, you wouldn’t argue—you would ask “left foot first or right?”
And while it is unfortunate that the main writer, director, and songwriters of this film aren’t Chinese, it didn’t feel like the cultural appropriation fest that Disney’s live-action Mulan was. There are many specific moments of this film that felt uniquely Chinese to me, particularly the city Fei Fei lives in (complete with a troupe of aunties dancing in a park). I felt right at home in the kitchen they showed us, and in that Mid-Autumn reunion dinner, I actually recognised the dishes! It’s all these little touches that tells me there are real Chinese people working hard behind the film, even when the white people dropped the ball on the main story and the songs.
Yeah, the songs didn’t work for me either. Over the Moon is an animated musical and according to the expectations laid down by Disney, the songs need to be really good to carry the story and the emotional beats of the film. With the exception of Chang’E’s explosive entrance into the film with her pop anthem Ultraluminary (which is a real bop, not gonna lie—I got goosebumps when the camera spun as she pointed at Fei Fei mid-song), I found the rest of the songs forgettable with thoroughly bland, uninspired lyrics. I also found it baffling why the duet between Chang’E and Hou Yi had Mandarin lines in it, especially since Phillipa Soo said on record that she doesn’t speak Mandarin (and I doubt Conrad Ricamora who voiced Hou Yi can speak it either) so it was no surprise that those lines sounded off to me. Throughout the whole film, every single character was speaking and singing in English, so the decision to suddenly intrude on that with actual Mandarin was jarring to say the least.
Over the Moon isn’t the hate crime that 2020’s Mulan was and while there are moments of genuine Chinese cultural representation that can be found in the film, it still suffered from weaksauce writing and even weaker songs. I am not asking too much when want Over the Moon to be as good as Coco or Moana, am I? I want to ugly cry watching it. I want to listen to every song on its soundtrack for weeks and weeks until my wife ban me from commandeering the car stereo. Over the Moon only succeeded in getting me excited about the clothes Guo Pei designed, and had me questioning whether a woman with legs twice as long as the rest of her body is hot or not.
P.S. The less said about Ken Jeong’s annoying talking animal sidekick character the better. It felt like they were trying (and failing) too hard to make him Olaf.