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Fei Fei looks up at the sky in Over the Moon Image: Netflix

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In spite of its oddball missteps, Netflix’s Over the Moon is a luminous adventure

It echoes many Pixar classics, but has some of their powerful emotion, too

Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

It’s hard to watch Netflix’s glossy new animated feature Over the Moon without feeling at least a little suspicious about some of its story choices. An achingly emotional musical about a Chinese girl who chases a legend in a misguided attempt to respect her mother’s memory, Over the Moon plays like a variant on Pixar’s Coco, a similarly family-focused story that foregrounds a series of cultural specifics in a way Western animation hasn’t seen before. In Coco, it’s Mexican culture and the Day of the Dead celebration; in Over the Moon, it’s Chinese culture, the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the traditions surrounding it. Over the Moon revels in its cultural touchstones, from mooncakes to fu dogs to the pointed symbolism of a white crane. But some of the creators’ bigger choices feel like a Western attempt to run down a checklist of recognizable Chinese cultural touchstones, in a way that feels simultaneously off-base for the story, and condescending to viewers.

Longtime Disney animator Glen Keane, making his directing debut here, opens Over the Moon when protagonist Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) is still a small child, wrapped up in her family’s warm, devoted embrace. Her Ma Ma (Ruthie Ann Miles) and Ba Ba (John Cho) tell her the story of Chang’e, the immortal woman who lives a lonely life on the moon, having left her mortal lover Houyi (Conrad Ricamora) behind on Earth millennia ago. The opening strongly mimics the beginning of Frozen 2, where the protagonists’ mother similarly delivers a musical fable that they’ll have to explore for themselves when they’re older. But the story goes on to mirror Pixar’s Up as well, as Ma Ma sickens and dies, leaving Fei Fei and her father to mourn.

Years later, as Fei Fei is a teenager, still cheerfully making and delivering mooncakes for the family bakery, her father comes home with a new love interest, Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her rambunctious kid Chin (Robert G. Chiu), who cheerfully tells Fei Fei that their parents are planning to marry, and he’s about to become her sister. (How Fei Fei was completely unaware of the romance, or even Mrs. Zhong’s existence, is one of many factors Over the Moon zips past on its way to bigger emotional drama.) Hurt and angry by the idea of her mother’s memory being eclipsed, Fei Fei sets out to build a rocket to the moon, where she hopes to prove that Chang’e is real, and still waiting for Houyi to join her. With a child’s impeccably ridiculous, outsized logic, Fei Fei has convinced herself that proving the fairy tale is real will show her father that true love never dies, so he should dedicate himself to his dead wife’s memory instead of moving on.

Fei Fei and her rabbit Bungee fist-bump in front of Fei Fei’s stringboard in Over the Moon Image: Netflix

What follows is a rambunctious adventure, as Fei Fei, her pet bunny Bungee (a character seemingly designed solely to sell adorable plush toys), and Chin (who somehow not only stows away on Fei Fei’s teeny ship, but manages to pull together a spacesuit for himself) head to the moon to meet Chang’e and wind up on a wild McGuffin chase. The moon, it turns out, is full of glowing creatures of various kinds — the perfect excuse for many, many shots of light-up raves (shades of Trolls: World Tour), wild action sequences, and quiet, dreamy contemplations of mortality. Disney movies are full of dead mothers whose absence pushes protagonists to early independence, but Over the Moon deals with death and childhood grief with a frankness and thoroughness that usually only comes to the forefront in Pixar films. It’s a calculated tear-jerker that doesn’t take parental loss lightly.

But it may be too calculated. Fei Fei is beautifully animated. She’s an expressive, charismatic character who stands out in an animation industry that’s been slow to put Asian characters in lead roles in any movies, let alone children’s animated features. It’s easy to fall into the vivid depths of the emotions she wears on her sleeves. But everything about her grief and anger feels like it’s been carefully calculated on the Pixar-ometer. Over the Moon seems to borrow a fair bit of its visual inspiration from the luminous jewel-tone animation of Pixar’s Inside Out, and Fei Fei’s sadness and the film’s overall emotional messages follow in the same footsteps.

And Chin is a loud, round, eager-beaver type who feels a lot like a younger version of Russell in Up. Longtime animation fans are likely to make their way through Over the Moon mentally counting the things they’ve seen before in other movies, whether it’s Fei Fei’s moon launch (reminiscent of the rocket escape in Inside Out) or her newfound amiable-but-doofy moon-companion Gobi (Ken Jeong), who’s half Olaf from the Frozen franchise, half Bing Bong from Inside Out.

Chin grins and wields a ping-pong paddle (and looks a lot like Dash in The Incredibles) as streaks of light come to attack him in Over the Moon Image: Netflix

Then there are the film’s distracting elements and sidebars, which feel like they were designed to let Chinese viewers feel seen, but just feel like a Western attempt to curry favor with a specific demographic without going past surface-level signifiers. The biggest surprise is an out-of-nowhere ping-pong match that’s played for huge drama — it gets its own giant production number, complete with rap lyrics — even though it matters not a whit to the story. As far as the animation goes, it’s a thrilling, energetic sequence, but the way it’s crammed into the narrative is deeply questionable.

The decision to style Chang’e as a modern C-pop idol similarly enables a sensational song sequence (albeit one reminiscent of Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi’s “Not Evil” from Lego Movie 2), but raises some strange story questions, given how many conflicting personalities Chang’e oscillates through over the film’s running time. It’s one thing for a seeming ally to reveal a dark agenda, or for a villain to soften into a friend as a story goes on, but Chang’e rarely seems to be the same person from scene to scene in Over the Moon.

All that drops by the wayside when the film charges into its action, or settles into its softer feelings. The moon’s visual aesthetic is more or less “childhood bedroom stuffed with comforting glow-lamps,” and Fei Fei and Chin’s adventures there are fast-paced and frenetic, with plenty of cute-animal antics, goofy kid-friendly moments, dramatic reversals of fate, and a comforting emotional core. Some of the moon creatures feel like they could use another pass from the design team — a trio who look like Angry Birds are central to one action sequence, and it’s pretty weird that half of Chang’e’s personal servants are actually walking, talking mooncakes, as if Chinese mythology wasn’t thoroughly packed with fascinating and eerie creatures that might have been useful inspiration instead. But the overall look of the movie is stunning, for its bright colors and well-defined action, its hugely rich aesthetic and creative engagement. Even if none of the emotions fully landed, this would still be a film for animation fans to study just for the imagery.

Instead, Over the Moon’s emotional journey is solid and well-expressed. Again, it draws on calculated iconography — a brief hair-cutting sequence feels like it’s both acknowledging Mulan’s most famous moment, and repudiating it — and uses Chinese art and folklore for inspiration. But Fei Fei’s emotional journey is a universal story about feeling pain and learning to move on, about how love and found family help ease the sting of loss. It’s unquestionably sentimental, with emotional beats designed to wring tears out of an audience at carefully spaced moments.

Chang’e meets the protagonists on her diva stage on the moon in Over the Moon Image: Netflix

It’s effective, though, not just because Fei Fei’s emotions are so strongly and clearly expressed, but because they’re worked into the story in such a resonant way. Too many of Pixar’s followers have tried to tag a big emotional moment onto the end of an otherwise light adventure, in search of pathos and gravitas, but Over the Moon defines Fei Fei’s quest through her feelings, and lets audiences experience what she’s feeling throughout.

Over the Moon may ultimately be an important movie for Chinese kids yearning, like everyone else, to see versions of themselves onscreen in meaningful, active, powerful roles. Certainly that’s what Netflix and Keane are shooting for, as they steep the movie in elements meant to evoke recognition and enthusiasm, from family gatherings full of very specific foods and faces (and family dynamics that hearken back to Lulu Wang’s unbeatable drama The Farewell) to tiny touches like Fei Fei’s after-school bubble tea.

But just as importantly, the film makes its way carefully and lovingly through messages designed to reach the largest possible audience, given that sorrow and longing are such universal experiences. The movie’s missteps only rankle because they add such forgettable elements to a movie that might otherwise be an unforgettable part of the animated canon.

Over the Moon is streaming on Netflix now.