Near the beginning of “Over the Moon,” a strenuously bizarre animated riff on a classic Chinese myth, two characters discuss which ingredients to bake into their next batch of mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Twelve-year-old Fei Fei (voiced by Cathy Ang) insists on following her late mother’s recipe and using melon seeds. Her father’s new girlfriend, Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh), gently asks if they can use dates from her family’s garden and is swiftly rebuffed. Fei Fei doesn’t much like the woman who might be her future stepmom; if the young girl had it her way, there would be no dates of any kind in her dad’s future.
After watching “Over the Moon,” which begins as a sweet, lovingly detailed portrait of a Chinese family before blasting off to a busy lunar dreamscape awash in psychedelic colors, K-pop-style numbers and angry space chickens, you might wonder if a much stronger ingredient found its way into those mooncakes. Our first glimpse of Lunaria, the neon-drenched moon kingdom ruled by the ancient goddess Chang’e, might have been designed to trigger memories of Dorothy’s first glimpse of Oz: a trippy Technicolor overdose that makes clear we’ve left Kansas — and China — firmly behind.
“The Wizard of Oz” isn’t the only family-friendly classic referenced in a Chinese-set, English-language movie that dutifully grafts Western storytelling formulas onto Eastern folklore. The derivations aren’t surprising. The director Glen Keane, making his feature debut, is a longtime animator whose storied Disney career includes character work for “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”; his co-director, John Kahrs, is a Disney and Pixar veteran who made the Oscar-winning animated short “Paperman.” “Over the Moon” may hail from beyond the Disney umbrella, but it nonetheless bears a recognizable corporate imprint, from its abundance of cute animal sidekicks and so-so original songs to its strategic exploration of grief as both premise and theme.
The emphasis on grief, in this case, has a real-life inspiration. “Over the Moon” is the final screenplay written by Audrey Wells (“The Hate U Give”), who died of cancer in 2018 — a tragedy that ripples poignantly through the opening scenes of young Fei Fei, her father (John Cho) and her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles), who becomes ill and dies not long after we meet her. Four years later, Fei Fei still cherishes her mom’s memory, especially her stories about Chang’e, who famously drank an elixir of immortality and ascended to the moon, where she was forced to spend eternity pining for her mortal lover, the archer Houyi.
That legend, retold and commemorated annually during the Mid-Autumn Festival, thus carries a particular resonance for Fei Fei, who sees in Chang’e a mythological echo of her mom, a woman who must never be forgotten or replaced. Fei Fei’s frustration is understandable enough, and the early scenes of her home life — full of warmth and color, family and food (I especially appreciated the photorealistic sheen on the bok choy and mushrooms) — are easily the picture’s best. Things get rather creakier once Fei Fei, a top student with a particular aptitude for science, decides to build a rocket ship that will take her to the moon, so that she can prove that Chang’e really exists.
After some resourceful do-it-yourself astrophysics, a wink to Georges Méliès and the benevolent intervention of a couple of winged space lions, Fei Fei finds herself on the lunar surface. And lo, Chang’e does in fact exist, visualized here as a towering, elaborately coiffed pop super-diva, resplendent in red gown and given full-throated voice by “Hamilton’s” Phillipa Soo. Prone to fits of temper and stardust tears, she dwells in a brightly hued palace that resembles nothing so much as an arcade-game Candyland, from the singing-and-dancing gumdrops packing the massive concert arena to the squeaky-voiced sentient mooncakes that do the goddess’ bidding.
There are other characters too, namely Mrs. Zhong’s son, Chin (Robert G. Chiu), a likably rambunctious tag-along whose narrative function is to wear down his sister-to-be’s defenses. And I haven’t yet mentioned the expressive-eyed rabbits, the portentous crane, the army of giant floating frogs or the fast-talking green dog (Ken Jeong) with the stretchable-taffy tongue. I did mention the space chickens, regulation hooligans whose high-speed motorcycle chase might inspire a craving for a poultry-centered “Mad Max” movie.
There’s pleasure in that one-thing-after-another randomness, up to a point. The problem with “Over the Moon” isn’t that it doesn’t make enough sense; if anything, it makes far too much. Even its most surreal flights of fancy are tethered to a ploddingly diagrammed story whose indisputable lessons — cherish the ones you love, and also make room for more of them — are driven home with dispiriting obviousness. It’ll leave you craving a mooncake, and also a movie that feels less beholden to recipes.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.