Netflix blasts off into song and dance space fantasy with Over the Moon

The new Netflix animated feature Over the Moon brings Chinese myth and modern cosmic quests to the screen.

Netflix Over the Moon is an animated feature to be released Oct. 24. Directed by Glen Keane, it stars Cathy Ang as Fei Fei (with Bungee the Rabbit). Netflix Inc. / PNG

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Netflix Over the Moon

When: Oct. 24

Face it, the Man in the Moon is cheesy. Chang’e is where it’s at. The Chinese Goddess of the Moon is celebrated by millions all over the world at the annual Mid-Autumn Festival.

Her story of taking an immortality elixir from her legendary archer husband Hou Yi and becoming the moon’s main, lovesick maiden is a favourite of a girl named Fei Fei. So much so, that the otherwise scientific youngster believes the story is true. In an effort to prove it’s truth to doubtful family and friends, she builds a rocket ship to visit the moon. Along with her rabbit Bungee, the spaced-out adventure that follows forms the fantastical story behind Over the Moon.

The new Netflix feature-length animation is part family drama, part cosmic road movie and was directed by Glen Keane and co-directed by John Kahrs with music by Steven Price. The screenplay was written by the late author Audrey Wells, known for The Truth About Cats and Dogs and the Hate U Give.

A 2017 Academy Award winner for his animated short Dear Basketball, set to NBA star Kobe Bryant’s retirement poem the Players’ Tribune, Keane is a Hollywood animation legend. His films during his time as a character animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios include smashes as the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Tangled. With Over the Moon, he has crafted a work that appeals to a wide audience, both age and culturally speaking.

In true director style, he even makes an onscreen cameo. A lovely bit of classic hand-drawn animation depicting the tale of Chang’e and Hou Yi playing on a windblown scarf stands out against all of the flashy CGI that forms the rest of the feature. This is fitting, as the story is recounted to Fei Fei by her late mother and taken from memory. Keane loves the way mixing animation styles and forms can manipulate viewers’ emotional responses.

Netflix Over the Moon director Glen Keane. Netflix Inc. / PNG

“At its most basic form, animation is no more than lines moving across a surface to tell a story, but that can create whole new worlds, whole new ways of experiencing storytelling, and that’s what I love about it.” said Keane. “Bringing so many different styles and techniques into Over the Moon meant the story could take you on a journey across a number of different worlds with big shifts and grand changes. I always envisioned making it a musical too, adding one more dimension to the storytelling.”

From a traditional Chinese water town to Lunaria, the city on the moon, and fantastical points in between, Over the Moon offers animation fans a visual feast.

Produced by Shanghai-based Pearl Studio and Netflix Animation, and animated at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Vancouver, the 95-minute-long film took a team of over 400 to render. VFX supervisor Dave Smith oversaw the production, noting how much detail went into both separating the Earth and moon-based settings, as well as maintaining continuity with how things behaved in both. Coming from the Oscar-winning studio behind Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, it comes as no surprise that the film dazzles.

It may come as a surprise to many that an animated movie employed a costume designer. Acclaimed fashion icon Guo Pei played a key role in the look and feel of Over the Moon.

“A lot of artist’s bring their ancestry and experiences to the table, so our team went to China to visit sites to get a feel for what the town where Fei Fei lived looked like,” said Smith. “Guo Pei was the person who really imagined the ideas of the use of red for Chang’e’s gown and the lunar lion dogs, as well as ideas of movement and flow in all of her costume design ideas. From there, we could really build the light and look within the worlds, from the more muted and stylized aspects of the water town to the spellbinding action on the moon.”

Among the things taking place on the planet are psychedelic talking moon cakes, translucent lime lunar leap frogs and even an arena EDM pop performance from Chang’e. Voiced and sung by Phillipa Soo, the big number is as impressive for its little details as for the colourful extravaganza unfolding onscreen. Repeated rewinds of the scene showed that the shifting lights during the song are all reflected off of Fei Fei’s silver puffy coat exactly as they would be in a performance at Rogers Arena. Animator Sacha Kapijimpanga says the detail work to create such undulating and consistent reflections and refractions was a massive undertaking.

“A lot of high-end, nuanced animation went into this, obviously to make it pleasing to the eye, but also to correspond to continuity in the story,” said Kapijimpanga. “This was the first musical of my career and it’s a very good way of conveying emotions. But there is definitely a process to make sure that it doesn’t look like a Broadway musical projecting to the back row, but instead the natural expression of the characters. That meant a lot of the animators were performing the pieces over and over themselves, referencing the actors and director’s notes, to aid in building the final representation.”

Any of those impromptu performances that were captured will be pure gold on any future special edition DVD release. But Chinese-Filipina actor/singer Cathy Ang, who plays Fei Fei, said that type of practice wasn’t just for animators. A “lifetime karaoke” singer and self-described music nerd, Ang launched her career in musical theatre. Part of her audition involved singing the songs in the studio, and plenty of animated practice went into her rehearsals as well. This proved very valuable once she was hired.

Cathy Ang stars as Fei Fei in Netflix Over the Moon. Netflix Inc. / PNG

“They put a lipstick cam in the studio to look at all of our facial expressions, lip movements and so forth to use as reference later, which meant that my job was a tonne easier when it came to the animation,” said Ang. “I love science and space exploration, so I could really get right into Fei Fei’s character that way, but you still need to be able to imagine the world of the animation. That was where Glen, our director, was so great, because he has this childlike sense of wonder whenever he is describing the scenes and that fostered this sense of play you could work with.”

Beautiful to look at, Over the Moon is also refreshing in its lack of any stereotypical singing princesses or obvious heroes or villains. This isn’t a fight against good or evil, but rather a story about healing and moving forward and embracing change. Besides Ang and Phillipa Soo in the key roles of Fei Fei and Chang’e, the film also includes great turns from Ken Jeong as Fei Fei’s dedicated companion Gobi. Former raver parents watching it will appreciate the DJ in Lunaria being a rabbit in the moon.