Familiar but imaginative, ‘Over the Moon’ is a visual treat

From left, Fei Fei, voiced by Cathy Ang, and Gobi, voiced by Ken Jeong, appear in the Netflix film “Over the Moon.”

As long as it doesn’t deliver a bad message, you could sit a child down in front of almost any movie and they’ll be entertained for 90 minutes. Over the decades, we’ve pretty much all agreed that when you don’t know what to play, show a Disney movie.

Thankfully since the dawn of the 21st century, animated movie studios like DreamWorks, Illumination and Aardman have either subverted the expected Disney formula or ignored it completely, providing a welcome alternative for animated family entertainment.

Now, during the past two years, Pearl Studio of China is making its mark with animated films about and starring Chinese people. Its latest production, “Over the Moon,” is another example of a studio doing its own unique thing, and it’s on Netflix now as a perfect substitute to the latest half-effort movie from Disney.

The story follows Fei Fei (voiced by Cathy Ang), a young girl who suffers the horrible grief of losing her mother at a young age. Four years later, her father (John Cho) has moved on and is considering marrying again.

Fei Fei panics and decides to build a rocket and takes off with her pet rabbit and her new step-brother to explore her mother’s favorite legend about the moon. And after leaving earth’s gravity, she is sucked into a magical world of helpful dragons and bright creatures inspired by Chinese tradition.

When Fei Fei gets to the moon, she finds the legendary moon goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo), but she’s not exactly welcoming, insisting that Fei Fei must bring her a gift in exchange for a photo to prove the existence of Chang’e. The adventure on the moon is afoot.

Although it may be a musical and inspired by old stories, this film will likely introduce kids in the West to many aspects of Chinese life and history that they probably don’t know. While European fairytales have been retold dozens of times, this branching out to other cultures is a nice continuation of a theme we’ve seen in recent years.

As a co-production between Pearl, Netflix and Sony, that blending of cultures is seen throughout the film with the story, and its styles trying to have the best of both worlds and often succeeding. It uses science-fiction and fantasy, it’s real-world based and dreamlike and has just as much comedy as drama. Matched with wonderful performances and gorgeous animation, there’s a good chance this movie will have something for everyone.

But a girl who lost a parent goes to a magical place with her animal sidekick and comic relief to meet a royal figure in a castle, and it’s a musical? Yes, this is obviously borrowing heavily from classic Disney. That’s not a surprise considering the director, Glen Keane, was Disney’s lead animator for the protagonists in “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Pochahontas.”

With that said, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. While the main human characters and the creatures on the moon are more cartoonishly stylized, it’s the settings and backgrounds that truly impress. All the creativity in the workings of the city on the moon to the small details like the decorations in Fei Fei’s bedroom at home all breathes believable life into this fantasy world.

However, only part of this world is fantasy because the first act and final couple of scenes take place on earth in our reality. The first instance of this film subverting some of the Disney formula has the story begin in a very real, and often difficult, world to live in. Fei Fei losing her mom as a little girl is not new to children’s movies, but that doesn’t make it any less sad.

Another welcome change to this film’s way of doing things is the musical numbers, which for better or worse don’t stick to one genre. Bouncing from classic Broadway to traditional Chinese to modern pop and hip-hop, the songs use music best suited for their scene, which can feel unfocused if you’re expecting the Disney style all the way through.

But underneath the songs and animation is a good story that, while familiar, is still good for kids to hear. Loss can be difficult, and it’s often not fair, but there are still those around us who love us and want to help us heal. I think we could all use a story like that this year.

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