Reviews TV + Movies

A Rather Critical Review: Everything Is Symbols In “Over The Moon”

Over the Moon is described as a science fantasy film, set partly in China and partly on the moon, otherwise called Lunaria by its inhabitants. It follows Fei Fei (voiced by Cathy Ang) on her mission to build a rocket to the moon in order to prove the existence of the mythical Chang’e, the star-crossed lover her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles), often sang about. But that was before she tragically died, leaving Fei Fei and her father (John Cho) alone.

Over the Moon (Netflix)

This tragedy is what grounds the film to the earth, washing its realist portrayal of a Chinese town in a nostalgic melancholy, full of identifiable symbols of its culture (lanterns, mooncakes, a stork). The central myth of the goddess and her lover is portrayed in a hand-drawn style reminiscent of “The Princess Kaguya”. At this song-and-art juncture, The Pearl Studio and Netflix produced film begins to seem promising. Perhaps the mythical will be treated with respect, perhaps it will make something about this foregrounded ideal of tradition, or perhaps it is simply a story about a young girl and her growing interest in a STEM field But when Fei Fei’s father introduces Mrs Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her son, it resorts to formula. Meet the parent trap all over again: Fei Fei is alone; Fei Fei has a stepmother with new traditions and a ‘new’ brother with an overactive imagination; Fei Fei’s father has forgotten her tragically dead mother and it is up to her to keep this memory alive.

This tested formula by (the director so used to the Walt Disney animation studio), Glen Keane, would not have felt like a worn cliché had the characters been given depth, or if they did not announce every intention and quirk in dialogue. They speak in a manner more befitting of the headline or the advertisement. And why shouldn’t they? After all, as long as this film is grounded on earth, it is an advertisement for all that is Chinese for an audience that is used to consuming imperialist/American propaganda.

The advertisement explains the centrality that food plays in the film, or more specifically, the centrality of mooncakes. Fei Fei’s family sells mooncakes and they have a recipe full of traditions, they come together during festival seasons with aunts and grandfathers (through quick-shots) of a plateful of something seemingly found on the menu card of an authentic Chinese restaurant. It is a consumable China on storefront display. The to-be stepmother comes in with a new recipe for mooncakes (with red dates!), and even Fei Fei’s formulaic acceptance is signified through this identifiable food product, one sold and packaged commonly across the West. And so, food stands in for family, for tradition, for growth and maturity, even an entire culture.

But food is not the only symbolic element tasked with this representative aspect. It is on Earth that Fei Fei has the epiphany—she should build a rocket, she should go to the moon and prove to her father that Chang’e is real, she should prove the necessity of the ideal family. She decides on this at the site of a garden, replete with other East Asian symbols like lotus flowers and winking storks. 

But once the montage ends, once the rocket ship is built and the stowaway stepbrother is discovered, once they land on the moon, the story descends into geometric shapes and colours for a five-year-old to identify. The artistry and detail to a cultural representation (storks and all) gives way to a condescension. This begs the question: does Netflix believe that children cannot appreciate the effort that goes into worldbuilding? Lunaria is all colourful boxes and rectangles—some even bright and neon.

Visual development art by Celine Desrumaux. NETFLIX © 2020

What little story there was remains on the earth, and the host of ensemble characters that populate Lunaria are testimony to this paternalism.

There are chickens on motorcycles (“biker chicks”) that are reminiscent of the Angry Birds franchise, a glowing alien canine, reminiscent of the beloved Dug, the talking dog in the Pixar film, “Up”, and more animated, servile mooncakes.

Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) is supposed to be deux ex machina, she’s supposed to subvert expectations of what a goddess is like. Instead she’s a pop diva, a dazzling version of what Disney’s childhood stars are made out to be—a little rebellious, well-dressed, entitled and withering into feminized distress without the love of a man. Worse still, she is costumed in couture creations by Guo Pei, grooving to moves by Blackpink choreographer Kyle Hanagami. As Prahlad Srihari notes, it is as if one Asian pop culture can be interchanged with another. The iconoclasm of a myth meets the iconoclasm of pop stars. Netflix probably expected the children to buy the album to sing along.

This conflation of a somewhat “new” ideal of family with a “new and foreign” tradition in such a condescending mode has been normalized by Netflix and mainstream media in general. The jumble of symbolization only furthers the franchise or the platform. The relatability of characters (through a simplified notion of mental illness and pop culture) only serves to make the film a product—something to go along with the merchandisable bunny and the Chang’e doll.

At the end of the day, when overworked parents hand over the cellphone to their crying child, or sit down to bond with the tween, are they consuming as audience, or are they being made into models of future consumption? Is this all that children/family film can be now?

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Shinjini has been trying not to write so she could read everything. She works as an editor, drops out of most jobs, and doesn't care for grammar. She lives in Hyderabad, India.
Shinjini Dey

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