Netflix’s first animated musical brings the traditional Chinese tale of the moon goddess to a global audience.
Over the Moon is Netflix’s first animated musical, and it’s based on the Chinese legend of the moon goddess.
The film is set in a modern-day water town in China and follows a 12-year-old girl named Fei Fei, who hears the story from her mother.
In the tale, the goddess Chang’e swallows her husband’s elixir of immortality and floats to the moon. Her husband lives out the rest of his days without her on Earth.
Fei Fei interprets the tale as a symbol of undying love. So when her mother passes away, Fei Fei reconciles her loss by building a rocket to the moon.
Netflix’s latest film is part of a wider push by studios to produce universal tales with culturally specific references. It’s a familiar formula reminiscent of Disney’s Moana and Coco.
Indeed, Over the Moon, a co-production with Shanghai-based Pearl Studio, seems to check all the boxes of a broad-appeal animation: lavish musical numbers, cute animal sidekicks, and a Disney veteran, Glen Keane, at the helm. The star-studded cast includes John Cho, Margaret Cho, Ken Jeong, and Sandra Oh.
As with many animations like it, Over the Moon seeks to cater to a mainstream American audience while retaining a sense of cultural authenticity.
(Read more: Behind the scenes of Pixar’s animated short ‘Bao’)
“It does feature a distinct Western storytelling style in its strong, central character in pursuit of a single goal,” says Peilin Chou, one of the film’s producers, “but it also features non-traditional elements like a lot of Miyazaki-esque whimsy and magic, and also not having a traditional villain character.”
Chou and her co-producer Gennie Rim drew from their Asian-American background to build Fei Fei’s world.
“The goal was to tell the story as authentically as possible.”
“The goal was to tell the story as authentically as possible,” Chou says.
Viewers might pick up on subtleties such as the way the family expresses affection. An earlier sketch showed Fei Fei’s parents kissing, but Chou scrapped it because, as she told NBC Asian America, “I’ve never seen my parents kiss my entire life!”
The setting borrows heavily from Wuzhen, a canal-lined town about an hour’s drive outside Shanghai. In the film, the most obvious signs of this effort are the food.
In one family dinner scene, viewers can see local favorites such as lion’s head meatballs, hairy crabs, and spring rolls laid out on a lazy Susan.
But is it ‘authentic’ enough?
Early reviews of the film noted its struggle to balance cultural specificity with mainstream Western tastes.
“Over the Moon celebrates Chinese culture as no mainstream American toon—not even Mulan—has before,” wrote Peter Debruge, Variety’s senior film critic. “But it does so in a way that’s so formulaically Western that it feels like the creative team took Coco and dressed it up in another country’s colors, customs and costumes.”
The same criticism has befallen films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Mulan, and The Farewell, which have been widely praised in the U.S. for increasing Hollywood’s diversity but panned in China for using the culture as window dressing.
Reactions to Over the Moon’s trailer on the Chinese movie review site Douban reflect that wariness.
“Even for Chinese audiences, this movie is very exotic,” one reviewer wrote.
“That Chang’e is played by Phillipa Soo does spark some anticipation,” wrote another. “But after seeing the trailer, I suddenly understood how Mexicans felt about Coco.”
(Read more: Why ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ flopped in China)
The consensus among Chinese viewers is that the film will be a fun spectacle, but it is still an American take on a Chinese folktale.
Still, Chou says that Over the Moon does what few U.S.-produced animations about China have done—set the story in the country’s modern day.
It is a departure from the pattern of portraying Chinese culture only in the past, like in Kung Fu Panda 3, another Pearl co-production with DreamWorks.
In recent years, Netflix has been adding animated films with greater cultural diversity.
Recent projects include Pachamama, an animated film based on indigenous Andean history, and Mama K’s Team 4, an upcoming animated series featuring Zambian superheroes.
Domestic Chinese animations such as the blockbuster Ne Zha have also received global distribution on Netflix.
Netflix estimates that by 2023, it will produce more feature-length animated titles than all Hollywood studios combined. As its subscriber base outside the U.S. grows, animated titles will likely include more diverse narratives.
For Chou, who recently moved from Pearl Studio to Netflix, it’s a welcoming sign.
“I love films that feature unheard voices, and are about inspiring and awakening audiences,” she says. “I was fortunate to be able to do that in my time at Pearl, and look forward to continuing that mission at Netflix.”