The studio went to great lengths to make sure jokes and lines would resonate with a Chinese audience.
Netflix’s Over the Moon is a modern-day interpretation of the classic Chinese tale of the moon goddess.
A co-production with China’s Pearl Studio, the movie is notable for being a feature-length English-language animation with an all-Asian cast.
The English voice actors include stars such as Sandra Oh, Ken Jeong, and John Cho, with leads Cathy Ang as young Fei Fei and Tony Award-winning Phillipa Soo as the moon goddess Chang’e.
But since the movie takes place in China—where it is getting a theatrical release—Pearl Studio wanted to make sure the Chinese-language version would meet the expectations of its viewers.
So the team started translating the script over a year before the movie was finished—a sharp departure from the way most productions are dubbed—and they went to great lengths to ensure it would resonate with a Chinese audience.
“They rewrote the entire script so it feels that the characters are speaking accurately, not just English put into Chinese.”
“What usually happens is you get the movie a couple of months before it opens, you do a dub, and you release it,” says Hank Abbott, an associate director for Over the Moon.
“Very early on, we had a Chinese script writer and consulting director. They rewrote the entire script so it feels that the characters are speaking accurately, not just English put into Chinese.”
According to director Glen Keane, the Chinese version of Over the Moon is “99.999% exactly the same.
“There were a few little details here and there we adjusted for the Chinese version,” he says. “But visually they’re all the same.”
Translating humor across cultures
One sticking point was translating humor for a Chinese audience.
During test screenings, the filmmakers discovered that some jokes weren’t working in Mandarin Chinese. Over several passes, they tried out different lines to refine the humor.
In English, for example, a young boy named Chin introduces himself as a ping-pong champion. In Mandarin, he says he’s a “little Zhang Jike,” referring to the three-time Olympic champion.
“We’re not changing the image,” Abbott points out. “We’re changing what’s being said.”
In the English version, a dinner during the Mid-Autumn Festival features a back-and-forth between members of Fei Fei’s family, with a grandfather adding his own caustic comments.
“The first pass we did in Mandarin we made a little less biting,” Abbott says. “It wasn’t getting enough laughs. So we went in and said, ‘Okay, let’s make it really feel like a family. They know each other really well, they know how to push each other’s buttons.’ We ended up getting a lot more laughs there.”
While animating the film, Keane had to learn from the artists at Pearl how to adjust the gestures and movements of his characters.
“Fei Fei gets a gift from Mrs. Zhong, somebody she does not like at all,” Keane says. “I knew the way a 12-year-old in America would communicate that, a kind of ‘thanks but no thanks’ attitude.”
But the Pearl artists advised him that children in China would never do that. “I tried a respectful bow,” Keane recalls, “but they told me that’s for older people. Fei Fei would have a very subtle little head bow.
“The generational respect is something I didn’t understand at first,” he continues. “How characters show affection was something I also had to learn.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.