OVER THE MOON sensitively takes on a difficult subject, the loss of a mother with the subsequent prospect of a blended family. It becomes a film that is respectful of the issue, yet triumphantly uplifting in it message of moving on while still honoring the past. Along the way, we learn about the importance of moon cakes, and the way a family can squabble over traditional tales.
Unlike the Disney approach to parental loss, which is generally to bounce back immediately, our heroine Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) is still keenly feeling the loss of her mother four years later. When her father (John Cho) brings a guest, the sweet and gentle Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) to visit the family bakery, at first Fei Fei doesn’t realize that this is more than just a tour, and becomes adamant about not using the red dates Mrs. Zhong wants to introduce into her mother’s recipe for moon cakes. She still doesn’t catch on when she runs into Mrs. Zhong’s son, Chin (Robert G. Chiu), and a kid obsessed with his pet frog, playing ping pong, and slipping his molecules effortlessly through solid walls. He’s only really good at two of them. When Chin announces that he’s going to be Fei Fei’s brother, Fei Fei is thunderstruck. Remembering the legends of Chang’e (Philipa Soo), the gracious moon goddess and her lost love, Houyi (Conrad Ricamora), Fei Fei decides that if she can prove that the moon goddess is real, and that love lasts forever, it will convince her father to call off the wedding. The subsequent trip to the moon in a craft of Fei Fei’s design, with her pet bunny, Bungee, and Chin (with his frog) as stowaways is an eyepopping fantasy firmly grounded in emotional turmoil, human and divine.
Chang’e turns out to be less gracious and more of a entitled narcissist at the center of elaborate stage shows, and Fei Fei’s quest becomes bigger than she anticipated, with the usual magical deadline to satisfy in order to get the proof she needs to take back to Earth.
If you don’t know the legend of the moon goddess and her lost love, no worries. We are introduced to it courtesy of Fei Fei’s mother telling her enraptured little girl about how Chang’e was separated from her one true love. The variation on that telling, the one with Chang’e being just a little less selfless in the matter, comes later and courtesy of Fei Fei’s aunties during the family Moon Festival banquet, who which Mrs. Zhong and her son have been invited, much to Fei Fei’s chagrin. The meal, though, prefigures the lesson that will be learned on the moon, that of the continuity of family, and the love that comes with it. It’s also a chance for Grandpa (Clem Cheung) to extols the virtues of the hairy crab as a menu item, as well as its natural history.
On the moon, Fei Fei discovers literal biker chicks, who are up to no good, and Gobi (Ken Jeong), nervous fast talker with an enormous emotional neediness and a heart as big as the Milky Way. Like all the moon creatures, he has a luminous glow, in his case chartreuse. He may not be the smartest, but what he lacks in brains, he more than makes up for in loyalty, determination, and sheer cuteness.
This is a dazzling fantasy world that combines traditional Chinese motifs such as gummy moon cakes as royal attendants, and pure imagination even as it uses a very real looking lunar landscape on which to set it all. Lunar frogs drift in schools like bulbous clouds, and Chang’e’s tears take on a startling, if rudimentary consciousness. The colors are as vibrant as the songs, which are first rate, in moving the story along and revealing emotional turmoil. But more, one offers the novelty of Fei Fei warbling about the wonders of engineering and physics as she plans her home-made space ship, bunny shaped to honor the rabbit in the moon. It’s even catchy. While there is Yet this is also a fantasy world where tragedy resides, including the Chamber of Impenetrable Sadness that threatens to imprison anyone who can’t let go of the past.
OVER THE MOON moves along at a pleasant pace, with show stopping songs and a nod to science as well as its fantastical elements. We learn exactly how many moon cakes, stacked side to side, it would take to reach the moon, but also that, as Fei Fei’s father puts it, if her mother says there’s a goddess on the moon, then there is.