Over the Moon: Bringing Traditional Stories to Modern Audiences
Warning: This Article Contains some movie spoilers
Over the Moon touches on so many important themes of love, loss, family, and friendship. All while also telling an ancient Chinese legend. While the movie may stray from traditional depictions of traditional stories, I believe this is the true power of this movie. The way it tells a touching story while engaging audiences with catchy songs, and comedic characters.
Dear Asian Youth,
A couple of weeks ago, Netflix released the movie Over The Moon, a heartfelt modern take on an age-old Traditional Chinese Story. The movie follows the main character, Fei Fei, as she builds a rocketship to the moon to prove to her family that the Moon Goddess Chang’e (嫦娥) is real. Now to be honest, when I first watched the film, I was a bit unsure how to feel about it. With the controversial release of the Live-Action Mulan a few months ago I was honestly very wary of any Asian story being told by an American production company. From the elimination of several characters from the original animated film to the fact that a majority of the production team was non-Asian, Disney had left a bad taste in my mouth for American’s wanting to tell BIPOC stories and myths, so I decided I needed to do further research into this film.
Quite honestly I was pleasantly surprised when I dove into the casting and development for this film. In the English voice cast, there were several familiar actors who had been in previous films featuring Asian characters, most notably Ken Jeong, Phillipa Soo, John Cho, and Sandra Oh to name a few. While the film was produced and released in part by Netflix studios, it was made in collaboration with Pearl Studios, a Chinese Production Company. Knowing this helped me gain some confidence in the fact that there were careful research and work put in to ensure proper representation within the film as well as the cast and crew.
As I began then to do a deeper dive into the scriptwriting process, and film’s development. While the original animation was written for an English script I was pleasantly surprised to find how much attention to detail was put into translating the story as well. An article by South China Morning Post stated, “Since the movie takes place in China, Pearl Studio wanted to make sure the Chinese-language version would meet the expectations of its viewers. The Pearl creative team began working on translating the script over a year before the movie was finished, a sharp departure from the way most productions are dubbed.” The article dives into the major attention to detail put into the story and actions of the characters. The film’s creators wanted to ensure that the script garnered the same reactions from Chinese audiences as it did American. This went from adjusting the language in translations, to even how the characters behaved. A quote from the executive producer Hank Abbott stated, “We found it was really important to drive home the emotions. In English, we could be a little more nuanced about some points, but when we tested them in Mandarin we learned at times we needed to be a little bit more explicit.” The film went through numerous screen tests to ensure that even the smallest detail wasn’t left out.
In terms of the visual animations and settings, production crews spent a lot of time traveling through China, specifically in the village of Wuzhen (乌镇) not too far from the city of Shanghai. One of the film's producers Peilin Chou describes the process in a video where she describes going door to door and asking to see people's houses for an accurate portrayal of the town in which the movie is set.
Which brings me to the actual story. The movie is considered a modern take on a very old Chinese legend. To understand the context here's a brief summary of the legend. There are many subtle variations to the story of Chang’e, however, at the center of the story is the fact that Chang’e was married to a legendary archer named Hou Yi (后羿). Hou Yi was given an elixir of immortality from the gods for his heroic deeds but refused to take it since he was given only enough for one person. This is where the legend varies, some say Chang’e drank the potion out of defiance of her husband, some say it is out of unfortunate circumstances to protect her husband. Yet she drank the elixir, became immortal, and rose into the sky to live on the moon. She now lives there forever alone with a Jade Rabbit who joined her on the moon, while her husband died a mortal on Earth.
From a very traditional perspective, some aspects of the movie can seem to stray from the original legend. The Story begins with the main character Fei Fei, whose family owns a shop where they sell mooncakes. Her mother would tell her the story of Chang’e as a young child (with a few comedic additions) and about her everlasting love for her husband Houyi.
After the loss of her mother, four years later we find Fei Fei still clinging onto the Legend of Chang’e and the idea of everlasting love between her father and mother. Upset at a family dinner after finding out her father was engaged to another woman, Ms. Zhong, and annoyed by her soon to be stepbrother, Chin, Fei Fei decides to build a rocket to the moon to prove that Chang’e is real and in some way stop her father from getting remarried. After constructing a rocket-powered by fireworks, Fei Fei manages to almost escape earth's gravity before realizing that Chin had snuck aboard. As the rocket starts to fall back to earth they are both suddenly rescued by two flying lions who carry them to the moon.
This is where we are introduced to the world of Lunaria and the goddess Chang’e. When we arrive, Chang’e is doing a musical performance with her backup dancers the Lunettes (a set of walking and talking Mooncakes). There Fei Fei meets Chang’e and is able to take a photo with her. However, at that moment Chang’e takes the photo and says that Fei Fei cannot have a photo until she is given “the gift.” Full unaware of what “the gift” is, Chang’e announces a competition between all the citizens of Lunaria (a bunch of colorful blobs) to find the gift. Whoever brings it to her first shall be granted one wish.
Through trials and tribulation, Fei Fei goes off alone with a group of biker chicks (literal chickens on bikes) to find the gift at the crash site of her rocket. At the crash site, she discovers the doll given to her by her mother. She also meets another character named Gobi, a green glowing creature. This is when the Biker chicks betray her and speed off with the doll. Chasing after them, both Gobi and Fei Fei find themselves in a field of giant space frogs. Hopping aboard one of them to try and catch up to the bikers, Gobi and Fei Fei bond as she learns more about the Goddess.
After catching up to the bikers, several events ensue which leaves the doll destroyed, and the bikers to scatter. Hopeless, Fei Fei and Gobi take a moment to recollect, when Fei Fei realizes that the gift wasn’t a doll, but a piece of Jade hidden in a mooncake given to her from Ms. Zhong.
Rushing back to the palace, Fei Fei meets up with Chin, and gives the jade piece to Chang’e who uses it to bring back Houyi. However, as Chang’e and Houyi embrace, Houyi begins to fade as he tells Chang’e that he cannot stay and she must move on. Chang’e then falls into a deep sadness causing Lunaria to disappear into darkness. Fei Fei steps in to try and save the goddess, however, sees a vision of her mother in the dark, and then too, collapses into sadness by the goddess. The goddess, surprised by Fei Fei, shows a softer side, as she tries to console her and tell her how she must move on. Through a really touching series of songs, they both face the struggle of loss, and the power of love, and the importance of finding new love around them. This is when they both accept the death of their loved ones and, in moving on, restore Lunaria back to life.
The movie ends with the Lions bringing Chin and Fei Fei back to earth, where we fast forward some time to another family dinner where Chin and Ms. Zhong has become a part of Fei Fei’s family and she has come to accept and love them as her own mother and little brother.
The film touches on so many important themes of love, loss, family, and friendship. All while also telling an ancient Chinese legend. While the movie may stray from traditional depictions of traditional stories, I believe this is the true power of this movie. The way it tells a touching story while engaging audiences with catchy songs, and comedic characters. The attention to detail in representing Chinese culture, both in the depiction of traditional clothing, art, and the painting of the scenes, to the little idioms that Fei Fei’s grandfather would tell in passing. Which brings me to another important point. Honoring the culture and story.
While the topic of Disney’s Mulan is a topic of hot debate for some, I believe that Disney made several key mistakes in honoring the story and culture, as well as being aware of the politics surrounding modern china that disturbed many Asians both in the US and abroad. From not having any Asian representation in the production crew to the fact that there were initially no Chinese subtitles. Also, the controversies surrounding the political stances of some of the actors and filming locations left many to wonder if much of the work done was all performative.
This is probably why I was pleasantly surprised by Over the Moon. I think it went above and beyond to honor the stories and cultures that it represented. The time spent screen testing to ensure that Chinese Audiences had the same experience as western audiences. The sheer amount of research to ensure accuracy in all the details from the depiction of the village, food, and clothing. The film creatively told an ancient Chinese legend, but modernized it to engage youth in both the US and abroad, while including universal themes of love, loss, family and friendship.
This is where the power of the movie takes shape. Over the Moon bridges a cultural gap, especially in times where there is a lot of division in the world. Building a story based on themes of the human experience that can be understood no matter where you're from, while also collaborating with Pearl Studios in China to depict a culturally accurate and detailed movie that honors the cultural origins of the movie's story.
As a person who grew up never seeing Asians or Asian stories in tv shows, cartoons or movies that weren’t seemingly mocking or subtly racist and dehumanizing, Over the Moon was a step above. It felt so incredibly empowering to be validated in my own culture, and that a story from my own culture was being told, to audiences that likely have never been told this story anywhere else.
This article was orginally published November 27, 2020