From the very start of this animated musical, you know everything that’s going to happen. Some of this is because it ticks some comfortingly familiar boxes but, mostly, the lack of narrative originality is a chore. The film also repeats regressive tropes, starting with a woefully predictable event that is a much too common an occurrence in children’s films – and in cinema as a whole. Without giving too much away, though you know it is going to happen form frame one (making the inevitability crushingly disappointing), it’s a sad reminder that even in female fronted films, women are ultimately disposable plot devices.
After this wearisome narrative step, the film becomes rather fresh and entertaining. Over the Moon appears to be a sweet antidote to the repetitive aesthetics of children’s film. Gone is the vague European medieval setting, a fantasy that is presented as default; gone is suburban America. Instead, we have a modern China inflected with tales from Chinese mythology and folklore. It is a refreshingly different backdrop that opens up new narrative opportunities. The issue is, it never feels like anything but a backdrop and is, in reality, just a new gloss of paint applied to the tired stories we’ve seen countless times before. But, there is one glimpse of quality here. The animation in the first act has this lovely blend of 3D digital models and backgrounds that look painted. It is a beautiful touch and, when the film is in contemporary China, it bristles with visual excitement. It is all well realised and feels authentic (though the background of the creative team behind this – especially at the top levels – lead to a few raised eyebrows about who is telling this story about this culture (and maybe explain why it feels like nothing more than surface)).
Also, when we are focusing on personal drama – staying at the human level – the film really works. This is because of novelty, not just of location but of the kind of narratives these films deal with. A film about a daughter coming to deal with her father finding a new partner feels genuinely different, the grounded approach sets it apart from familiar flights of fancy. Alas, this then becomes nothing more than a familiar flight of fancy. Our protagonist decides to go to the moon to find a mythical figure and the film devolves into a candy-coloured assortment of clichés and known tropes – just applied to different figures. The film completely lost my interest, becoming woefully predictable as I waited for every plot strand to tie up exactly as it was always going to. The aesthetic goes from well realised and focused to just a mishmash of brightly coloured ideas. Every new character feels borrowed from a different – and better – film and a lot of the film starts to be actively annoying.
A wider issue though is that, even at its best, Over the Moon is mostly passable. The songs are a real weakness, the lyrics rarely go beyond base level exposition or simplistic descriptions, leading to moments that stretch out story beats and that would have worked better as conventional dialogue or wider story telling. And, while this film certainly isn’t designed for me, the sheer number of excellent films for children make it feel unnecessary. Every success feels like a faint echo of something else and the one thing that is new is only used to support overt familiarity. It is the kind of film you can feel yourself forgetting as you are watching it.