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(For Day 15 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was to detail a habit picked up from a parent, which brought to mind the mooncake tradition in this film.)

I’d watch her in the kitchen,
Covered in a coat of flour,
Every movement sending clouds to scatter more.
She’d stuff the dough with filling,
Working hour after hour,
Leaving powder-stenciled footprints on the floor.

She taught me how to do it,
Find a rhythm and a cadence,
Every batch a surging wave to tempt the tongue.
She’d tell me ancient stories
Filled with animals and maidens
That thrill me still, though I am not as young.

I stand here in the kitchen,
With a flour layer ghostly
And form them each according to her spec.
They bear the same ingredients
And taste the same… well, mostly,
If only she were here to double-check.
__________________________________

MPA rating:  PG

With China becoming an ever more important market for films, Chinese culture has grown more prominent in the world of animation. Some are products of China itself (Ne Zha, Jiang Ziya), while others are the result of collaborations between Chinese and American studios, such as DreamWorks’ Abominable and last year’s Netflix-produced Over the Moon, both the work of China’s Pearl Studio. As a family musical with flights of fancy and relatable themes, Over the Moon has earned many comparisons with Disney movies, and while I wouldn’t go quite that far, it’s a quality film worthy of its recent Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.

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While set in modern times, the story has deep roots in Chinese mythology, particularly the legend of Chang’e, the moon goddess who was separated from her lover Houyi when she took two pills of immortality and was flown to the moon with a Jade Rabbit. After learning and loving this legend, young Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) loses her mother early in the film (in true Disney fashion) to illness and is horrified when her father (John Cho) begins dating another woman (Sandra Oh) with a troublemaking son named Chin (Robert G. Chiu). In an effort to prove Chang’e is real for her mother’s sake, Fei Fei builds a rocket to the moon and, with Chin, encounters the moon goddess herself (Phillipa Soo of Hamilton).

While Over the Moon has a lot of the same ingredients as Disney classics (including direction by Disney animator Glen Keane), it doesn’t quite meet that hard-to-reach standard for me, whether because the songs are good but not great or because its tone often comes off as a “kids movie” rather than one for all ages. There’s certainly fun to be had with the eye-popping colors of the lunar city Fei Fei visits, and Soo as Chang’e herself is excellent playing the goddess as a pop star diva. And despite my earlier dig, the film actually has some surprising depth by the end concerning the pain of losing a loved one and how to move on. A poignant scene with a crane seeming to represent Fei Fei’s dead mother brought to mind how my own family takes comfort in the sight of a cardinal for similar reasons.

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I guess the biggest problem for western audiences is perhaps not understanding the cultural and mythological basis of Over the Moon, making certain creative choices (giant frogs on the moon?) seem strange and random without context. I would recommend this video as a companion piece to the film; it actually increased my opinion of the movie and its many culturally authentic details that I as an American wouldn’t immediately understand. (For example, Chang’e is still so associated with the moon that China’s lunar landers are named after her, with rovers named after the Jade Rabbit. Plus, I had no idea what a mooncake was before this movie, but now I’m curious to try one.) In some ways, I could compare Over the Moon with The Polar Express as a smile-worthy journey to prove the existence of a mythological figure, but the 2020 film has enough colorful charm and cultural identity to stand on its own.

Rank:  List Runner-Up

© 2021 S.G. Liput
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