If Netflix ever wished for an animated leg over its new streaming rival Disney+, then they have surely found it in Glen Keane, a 38-year veteran of Walt Disney Feature Animation, who today helms Netflix’s very Disney-esque animated movie, Over the Moon.
Responsible for creating beloved Disney characters such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Beast, Tarzan and Rapunzel, Keane will surely give Disney a run for their money in his delightful story about a bright young girl named Fei Fei who, fueled with determination and a passion for science, builds a rocket ship to the moon to prove the existence of a legendary Moon Goddess.
Having departed Disney in 2012 to begin Glen Keane Productions as a way to further his artistic explorations in animation, design and film, Keane has since collaborated with Google, the Paris Ballet, and also with the late legendary basketball star Kobe Bryant in Oscar-winning animated film, Dear Basketball.
Over the Moon is an exhilarating musical adventure about moving forward, embracing the unexpected, and the power of imagination, starring the voice talents of Sandra Oh, Ken Jeong, John Cho, Margaret Cho, Cathy Ang, Phillipa Soo, Robert G. Chiu, Ruthie Ann Miles, Kimiko Glenn and Artt Butler.
The idea for Over the Moon first took seed in 2015 when Pearl Studio began hosting an annual Brain Trust summit, inviting animation talent and thought leaders from all over the world to gather at its headquarters in Shanghai, China.
Building a brain trust was one of the first initiatives that producer Peilin Chou (Abominable, Kung Fu Panda 3), a former Walt Disney Feature Animation executive, undertook when she joined the studio that same year. During this inaugural gathering, one of its attendees, Executive Producer Janet Yang (The Joy Luck Club), pitched the idea of a little girl who builds a rocket to the moon to see if the legendary moon goddess, Chang’e, exists.
The concept – set in modern day, but extrapolated from myth – immediately resonated with Chou. “Every child grows up in China knowing the tale of Chang’e and believing that she lives on the moon. There is even a national holiday centered around it – he Mid-Autumn Festival. Janet came up with the idea to tell a modern day version of this legend through the eyes of a little girl named Fei Fei. I loved the idea of bringing the tale of Chang’e to a global audience in a contemporary, fresh and unique way. Our film features a Chang’e that you have never seen before,” Chou tells us.
John Cho was immediately on board as the voice of “Father”. “I certainly appreciate when my kids are able to see content like this. My daughter watched the movie with me, and I was like, ‘this is so amazing, look at all these Asian animated faces’. And she was nonplussed. And I was so thrilled about that. And so, yes, giving her content or providing content for her, where this stuff is normalized, is a real gift.”
Whether their work is available on the big screen or on streaming platforms, Killing Eve star, Sandra Oh (the voice of Mrs Zhong) is admittedly in two minds. “The reach of Netflix is just immense, and we’re consuming entertainment content in a different way, where everyone is used to that. [But] For those of us who also love cinema…” Oh thinks…
“As for the entire experience of cinema? That does make me a little sad. Meaning, when you take your kids to a movie, it’s a whole experience. And who knows how we’re going to get back to it, but that experience of taking your kid, buying popcorn, the whole thing around it. And what they don’t know, which is also the beauty of cinema, is how you’re taking much more with it, and how you are reacting, and based on the audience that is with you.
“So, while these are different platforms, there’s always good things and always not great things about it,” she says.
In the grand tradition of Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks et al, the filmmakers visited China before laying down their ideas for Over the Moon.
“What was amazing to me about China was the deep roots of tradition and the incredible advancement in technology,” says Keane, talking over Zoom from his home studio. “One day, we were riding on the magnetic levitation train, the Mag Lev, traveling at 426 kilometers an hour. And there’s no wheels. It doesn’t touch, it just floats. I couldn’t believe it. You’re just sitting there and you’re flying, everything’s zipping past. The next day you’re visiting this ancient little water town that we based the story of Fei Fei growing up. And as we were walking around the town, I said to our guide, ‘man, I really wish I could see into one of the houses.
“She knocked and opened the door at the same time. Nobody even said, come in, she just knocked and opened the door. And she said, ‘there are some folks here from Hollywood, would it be okay if they came in and looked around your house?’ And I’m thinking, if that happened in Hollywood, if somebody just knocked on your door and said, ‘hey, there’s some folks here from wherever, can they just come in and walk around your house?’ Nobody would say yes. But we all walked in. They were completely fine with it. They were playing a game of Mahjong there. And we went around, and I did sketches.”
Asked what he learnt, he says, “We discovered that at the heart of these Chinese families was the dinner table. It was so much about sharing life and food around that table. And that became the beginning and the ending of our movie around that round table. And we got to eat with a Chinese family. I left really transformed to tell the story of this moment of discovery. It has more power when you really experience it yourself. And so, every moment of that trip is in the DNA of this movie.”
As the voice of Fei Fei, Cathy Ang believes she was born to play Over the Moon’s smart 12-year-old heroine, “I love science so much. Both my parents were doctors, so I’ve always loved biology. And actually, my partner, he’s in his MD PhD right now because he wants to become an astronaut, and he is working in biophysics. So, we actually joke about that because I’m going to beat him to the moon!
“But it’s just so exciting to see a young girl who’s the focus of the story, be this excited by knowledge. And it’s just encouraging all kids to that spark inside of them and follow all their curiosities. And, I mean, never give up on any experiments that you have. She’s just so wonderful. She just has so much passion for everything, science and her family. She’s so filled with love. And it’s an honour to be able to portray someone like that.”