Over the Moon: A Start for Mainstream Asian Representation in Animated Films, but Lands Instead Among the Stars

“Over the Moon” is an original Netflix animated feature about a young girl who, dealing with the loss of her mother, travels to the moon to prove the existence of legendary moon goddess, Chang’e. (Photo: Netflix)

By Vivin Qiang

Over the Moon is Netflix’s latest animated film led by a mostly Asian cast with veteran Disney animator, Glen Keane, as the director. The story, which was written by the late Audrey Wells, to whom the movie is dedicated to, originated from Chinese Mythology, the Goddess of the Moon Chang’e, who lives alone on the moon while longing for her husband, Houyi, on Earth. Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), the teenage protagonist is also dealing with a loss of her own, her mother who deeply believed in the story and spirit of Chang’e. When her father (John Cho) meets a new woman, Fei Fei is determined that a trip to the moon will remind her father of eternal love for her mother.

As the story takes us through Fei Fei’s life on Earth, it was evident that the creators worked hard to highlight traditional Chinese cultural elements. From the accurate portrayals of Chinese cuisine to the attention to detail paid to the variety of mooncake recipes, viewers are given a glimpse of what life in China is like. The importance of family gatherings is affirmed when we see Fei Fei’s extended family coming over for the celebration of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Even the importance of meal sharing as entryways to family discussions is not overlooked, as we witness tensions play out at the dinner table over welcoming a new member of the family, Fei Fei’s potential new stepmom. As a Chinese American, seeing some of my own cultural traditions being portrayed in a mainstream animated production was both exciting and empowering. It brought me back to childhood memories of extended family gatherings, eating lotus mooncakes with egg-yolk fillings (my favorite!) during the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, and like Fei Fei, I also imagined what Chang’e’s life is like in her palace on the moon.

However, as the protagonist Fei Fei leaves her family behind to embark on a lunar adventure in space, the story takes a sharp turn. Unlike Earth, the moon (known as Lunaria) is full of neon-colored and futuristic space elements. The Goddess of the Moon, Chang’e (Phillipa Soo), is transformed into a K-pop star-like figure cheered on by glowy, technicolored space creatures. While the film incorporated various parts of the legend of Chang’e, including the existing theories as to why she took the elixir of immortality and the jade rabbit who makes potions, her mythical characteristics and historical significance were lost somewhere along the way as her character is reduced to a pop diva who lives in a glowy palace.

Other reviewers have commented that the film, in an attempt to be “Disney-like,” was caught up in a predictable plot line with overused scenarios. Justin Chang from Los Angeles Times felt the movie “dutifully grafts Western storytelling formulas onto Eastern folklore.” Through the ever-changing, mismatching styles that were at times conflicting, the cultural authenticity viewers experienced during the first part of the film faded away. It makes one wonder what the story would be had Fei Fei stayed grounded on Earth.

Marketed as Netflix’s hit movie to compete with Disney, one must give credit to Over the Moon as it made an honest attempt in incorporating Asian Americans as the main characters of a “mainstream” film rather than an “ethnic” one. The movie also tearfully captures the universal emotions of loss, healing, and love. That being said, trying to fit a Western storyline into the context of ancient Chinese mythology may end up leaving viewers feeling a little disappointed and hoping for more.

Vivin Qiang is the Program Coordinator of the Anti-Racial Profiling Project at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

This blog is part of our “Milestones and Missed Cues” blog series. Stay tuned for another blog highlighting representation in the Asian American community in the past year!

To combat misperceptions about our incredibly multifaceted community, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC advocates for fair and equal representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) behind and in front of the camera. Historically, AAPIs have been depicted in one-dimensional and often dehumanizing ways, but we have seen significant strides in recent years. We are delighted to introduce our blog series entitled, “Milestones and Missed Cues,” which examines movies and television shows featuring AAPI characters by asking a few important questions: Does the movie or show move the perception of AAPIs in a positive direction? Does the movie or show challenge the notion of what it means to be a “mainstream” movie instead of an “ethnic” movie? How do media platforms and outlets discuss the movie or show? How do social media users talk about the movie or show?

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