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Over The Moon – Film Review

A friend (#2, for you long-timers) had told me about a Chinese-culture based animated musical on Netflix, based on the mooncake folktale. As a Chinese, this show would be either hit or miss.

We watched it while in quarantine isolation, right before New Year’s.

The very first thing that really struck a chord, was seeing my own culture in a musical narrative — the intro song about the Chinese folktale, and then just having a song about making mooncakes. I’ve never been particularly nationalistic about my ethnicity, but this film really made me swell with pride.

🚨 Spoiler Alert! 🚨 Everything that follows is spoiler territory, obviously…


Things I’d Tweak 🔧

1. The Climactic Solution

So what happens is that after Haoyi fades away again, Chang’e plunges the Moon into The Big Sad Darkness. She encases herself in the Chamber of Exquisite Sadness, and no one can get in through the barrier. Except, Fei Fei can pass through, deciding to risk talking to Chang’e, but Fei Fei herself sees visions of her mother, and gets trapped inside herself.

Then what happens is that Chang’e sees and sings to Fei Fei, telling her she has to move on — a lesson that’s obvious that she herself doesn’t understand.

And it’s shown to work — two broken people sing to, encourage and advise each other. They break free of their own depression Big Darknesses, and then Lunaria is restored to light, and everyone’s happy.

I guess that’s a good message. Two broken people helping each other up.

But I believe that the climax can be even more powerful. Let’s review the thematic statement of the show: you can move on from the pain of the loved ones you lost, by accepting the love that new people are pouring into you.

You can move on from the pain of the loved ones you lost, by accepting the love that new people are pouring into you.

This is the ultimate climax arc that both Fei Fei and Chang’e have to learn and to grow as characters. Both Houyi and Fei Fei’s mom have passed, and both Chang’e and Fei Fei rejected and pushed away the (annoying, at first) new people that offered love to them: Gobi and Chin.

But, I felt that this isn’t clearly shown in the climax — there wasn’t a climactic moment that proved that the entrance of a new love had made any impactful difference in their lives. For me at least, I believe that Gobi and Chin should have been the catalyst for Fei Fei's and Chang'e's climactic moment.

Gobi and Chin should have been the catalyst for Fei Fei’s and Chang’e’s climactic moment, not themselves.

Imagine a different sequence of events for the story leading up to the climax — yet not so different because the story already seems to lean this way…

1a. Gobi’s Song

Here’s an extract from the script:

SEQUENCE 2200 - MOON FROGS

GOBI
The Goddess exiled me from Lunaria because of a song I sang to her.

FEI FEI
She exiled you over a song? [...] she was kind and gentle, graceful as a swan landing on a quiet lake.

GOBI
She was all those things, until Houyi died. [SIGHS] And then she just pushed us all away.

[...]

GOBI
After I sang that song, the Goddess disappeared. All the lights in Lunaria just went out. We call it the big darkness.

Gobi says that his song caused Chang’e to plunge Lunaria into The Big Darkness. But this really interesting and important plot event never gets mentioned again.

One major attribute of Gobi’s character is his relationship to Chang’e’s, but thinking about it, we never even really see Chang’e interact with Gobi at all during the movie’s runtime — it’s too weak to just hint at some past event in subtext.

Why don’t we get to see this important idea and character revisited?

Imagine the climax: Chang’e slips into depression (it is what it is at this point), and so does Fei Fei. Fei Fei recovers first, but can't talk Chang'e into recovering: Chang'e says that Fei Fei is younger and more innocent, while Chang'e herself is way too scarred and broken and tired to come out of depression again. Nothing Fei Fei says budges the celestial entity.

Then: Fei Fei realizes, maybe there's something she can sing.

SEQUENCE 2800 - CHAMBER OF EXQUISITE SADNESS

[...]

CHANG’E
You can’t stay here. You’ll only
end up lonely for all eternity, like me.
Fei Fei shakes her head in saddened disbelief. She softens.

FEI FEI
DO YOU EVER FEEL AFRAID?
CURL UP WHEN YOU ARE HURTING

CHANG'E
Huh?

FEI FEI
AND HOLD YOUR MEMORIES TIGHT TO YOU
YEAH, ME TOO -

CHANG'E
That song... WHY ARE YOU SINGING THIS SONG?!?!

It's MARTHAAA!! Gobi's song. It serves as an introduction to the actual climactic song, Love Someone New. It builds and builds.

Then, another voice joins in harmony: Gobi floats into the scene. Seeing him return with open arms despite getting exiled by her, causes Chang'e to finally break, and let down her walls, eventually dissolving the Chamber of Exquisite Sadness.

I just think it’s pretty neat: the same song and character that caused the first Big Darkness is the same song/character that reverses the second one. We also callback to Gobi’s song. Most importantly, the thematic statement can be shown by how Chang’e actually gets to Love Someone New, and be loved in return.

1b. Chin’s Breakthrough

After Fei Fei and Chang’e have gotten themselves stuck in the Chamber of Exquisite Sadness.

In the climactic moment, Fei Fei and Chang’e sing to each other and pull each other out. They’re perfectly happy and their climaxes have been resolved in a tidy bow. Now that they have overcome The Big Sad™, Chin roars, “NO BARRIERS!!!”, and breaks the impenetrable barrier and reunites with Fei Fei.

But, I can’t help but feel that Chin’s involvement in the climax was not as powerful as it could’ve been, because his appearance doesn’t do anything for the plot development. Chang’e, now rehabilitated, should be perfectly able to get them out of the Chamber as she did last time.

While there is a meaningful payoff/callback for Chin to enter the scene now, there is really no practical plot-related contribution. It’s as if he’s just there for show. Same with Gobi. They don’t need to be there.

What if we rearrange plot beats so that, instead of Fei Fei and Chang’e singing the song to each other: Chin is the one who starts singing the climactic song to Fei Fei.

Usual sequence of events, Chang’e gets stuck, Fei Fei goes in and gets stuck too. Perhaps Fei Fei tries singing Gobi's song. There's a little glimmer of hope, because that's the powerful song, right? Nope. They cannot get each other out. They're STUCK.

On the other side of the barrier, all hope is lost. Bungee uses her newfound purple electric magic ear superpowers, but she rebounds back, proving we need something stronger than magic to break the barrier.

It is only then, Chin starts softly singing Gobi's song. Not pitch perfect, but perfectly soulful.

CHIN
DO YOU EVER FEEL AFRAID?
CURL UP WHEN YOU ARE HURTING
AND HOLD YOUR MEMORIES TIGHT TO YOU
YEAH, ME TOO -

How does Chin know the words? Anyways, the song builds slowly. Fei Fei is curled up, numbly facing away, but she starts to stir at Chin's faint, distant voice. She wrestles with her inner thoughts, squirming in space, getting stronger the more Chin sings. Suddenly, the powerful crumpling force is slowly overcome, and she cries as she struggles to outstretches herself.

The first chorus ends in a hurrahChin steps back, and with a warcry he headbutts through and shatters the impenetrable barrier. Chin literally breaks through the wall of depression.

He swims over to Fei Fei and continues singing. Chin is the one who calls her awake from her spell. Fei Fei exclaims, “You saved me!” Then, Fei Fei goes over and wrestles similarly for Chang’e, breaking her free too, and everything goes on as normal from here.

This is amazing, because Chin becomes the most important focal main character in the climax. Without his intervention, they would’ve been stuck in the Chamber forever. His subplot now has weight, if not carrying the climax. And it can, and it should, as it further cements the idea that Fei Fei has to move on let in someone new into her life after her loss.

Furthermore… it hints to the subtext that Chin himself has also lost a parent. His mom, intentionally named as Mrs. Zhong, is obviously single after carrying her husband’s surname, as implied by her “Mrs.” prefix. Is she widowed too? Perhaps divorced? Separated? Absent? Disappeared?

Either ways. I always thought it was such a powerful choice for the subtext that Chin would be in the same situation as Fei Fei (a stepbrother, by very nature, must have an absent parent; nonetheless, it’s so interesting to have him be very prominent in plot). There’s subtext that he had actually himself gone through the whole process of being in his own “Chamber” too, curling up afraid, holding tightly onto those past memories as well.

As he sings these words, he understands full well the weight behind them, even if in a simpler 8-year-old way. He knows. Despite being younger, he has already somehow accepted the loss of his father, and now is ready to teach and love Fei Fei, since he knows exactly what she is going through and what she needs. She needs to love someone new.

She needs him.

2. Why can’t/doesn’t Haoyi Stay?

So when Haoyi is summoned by the potion/amulet, he quickly starts to fade away again. The potion is supposed to work, and then it didn’t, and the audience (and Chang’e) isn’t given an explanation to what’s going on and why.

HOUYI
Chang’e, I cannot stay. You have to move on.

Chang’e looks at him in disbelief. Is this a dream? Is she losing him again?

CHANG’E
But how? [PANICKED BREATHING] No--!

HOUYI
Our love is forever.

Their hands now separate as he begins to disappear-

CHANG’E
Please don’t leave me again! HOUYI!

He continues to disappear. For him, it wasn’t a return, it was his attempt at saying goodbye.

All the while, Fei Fei is just watching passively.

What if, the reason why Haoyi cannot stay is because Fei Fei had asked for a portion of the potion to revive her mother, and there wasn't enough potion between them after they apportioned it.

So, imagine, Fei Fei runs into Chang’e’s throne room with the half-amulet and seconds to spare.

Fei Fei presents Chang’e with the amulet.

CHANG’E
[GASPS] Fei Fei...

FEI FEI
[PANTING] I think this is the gift you’re looking for.

Chang’e BEAMS.

CHANG’E
Of course, the other half of the Amulet!
Chang'e reaches out for the Amulet -- but Fei Fei pulls it back.

FEI FEI
You said you would grant any wish. I want to change mine.

CHANG'E
What are you doing?

FEI FEI
I don't want the photo anymore. If you can bring back Houyi, I want you to bring back my momma as well.

Everyone whispers in fear.

CHANG'E
There's no time, and not enough potion. Nothing can stand in my way -- not now.

Chang'e hands start glowing with supernatural power. Fei Fei stands her ground.

Jade Rabbit jumps in front of her, waving frantically! He does some mental arithmetic, and nods furiously.

Chang'e powers down and shoots a skeptical look.

CHANG'E (CONT'D)
Jade Rabbit thinks there is enough potion for the two of us.

Now this would be an interesting turn of events that makes full use of the worldbuilding. Fei Fei would definitely seize this opportunity — she wants to prove Chang’e exists, but only because she wants her father to cling onto her birth mother. Reviving her birth mother back would be better than any photo.

We would get the same turn of events, except interlaced between Chang'e's and Houyi's reunion, Fei Fei can get glimpses of her mom. Perhaps even a medley between Chang'e's Yours Forever and Fei Fei's Magic in these Mooncakes.

But before Fei Fei's mom can fully materialize, Houyi says he cannot stay because the potion is not enough to keep him around. Or even better, Houyi says that Jade Rabbit is right, the potion is enough. But Houyi still fades as he says he does not want to stay. Either ways, Chang'e sends the Moon into The Darkness, obliterating what tangibility that Fei Fei had of her mother.

Chang’e locks herself in the Chamber of Exquisite Sadness, and Fei Fei reacts numbly when the Chin and Gobi prod her. She easily passes through into the Chamber, especially because she wants to be in there too. Fei Fei starts actually focused on retrieving Chang’e, calling out to her, but she eventually gets heartache as she sees flashbacks of her mom. Additionally, a failed partial potion may be a good reason to why she sees glimpses of her mother here.

3. Foreshadowing “the Gift”

A small and passable plot hole: Mrs. Zhong gave Fei Fei a special mooncake (without dates) on their first Mid-Autumn festival together. Fei Fei retreats to her room and expresses her distaste aloud, shoving the mooncake in her drawer. Then, we get a timelapse of Fei Fei building her rocket, which must’ve taken at least a few months, or even years. Finally, Fei Fei flies to the moon, and realises she needed the half-amulet in Mrs. Zhong’s mooncake that she packed for food. The months-old, stale mooncake.

Furthermore, Chang’e announces the competition to find “the Gift”. The plot requires it to be ambiguous, because Fei Fei had to first assume that it referred to the doll. However, the idea of “the Gift” isn’t developed much neither does it mean much. A story element can be mysterious and meaningful.

I suggest this nice rewrite: on the first Mid-Autumn Festival, Mrs. Zhong offers Fei Fei a special mooncake. However, what if Fei Fei straight up refuses this mooncake, but Mrs. Zhong gave a "special" mooncake every year.

MRS. ZHONG
I saved you a special mooncake from my hometown... without dates.

Mrs. Zhong hands Fei Fei a SMALL TIN BOX.
FEI FEI
(uninterested)
Uh... no thanks.

Fei Fei pushes it back. Mrs. Zhong doesn't take it back.

MRS. ZHONG
Just... open it. It's my special GIFT.
[...]

INT. FEI FEI’S ROOM - THAT MOMENT

FEI FEI
“Get used to him?” I’ll never get used to him! What’s so “special” about your mooncake?
Fei Fei tosses it out her window.
FEI FEI (CONT'D)
I don’t want IT... Urgh! And I don’t want YOU.

Wouldn’t it be even more dramatic if when Fei Fei prepares to launch her rocket, she is confronted by Mrs. Zhong:

Fei Fei sneaks past her father, napping on the couch.

FEI FEI
I'll prove it to you, baba.
She grabs her moon boots and heads out the front door--
MRS. ZHONG
Where are you going so late at night, Fei Fei?

Fei Fei freezes. Busted.

FEI FEI
To the canal that my momma liked... as usual...

At this, Mrs. Zhong softened. Phew.

MRS. ZHONG
I stayed up to try to bump into you because you were missing during the Mid-Autumn dinner -- you must be hungry. I... made the special mooncake for you again.

Fei Fei looks away, annoyed. Mrs. Zhong scrunched her face.

MRS. ZHONG
Every year, I find my mooncake tin in the yard below your window...

Fei Fei's eyes widen, and then dart away in guilt. Double busted.

MRS. ZHONG (CONT'D)
That's ok. Really. Just take one bite when you do feel hungry.

Fei Fei grabs the mooncake, and without turning back, bolts out of the house.

Mrs. Zhong hides the half-amulet in the mooncake, as a special gift to Fei Fei in an attempt to connect with her, and Mrs. Zhong tries this every year during Mid-Autumn festival.

This year, when Fei Fei finally launches her rocket, she skips the festival entirely in preparation for the launch. This causes Mrs. Zhong to stay up super late because she really cares and wants to make sure that Fei Fei is safe.

And, it's revealed that Mrs. Zhong knew that Fei Fei would toss out her gift, every year. In fact, Mrs. Zhong would reopen the discarded tin every year to salvage the half-amulet, and repackage it in another mooncake in the following year. Finally, Fei Fei accepts the gift out of guilt.

Also, I thought this line would be cool: "Just take one bite when you do feel hungry." Mrs. Zhong just wants Fei Fei to take just one bite, and then Fei Fei would bite into the hard half-amulet, and appreciate Mrs. Zhong’s attempt to connect over the legend of Chang’e. But this can only happen when Fei Fei felt hungry, on more levels than one: when Fei Fei is finally ready to accept that she is physically and emotionally hungry. Because if Fei Fei isn’t hungry/ready for either, then the greatest mooncake/gift in the world would not suffice enough to cause an honest change in Fei Fei’s heart.

4. Chang’e’s New Loved Ones

Fei Fei had to open her heart to Chin and Mrs. Zhong, and we had the entire Act 1 to explore and develop her relationships. Chang’e had to open her heart too, presumably to Gobi, Jade Rabbit and the Lunarians.

While we see the others express their love to Chang’e in different ways, it is usually passively without Chang’e in the scene. For example, Gobi telling Fei Fei about Chang’e on the Space Frogs, and Jade Rabbit making his potion in his lab by himself.

Since Chang’e isn’t in these scenes, Chang’e isn’t shown to actively reject her new love. Since we got to see Fei Fei’s active rejection in Act 1, it makes her active acceptance in Act 3 all the more powerful.

This is simple: when Fei Fei returns with the half-amulet, she returns with Gobi, who has been separated from Chang’e for years. Gobi could butt in to converse with Chang'e, after being apart for so long, but Chang'e could simply dismiss him because Houyi was so close! Things like that.

I also think that we can further explore Chang’e’s sadness outside of The Exquisite Chamber. She does a huge pop number, Ultraluminary, showing the world how glowing and happy she is. However, as later scenes explore, she is in fact very much not over Houyi; and underneath all the luminance, there is some deep darkness in the void space of her heart. There could be a small reprise where she tries to bring back that Ultraluminary persona, through choked tears, and she fades into dimness.

5. Eating both Immortality Pills

The idea of Chang’e selfishly consuming both her and Houyi’s portion of the immortality-item is briefly touched in two scenes: first, the family dinner in Act 1:

SEQUENCE 0600 FAMILY DINNER

AUNTIE LING
Oh, come on! Chang’e loves it up there alone! That’s why she took both immortality pills instead of saving one for Hou Yi!

[...]

AUNTIE LING
-steal the immortality pills.
[SCOFFS] Yeah, yeah, yeah, she only put them both in her mouth as a hiding place... Hm. Not buying it.

And then the ping-pong battle in Act 2:

SEQUENCE 1700 - PING PONG & CHANG’E LOSES IT

CHIN
AND SOON I’LL HAVE THAT PICTURE
AND YOUR HOUYI WILL JUST HAVE TO PFFT
IF YOU WEREN’T SO SELFISH HE’D HAVE IMMORTALITY

[...]

CHIN
You know what I heard?! You’re a 3,000 year old lady who ate BOTH immortality pills! Now you live alone FOREVER!

This idea of Chang’e’s self-ishness against Houyi seemed to be an early idea that was scrapped, but traces of it was left in the story. It seemed like the story was originally about being completely alone, as opposed to what it is now, about being too attached to people lost in the past.

Furthermore, this fact was Chin’s final nail into the coffin to defeat Chang’e in ping-pong and defeat her emotionally in her mind. This was something that meant a lot to Chang’e. But it gets mentioned twice and never developed, an awkward loose end.

The most interesting plot choice would always be to make characters responsible for their actions. Let Chang'e actually selfishly choose immortality and being alone over Houyi. This is contrary to her current mentality of doing anything just to get to Houyi. Perhaps some time during the plot, it's revealed that Chang'e had a big fight with Houyi, and that's why she ate both pills in the moment. And that's why she's so regretful and does everything she can to reverse her mistake.

But this selfishness doesn’t yet relate much to our protagonist, Fei Fei. Perhaps Fei Fei can have a scene where she would have to choose between saving the photo or saving Chin's life. Chang'e would warn her, this was the exact same decision she would come to regret.


Things I Liked ❤️

1. Grounded Internal Conflict

In light of cosmic beings and deep folklore, the story could’ve gone into epic-scale wars or some galaxy-spanning McGuffin hunt. But instead, the story quickly set up a very grounded, yet powerful, tight father-mother-daughter family relationship that fuels Fei Fei’s motivation for every goal in every scene thereafter.

And then instead of some magical antagonist who steals Fei Fei’s mom away, we have something more familiar, more relatable: some unnamed generic terminal illness. It’s so… normal.

I’ve always admired stories that know how to reinforce their stories (like reinforcing concrete with steel) with a simple but powerful internal conflict that quietly and invisibly gives shape as the backbone of every scene.

I can’t imagine how powerful this story will be for so, so many kids (and adults) who have lost a loved one. I can’t imagine how much good lessons we would’ve so easily lost if the plot had slipped into bland spectacle somewhere in production.

2. Injecting Meaning to the Folktale

By itself, the folktale is iconic, but while it is a “story”, it doesn’t really have a theme. Plot events happen: bla bla shooting suns, elixir, robber, fly to the moon. But there’s no pattern, nothing really tying characters to plot: no underlying theme.

So, to have a good story to show in a 1h40m movie, Over the Moon has to inject its own theme. There are hundreds of good ways to adapt the folktale, and thousands of mediocre ways. Guesswork cannot get you far.

The movie ended up with a theme of moving on from loss of a loved one, as well as setting us in the lens of a young girl who lost her mother. If you told me that this was the main throughline for a story adapting the mooncake folktale, I’d doubt its performance.

But this thematic premise flows nicely. Chang’e is reframed as a character who lost a loved one, and learning how to cope as well. Fei Fei’s relatives comment on this perspective of the folktale, and it sets up a really good story world for our protagonist to act and react in.

Fei Fei and Chang’e are very nicely mirrored characters. Quite strong characters with agency on the plot.

Meaning of Names

Also. Fei Fei (飞飞) literally means “fly”. Her character goes on to try to build a rocket to fly away from the gravity of earth and the sting of depression.

A month or two after watching the movie, I read the official script for the movie, reading the names as transliterated English, and got sucker punched in the face.

Chang’e is a character who wants to bring back who she lost in her past, stubbornly refusing the new and good reality of the present/future. The very thing that Chang’e has to learn to accept in order to grow, is hidden in her name all this time: Change.

3. The Dinner Scene

The family dinner scene was nice. It made use of the round table for spinning camera angles. The same usual seats for the same usual family members. The messy talking over one another. Grandpa who just wants to eat.

UNCLE
Now she lives with a rabbit instead of a husband.

Auntie Ling cracks open a crab violently.

AUNTIE LING
Good choice.

THIS. And, this:

FEI FEI
She misses Houyi and cries for him every day!

AUNTIE LING
And how do you know that?

GRANDPA
They text. [CHUCKLES]

Lol.

And, there’s also Fei Fei defending Chang’e from her aunties’ attacks. This is the moment it really clicked for me, how Chang’e’s story would be reflected in the protagonist, Fei Fei. Fei Fei defends Chang’e from her aunties, when really, the subtext is that she’s defending herself.

When Fei Fei asserts that Chang’e definitely “misses Houyi and cries for him every day!”, she’s really saying that she herself misses her mother and cries for her every day. When Fei Fei cries that “Chang’e is REAL! She’s on the moon right now! Waiting for her one and only true love. Waiting…”, she is actually arguing that love that holds on to lost loved ones is real and valid.

So when the aunties playfully attack Chang’e, it is no wonder (to us, the audience) that Fei Fei takes it so personally and deeply. Attacking Chang’e is attacking Fei Fei. I thought this dinner scene was really neat.

4. Chin: Consistency & Depth

The setup and payoff with Chin is purposeful. In the First Act, we foreshadow three things about Chin (leapfrog, hanging-like-a-bat, and running through walls), and these get paid off one-by-one. It’s even explicitly mentioned in dialogue:

GOBI
[...] He plays leapfrog? Is that where you got the idea for us to ride on those frogs?

FEI FEI
No! I mean, not really.

GOBI
And he hangs upside down like a bat, like you did when you almost got scorched? Is that where you got that idea?

FEI FEI
No! Ugh. Anyway, I can’t stand him.

GOBI
I can’t stand him either. (beat)
Did you say he can run through walls?

FEI FEI
Forget it, all right?

A clever trick is used here: the setups for leapfrog and bat-hanging were already paid off, but the last setup about “running through walls” was not paid off yet, so the expectation for this final payoff gets to grow higher in anticipation. This is based on the rule of three.

Interestingly, Chin had already tried beforehand to jailbreak himself out of the ping-pong arena. But that failed, and we the audience simply writes off that payoff, done and dusted. But then Gobi brings up that the first two setups proved to be truly useful, and brings up the running through walls again but leaving it very open-endedly. This idea is back into play, and according to the rule of three, we the audience can expect that Chin will eventually run through some wall in a spectacular manner.

And surely enough, this was finally paid off in the climax, where the emotional stakes are at its peak.

I also appreciated the sequence of events for breaking the “impenetrable barrier”. We first had Bungee use her newfound purple-lightning-magic-ear-powers, which was already setup in previous scenes to show how ridiculously powerful it was.

But even lightning-magic fails to break the barrier, making the disaster very grim, because Bungee was supposed to be the ace-up-the-sleeve, their best bet. Then, when Chin does succeed, it proves that Chin’s love is stronger than magic.

5. Leaving Bungee behind

First off, Bungee is very cute.

Very simply, after the climax, Fei Fei needs some external representation to show what has changed internally.

This is simply done with Bungee requesting to stay behind on the Moon. This is a similar, familiar situation for Fei Fei: just like her mom, Bungee has to leave her life. However, this time, Fei Fei has a choice in it. It would be Fei Fei’s final test on whether she could move on or not.

And in releasing Bungee, while still loving Bungee just as much — Fei Fei releases her vice grip on her own past, too, while still loving her birth mother just the same.


I found a source that provides the script here.