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The Myth and Wonder of the Moon Endures

Over The Moon,Culture,Art
Alex Lin
Matt Morgantini
December 8, 202011:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

When Cathy Ang finally heard back from producer Gennie Rim and director Glen Keane, she thought she was getting a rejection call. Little did the seasoned stage actress know she was about to be offered the lead role of Fei Fei, in Keane’s directorial debut, Over the Moon. Two years later, the animated feature is a Netflix hit, debuting at number one during its opening weekend last October.

Glen Keane is the animation superstar behind Ariel in The Little Mermaid, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin in Aladdin, and Rapunzel in Tangled. And personally for Ang, playing Fei Fei is living out a childhood dream. She’d grown up with a love for science — specifically space. The mysteries of the universe stir Ang’s heart, so the role of Fei Fei fit her nicely.

“I grew up in Silicon Valley. I went to a very STEM-focused high school, and my parents were both doctors. So, I’ve grown up around people who just love science and trying to problem solve. I think that’s my favorite thing to do, and I think bringing that excitement to the character was pretty easy, actually. Also — because I specifically love space,” says Ang, whose partner — an MD/PhD trainee at NYU — wants to be an astronaut. There’s just a lot of things that connect for me with this character.”

Over the Moon follows 12-year-old Fei Fei’s journey during the Mid-Autumn Festival in China. Still coping four years after her mother’s death, Fei Fei turns to the legend of Moon goddess Chang’e, which tells the story of a woman who swallowed an immortality pill, floated away to the Moon, and must now wait there for her lover for eternity. When Fei Fei’s father reveals his plans to remarry, Fei Fei decides to prove that the legend of Chang’e is real and builds a rocket to the Moon.

“She represents this intersection between art and science. Fei Fei trusts in science, yet believes in the impossible. She believes so strongly in the folktale of Chang’e - in this magical being - that it actually motivates her to achieve her greatest scientific feat. Her mind is so beautiful. She shows us that science and art together can lift dreamers up.”

Asian stars Phillipa Soo, John Cho, Ken Jeong, Margaret Cho, and Sandra Oh all lent their voices to Over the Moon. Ang felt pressure to do her role justice. “When I first started the project, I tried voicing Fei Fei a little bit younger, but [Glen Keane] was like, ‘No, no, no, just be yourself.’ And I think that’s also why she feels full because I could just be me.”

Ang credits those working behind the scenes for her ability to step into Fei Fei’s shoes. With a production team dedicated to telling a culturally authentic story, Ang was able to fully focus on diving into character. “The production team went to China. They visited a water town for their research; they went to Wuzhen, which is what Fei Fei’s village is based off, that beautiful canal town,” says Ang, “They actually knocked on some family’s door one day — and the family just invited them over for dinner. They stayed over and were talking for a long time. I’m sure some of the dynamics there made it into our family dinner scene.”

The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most important holidays in China, so it was critical that the production get it right. Held when the Moon is at its biggest and brightest, the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates longevity, love, and the reunion of family. Moon worship is an essential part of Chinese culture, rooted in the impact the celestial body has on the tides, time, and the night sky. The importance of the Moon has practical roots as well, since the Chinese calendar itself is based on a cycle of lunar phases.

In addition to Over the Moon’s cultural references, several easter eggs nod to China’s space program, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) throughout the film. China’s lunar rover, aptly named Chang’e 4, makes a special appearance when Fei Fei (spoiler alert) lands on the far side of the Moon. Chang’e 4 was preceded by Chang’e 1, 2, and 3 — with number 5 happening right now.

Chang'e 5 is China's first lunar sample-return mission and the third phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, with the fourth and final leg planning for the construction of a robotic research station near the lunar south pole. The probe has since collected roughly two kilograms of lunar rocks and soil, lifted off the Moon's surface, and docked with its orbiter - raising the first Chinese flag on the Moon in the process. The successful return of Chang'e 5, scheduled for around mid-December, would mark the first lunar sample-return mission since 1974 and make China the third country to retrieve samples from the Moon after the US and Russia.

China’s entire lunar program is named for the Moon goddess, which goes to show how important the ancient legend is within the larger Chinese culture. These myths about the Moon might seem strange to someone from the West, but a fascination with lunar legends is universal. NASA’s upcoming mission to land the first woman on the moon is named for another goddess —  Artemis — the twin sister of Apollo.

To Ang, our impulse to look to the Moon and stars is part of what makes us human. “I think there’s an innate need to understand and puzzle solve. We have to be able to find answers to things,” says Ang, “Like losing a mother — when you experience something that terrible, there has to be a reason in our heads. I think it’s important for you, if that brings you solace, to be able to look somewhere for answers.”

“I don’t think that’s ever going to change — looking to the stars. It does provide a lot of answers for people, just understanding where we are in the universe.”

Over the Moon implores its audience to never stop daring to do the impossible, which is exactly what space industry professionals strive toward every day. That drive is exemplified by Fei Fei’s determination to build a fully functioning rocket out of parts she ordered off Ali Baba. “[Fei Fei] believes there’s a solution to anything, and she’s so determined, and she’ll fail a million times before succeeding, but she never gives up,” says Ang, “Hopefully it will inspire kids to accomplish the same feats.”

“You young Asian girls — you can do whatever you want to do. You can accomplish it. Don’t be afraid to chase some of those dreams and to stand up and fight for what you believe in. Especially for young Asian girls — that’s not what we’re told oftentimes, and it’s just not true.”We asked Ang what she hoped would be viewers’ biggest take away from Over the Moon. She replied: “Dream.”

Over the Moon was produced by Pearl Studio and Netflix Animation and animated by Sony Pictures Imageworks. It is currently available for streaming on Netflix.

Alex Lin
Matt Morgantini
December 8, 202011:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)