In a series of virtual Zoom panels and Q&As, Netflix & Pearl Studio released a first look behind the scenes, at a trailer, and at the main voice cast for Glen Keane’s upcoming feature directorial debut, Over the Moon.
After losing her storytelling mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) and learning that her more scientific father (John Cho) plans to remarry, a clever young girl named Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) is determined to prove the existence of the legendary Moon Goddess, Chang’e (Phillipa Soo). Fueled with determination and a passion for science, Fei Fei builds a rocket ship to the moon and ends up on an unexpected quest, discovering a whimsical land of fantastical creatures. Directed by animation legend Glen Keane, produced by Gennie Rim and Peilin Chou, and featuring the additional voice talents of Sandra Oh and Ken Jeong, Over the Moon is an grand musical adventure about moving forward, embracing the unexpected, and the power of imagination.
TRIP TO CHINA
Q&A: China’s portrayed so vividly and lovingly here. Can you tell us about your trip?
Glen Keane: Well, I think there’s something wonderful about telling a story from the point of discovery where you are learning something new. There is an energy – like you cannot wait to tell somebody about it. And what was, I guess the most inspiring to me, was how everything happens around food and the dinner table. And it became the tent poles for our film from the beginning to the end, that family dinner was such an important storytelling point.
GK: What was amazing to me about China was the deep roots of tradition and the incredible advancement in technology. 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 on. The story of Fei Fei, where she grows up in this town. 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. And so she just, oh, okay.
Well, wait a second. Wait. And 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, I did sketches.
And 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.
Audrey Wells, screenwriter and story creator for several films including this one, passed away in 2018 after a multi-year battle with cancer.
Q&A: Peilin, this is a story of memory of a deceased loved one, but it’s also about creating a new family and embracing that and accepting a new normal. Where does that overall story come from?
Peilin Chou: The story really, the heart of the story really comes from Audrey Wells, our writer. We pitched her the idea initially of the story of a little girl that decided to build a rocket ship to go to the moon. She was so excited about that idea, about a strong girl that loves science and was interested in doing that. But beyond that, she really connected with the story thematically because she was going through her own journey in her life. We didn’t find out until a year or so of developing the project with her, that she shared with us that she was sick and she didn’t have a lot of time left.
And so she really, really wanted to leave this movie behind as a love letter for her own daughter and her husband to talk about what happens when people pass on, that love still really lasts forever. And it was so important to her that this movie got made and realized in a way so that that message could be with her daughter and her husband forever. And we were really fortunate that she was still with us at the first screening. So she really got to see a version of this film, which she absolutely loved, and was so, so happy and excited about.
Q&A: Sandra, I know you have a long association with the screenwriter, Audrey Wells. What did this movie mean to you with that connection, and just in general?
Sandra Oh: And I am very, very, very grateful to Gennie, because I am going to tell this story of, after Audrey’s a memorial at the WGA. We were both there. I didn’t know she was there. She knew that I was there, and then I was leaving and then she stopped me. She stopped me at my car and said, please, you must do this. You must do this part. And I was just thinking, because we’re doing press, and I was just thinking of, what was it? I’m sorry, I’m rambling. But it’s like, I knew what the script was about. And I think it was for emotional reasons that I just … There was lots of issues with timing and schedule or whatever. I don’t think that really emotionally I could read that script. And I still feel emotional about it now, which is why I’m now so grateful that Gennie, you stopped me. And that also Audrey was really calling to me in a very Audrey way. It’s like, “What are you doing? Will you just please do the part please. Just make your schedule work and just make it happen.”
Q&A: And we talked about its universality and relatability. What specifically do you think it has to say during the times that we’re in, that we’re in a very unique time right now?
GK: Well, Audrey Wells talked about her … Every movie she said, “Every movie ideally,” she said, “is about the same thing. It’s about healing something inside that’s hidden down, and you have to go on a journey for healing, some way or another.” And this is exactly what Fei Fei goes through. A loss that she cannot accept, love was embodied in just this one person, and what happens when that person dies and is not there. And she can’t handle it, and so she, in some amazing way of her intelligence and her imagination, believes that building this rocket, and going to meet Chang’e, that represents love that lasts forever, is the solution. Take a photo of her, prove to dad that, that love is real and he won’t remarry. And in her 12 year old mind, there’s logic.
The dominos fall in the good path, and what she discovers there, is that Chang’e has also needed that same healing. She’s been locked up wanting, just loving that one person that’s it and he passed away, and they both relate to each other, and they end up unlocking each other’s hearts where they learned to embrace change, they learned to love somebody new. And that is so much the message of today, right now, that we are all in the middle of change. We, on this film, we really have had to embrace it, because of everything that happened right at the pinnacle of intent production.
Suddenly we had to leave the office and do this all at home. And it’s worked, it’s actually worked by leaning in and connecting with each other in our homes. Something even better, in some ways, has happened.
THE CAST AND CREW
Q&A: Glen, after Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, now you have Over the Moon, it seems like you have a real affinity for strong, female heroes or heroines. Is that your favorite? Is that the best kind of a hero for you?
GK: I love characters that believe the impossible is possible. I like that in my own life. And I guess I really relate to that, these characters that see beyond the problem. It’s just so inspiring. We all face impossible odds in our life, now more than ever, and nothing can stop a character that sees the goal, Ariel to live out of the sea somehow, is that same kind of spark that is in Fei Fei. For a 12 year old girl to build a rocket to the moon, this is crazy. This is impossible. How’s this going to happen? But to see that nothing’s going to stop her – I felt like I have to do this movie. I get that girl. I want to animate this movie.
Q&A: Cathy – How did you feel portraying a character more interest in science than becoming a princess?
Cathy Ang: 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 our heroine, who’s the focus of the story, be this excited by knowledge.
Q&A: What was your process to find Fei Fei’s voice?
CA: And so I think it was a huge collaborative effort, but they also wanted me to bring parts of myself to her, and it ended up being just this girl that I think everyone can relate to because she is just funny and confident and determined to accomplish anything that she wants, which everyone knows. Everyone knows that person.
Q&A: John – You have been in other animated films. What was your favorite part of being in this project?
John Cho: For me it was working with Glen, and he’s really an empathic director. And for me, that’s the kind of takeaway of this movie and of the moment right now. As I think about what you said, Glen, it’s right now. I think the goal is to expand, rather than shrink our sense of family, as a country and as a world right now. And this movie is such an exercise in empathy, through the experience of the grief of a young girl, and her father as well. So, that to me is the gift of this film, for me personally, is really exploring our capacity for empathy right now, for me personally in this, and is I think in a larger sense politically.
Q&A: Ruthie – What appealed to you most about Fei Fei’s mother?
Ruthie Ann Miles: What appealed to me most is that her heart is just so open, and she’s so imaginative. And her mother’s heart is to open her child’s mind to possibilities. Not only to entertain her and love her and nurture her, but to entertain and love and nurture her mind, which was very important to me. It was special to me to see someone who is caring, not only just about the child.
Q&A: Phillipa – Did you know about Chang’e? Did you grow up hearing about the legend and if you did, what did that mean to you taking on the role?
Phillipa Soo: Yes, I did grow up with Chang’e. Not necessarily her legend, but a children’s book written by Amy Tan, which was beautifully illustrated. And I remember as a kid, asking my dad to read it over and over and over to me. Because I was just obsessed with this idea of the moon lady. And when I was asked to play her, I was of course honored because it’s so infrequent that I’m being asked to play specifically Chinese characters. And also even more rare that I get to be in a film with incredible Asian actors who are surrounding me.
Q&A: Peilin, can you tell us a little bit about Chang’e’s costumes? They were designed by the Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei and they’re fabulous. How did it come about that you actually went to a fashion designer?
Peilin Chou: Yes. So Chang’e as a character is obviously in our film larger than life. She’s a diva and has a brilliant, eccentric personality. And at the same time, she is a legend in China. A figure that is really, really beloved, more well known than Santa Claus in China. And so we knew we wanted to do something special for her in terms of her costuming. But we wanted to find somebody that would also be able to honor the authenticity of how she is originally known as a character. And so Glen, Gennie and I talked a lot about who would be the right person to take that on.
And after we kind of came to consensus on what qualities we’re looking for, I just really felt like, well, then it has to be Guo Pei . Guo Pei is China’s most famous Haute Couture designer. But she kind of burst onto the international global scene when she designed Rihanna’s famous yellow gown for the met gala. And the prior year also, she had been named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. So she was really having her influence and her work and her creativity bursting out into the world.
And so of course, we’re excited about her. But then it was the task of like, how were we going to convince her, Guo Pei, we thought of her way up there to help us out on our little animated film. And Pearl Studio is headquartered in Shanghai. And we had had some connection with Guo Pei who is based in Beijing, about potentially if the right project came along, working in animation. And we had learned that actually, even though Guo Pei is a very famous fashion designer, she from the time of her youth had always really wanted to work in animation. So it seemed a bit of kismet.
And we reached out to her and told her about this wonderful project. And said, “How would you like to costume the most iconic Chinese goddess of all time and do it with the amazing Glen Keane?” And she agreed to meet up with Glen and take a meeting with us. And kind of the rest of the history. Once you get in a room with Glen, you don’t say no.
Q&A: How did you chose the songwriters and composers that you did?
PC: There was one team and one single song writer that floated to the top of the batch, and so we really talked about it and I said, “So, Glen, what do you think? What really resonates the most with you?” And he said, “Well, I think we should just hire them both.” And I said, “What? You can’t do that! Nobody does that. You can’t hire both of them, ask people that have never written together to just come together and write songs.” But Glen was very determined to make that happen and really thought they would all bring different things to it. And so the more I listened to him, the more I thought, okay, maybe we can hire them both. Let’s try it. And I think that’s really emblematic of the spirit of this film and the way it was made, which is it’s never about how it should be done or how it’s been done in the past, but just what is best for this movie and what can we do to really bring a fresh and creative perspective and voice to the film?
STORY AND THEMES
Q&A: As Asian American women, what does it mean for you to be a part of a film like this?
Gennie Rim: From day one, to resonate with a character like Fei Fei, to tell the story, which is about healing and just to represent the Asian American or Asian families and that we’re blended. We can be all different types of families that come together and just learn about love and giving love and sharing love in our own way, within our culture, and to be able to present that to the world was just such a gift.
Q&A: As an Asian American parent, how important is it to you to provide examples of representation for your own children?
John Cho: for my daughter, while we were watching this film, 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, the world where giving her content or providing content for her, where this stuff is normalized is a real gift.
Q&A: Glen, the spirit is, you really get a feeling about the resilience in the face of obstacles that Fei Fei faces and perseverance. Those feel like key themes in the movie. Why do you believe that particular story is important today?
GK: I think that there is a drive in every one of us to see ourselves accomplish something that maybe we look at ourselves and we don’t believe that that’s possible. And to have role models to look at and say, no, that person did it. Fei Fei is a real blend of her two parents, that her dad sees things in a very scientific, practical way. Fei Fei is incredibly intelligent. She’s also like her mom who has this imagination that’s just as strong and clear as the science and it’s together, both of those, that inspire her to build a rocket to the moon, to meet a goddess that lives on the dark side of the moon. I mean, this is crazy, but it happens. And I think that sometimes our dreams seem crazy, but it can happen.
Q&A: Is there a specific message that you want people to draw from it?
PC: I think for me, growing up here in the US, I definitely grew up at a time where I never saw anyone that looked like myself in film or on television, and so it’s so meaningful to me to be able to bring this type of story and the culture also, which very much is a part of who I am and how I grew up. I grew up knowing the legend of Chang’e, believing in her and celebrating every year, the holiday, I would be out on the lawn with my family. We’d look up at the moon and look for her and Jade Rabbit, and every year I was so certain I could see them, up until a certain age, of course. To me, the notion that the world is going to now know Chang’e – it’s kind of mind blowing because you can imagine if you’re a kid and in China she’s more famous than Santa Claus.
So, if you know her like kids around the world know Santa Claus, but you go to school and everybody’s like, who’s Santa Claus? And you’re like, what? It really seems crazy. So, no more will that happen. Everyone will know who Chang’e the moon goddess is. I couldn’t be more excited about that.
Q&A: What changed between working all those animated films you made with Disney and then working with Netflix, what the difference was?
GK: Well, Netflix is a really unique studio in that there isn’t a house style. There’s a leaning into each creative’s personal vision. At the beginning, those were the words that Melissa Cobb and Peilin really talked about. Like, no, we want you to make your movie. And it was really true. I mean, we did this film at an amazing speed. We were the first ones in this little Netflix animation studio. Gennie amazingly created out concrete floors this whole little animation studio and brought everybody together. And within four months, five month, had the entire movie up with the eight songs written, storyboarded like Cathy said. Everything was happening really fast. She had to record everything. There was this confidence that this was going to stick. This was our film.
And in a remarkable length of time we’ve actually been able to… With that kind of momentum, accomplish this. And even when the coronavirus hit, we were into one of the most difficult phases of the film. And suddenly, we all had to exit the building and we didn’t skip a beat. We continued to work all the way through. There’s a certain destiny to this film that is unstoppable.
Q&A: How do you all feel about the film debuting on Netflix rather than in theaters, and the immediate reach to millions of viewers?
Sandra Oh: I’ll start. I have two minds about that. The reach of Netflix is just immense, and we’re consuming entertainment content in a different way, where everyone is used to that. For those of us who also love cinema, you know what I mean? And 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 what, where we’re going to be. 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 different platforms … It’s just, there’s always good things and always not great things about it. So, those are my thoughts regarding that.
Phillipa Soo: you are also right that the accessibility, if someone already has Netflix or they’re not a subscriber yet, and they can subscribe for, I don’t even know how much it is right now. But, they can subscribe and have access to a bunch of different stories that you could just absorb like a sponge. So I think that’s the sort of silver lining of this time, which is, we’ve had time to open our ears, and open our eyes, and maybe find a story that we wouldn’t necessarily have seen if we were just going about in our daily lives. And I hope that specifically with this film, I hope that it does bridge those barriers, heal the xenophobia that I think we’ve been experiencing in this country since COVID, and just remind people that we can still have a collective experience together, even when we’re not in the same room.
KEANE DRAWS FEI FEI AND BUNGEE
At the end of each panel, Glen did a sketch of protagonist Fei Fei and her bunny, Bungee, while discussing his characters, animating, and creating real people for the audience.
Glen Keane: Every character that you animate becomes like one of your children in a way … And when you’re animating a character that has that, I don’t know, that quality inside of them, that you long to be like them. It’s really a powerful thing. I have this strange belief that when you’re designing a character, they exist before you even start drawing them. And that there’s this process of experimentation … If you live in the skin of these characters as you’re animating them, if you believe them, the audience believes them as well.
GK: I mean for me drawing is the most important tool that I had as a director. I can point to something with words, or I can draw. And in the case of Fei Fei, there’s a girl who is about to take you on this journey. But, how does she appear? What form does she take? And I found that I had this strange belief, that the characters that I’ve animated from Ariel, to Beast, or Aladdin, or whoever that they exist before you start to draw them. And that as you design them, they appear as if they’re hidden in the page, and then they come out and suddenly there they are.
Like, I know Fei Fei. I just know her as a person. I will know her for the rest of my life. These are like children to me that I … You don’t have a favorite. They’re all very, very special. There is no character quite like Fei Fei, this blend of incredible intelligence, and remarkable imagination and determination to follow a course that just seems crazy. Like, how in the world could this girl build a rocket to the moon? But through determination, through her intelligence, her faith, she accomplishes it. As you’re animating though, you’re trying to communicate such important emotions and there’s a certain point where you get to where you feel like, “I’ve tried to say it in dialogue. I’ve said it in storyboard, but music has got a power that goes deep, deep into our souls and that was so important for this movie.”
FINALE AND TRAILER
The panels were also treated to a rendition of the film’s main song, “Rocket to the Moon,” performed by Cathy Ang, the voice of Fei Fei. Afterward, the trailer was shown again.
With each member of the cast and crew coming into the project with notable successes already achieved, Over the Moon looks and sounds unsurprisingly strong. The sheer amount of talent creating its foundation and building it together has produced an exciting addition to the Netflix animation gallery, to the cast & crew’s careers, and to the world of animation storytelling in general as a fresh window into another culture and another mythology with so much to be creatively explored.