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‘Over the Moon’ turns Chinese legend into a musical animated feature

The Moon Goddess Chang'e (voiced by Phillipa Soo) in "Over the Moon."
(Netflix)

“Over the Moon,” the Netflix follow-up to Pearl Studio’s “Abominable,” continues the studio’s drive to present Asian stories in contemporary formats accessible to global audiences. It may be the first wide-release musical film to solely feature Asian American talent.

It spotlights the Chinese legend of Chang’e, the moon goddess who was banished there after denying a villain a magic elixir, separating her from her husband. The tale is told through the eyes and ears of Fei Fei, a modern Chinese teen (voiced by Cathy Ang) who learned the legend from her mother. After her mother’s death, Fei Fei decides to build a rocket to the moon to prove the story true.

Among “Over the Moon’s” murderers’ row of Asian American voice talent (including Sandra Oh, Margaret Cho, John Cho and others), the film features “Hamilton” star Phillipa Soo, who kills in a cosmic-diva take on Chang’e (blowing the roof off with her staggering pipes), and comic favorite Ken Jeong as lovable moon denizen Gobi (surprising some fans with his singing ability).

However, perhaps the film’s North Star — whose presence was felt long after her death in 2018 — was screenwriter Audrey Wells (“The Hate U Give”).

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Producer Peilin Chou said, “Everything about Fei Fei’s character and why she wants to go to the moon because of losing her mom and wanting to bring her family back together, Audrey brought to it. The character of Chang’e kind of being a diva — that Lady Gaga-Katy Perry-esque invention — no one in China’s ever seen her that way. And then [Fei Fei and Chang’e’s] parallel journeys of recovering from loss and grief, all of that was Audrey.

“When she turned the script in to me, she said, ‘This is the most important script I’ve ever written,’ which I was really taken by, especially from someone so successful. What I didn’t know at the time was that she was terminally ill with cancer and she knew that she likely would not live to see this film be completed.

“She wrote the script as a love letter to her daughter so that her daughter, Tatiana, would know that even though they couldn’t be together, the love they shared would last forever. And also to give her daughter permission to move forward and love other people and live a full life. Her desire to leave that message, and everything she filled the script with, was the guiding light for us all.”

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Meanwhile, Chou pursued longtime Disney animator Glen Keane and his producing partner, Gennie Rim, for the project. Rim said it took dogged determination from Chou to get them involved:

“Glen was already developing a project, so we were not sure. But when I read the script, like 20 pages in, I was already crying, just thinking there isn’t [another] project that could encompass everything that I would want to do in the animation world: the young Chinese girl being so driven by her passion and her belief in the moon goddess; to tell a Chinese myth to a global audience; to do it with animation; to do it with Glen; to do all these things in the way that Audrey wrote it ….

“We just fell in love with it, and we were like, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ ”

“Over the Moon” wasn’t originally a musical. Once Keane and Rim were onboard, they pitched Wells the notion of turning it into one, and the thing took off like, you know, a rocket.

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The filmmakers brought on composers Chris Curtis, Marjorie Duffield and Helen Park and somehow got them to work together despite their different styles and backgrounds (Curtis and Duffield were already collaborators). “Come on, guys, this sounds fun, right?” — at least, that’s how Rim described Keane’s pitch to them.

Somehow it worked, yielding a song score with the Oscar-contending “Rocket to the Moon” and the Chang’e showcase for Soo’s extraterrestrial vocal badassery, “Ultraluminary.” And Chou said all the songs were written in about two months.

“Every one of those songs came from something that was really in the DNA of the script,” said Keane, “so those songs came out of moments that had to be. I remember sitting, like, a foot away from Cathy Ang in Peilin’s office, and we were working on [‘Rocket’]. And as Cathy sang — it was just these little lyrics about walking on a lunar dune, it’s not the most important part of the song — but the way her eyes smiled at that moment, you could not help but believe that girl really desired to be there. I could not wait to animate that song.”

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Chou said Wells worked on the film as long as she could, turning in a rewrite after the first screening in July 2018. She died that October.

“At the end of our film, Fei Fei is visited by the crane that is meant to represent her mother,” said Chou. “During production, Tatiana was on a ferry in the Bay Area, and this white bird came and landed on the ferry. Almost like from our movie.

“And it stayed with her and then flew away.”

“No. 7 Cherry Lane,” “Kill It and Leave This Town” and “On-Gaku: Our Sound” are among the idiosyncratic, personal animated works this season.

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