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Thursday, November 26, 2020

Glen Keane on avoiding ‘outsider gaze’ in Over the Moon: Had Asian artistes onboard

Over the Moon, an American-Chinese animation film, features an all Asian voice cast including Cathy Ang, Phillipa Soo, John Cho and Margaret Cho.

Written by Priyanka Sharma | Mumbai | Updated: October 25, 2020 9:10:48 am
over the moon animation film netflix glen keaneDirector Glen Keane talks about his debut feature Over the Moon, which is streaming on Netflix. (Photo: Instagram/glenkeane)

Over the Moon began as a discovery of Chinese culture for Oscar-winning director Glen Keane and as he got to the drawing board, he had fallen for the “the taste, the smell, the sound of China.”

Over the Moon is a retelling of a popular Chinese fable. Penned by the late Audrey Wells, who died of cancer in 2018, the American-Chinese animation film is the story of 12-year-old Fei Fei, living in the Chinese town of Wuzhen, whose only way to grapple with her mother’s demise is by holding on to the story she often told her – of the legendary moon Goddess Chang’e.

Glen Keane, who won an Oscar for his short Dear Basketball (2017), recently spoke to about being conscious of the Chinese perspective, getting onboard an-all Asian cast and how Fei Fei will be a medium for children to grasp the profound message of loss and letting go.

What made you choose Over The Moon, which is also your debut feature?

I love how Picasso once said, ‘I am always doing something I don’t know how to do.’ China or Chinese culture is something I wasn’t an expert in. It’s good to take up subjects that you don’t know something about.

Then you create from the point of discovery. I have a granddaughter. She comes running to me to show me a new thing, and she gets so excited. The same excitement I felt when I went to China. I could not wait to share it with the world.

I spent time at Chinese homes where people would gather with the uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces and have dinner. It was such an open, honest family. The importance of tradition, generation and respect. The food was so tasty. The taste, the smell and the sound of being there. I could not wait to share it all with the public with this film.

When one goes to another country and observes its culture, the representation runs the risk of the “outsider gaze”. How did you navigate that with Over the Moon?

I was blessed with a great Asian team around me. My producer Jimmy Rens is from Korea. My other producer Peilin Chou is from China. We had a group of artistes in China who were like my conscience. Then our whole voice talent was Asian. We got them as animators also. Also, female Asian talent would really relate to Fei Fei and Chang’e. That was so important.

There was a scene where Fei Fei is given a gift by Mrs Xhang and she doesn’t like Mrs Xhang at all. An American 12-year-old, how would they respond? He will accept it with a sarcastic thank you, something that will give the displeasure away. When I talked to our team in China, they said, ‘No, no. You have to respect generations, somebody older than you. Fei Fei wouldn’t give a clue that she had anything but respect.”

Then I made her bow and asked them how that looked and they said, ‘No, this is not right. You had her bow too low. That’s how an older generation would bow. A younger generation like Fei Fei will give more of a modern bow, so I reanimated it. So, we were very careful in so many ways.

Was it a no-brainer to get an all Asian cast for Over the Moon?

There wasn’t any other consideration. We were telling a story from a Chinese perspective to the world. This is where I want animation to go. I want cultures around the world to tell their stories to the world, and not necessarily American animators telling their version of that culture. It’s very important for me to be authentic.

over the moon glen keane audrey wells cathy ang Glen Keane and Over the Moon lead voice actor Cathy Ang with the film’s producer Gennie Rim and late Audrey Wells. (Photo: Instagram/cathyang)

You told the story about death and acceptance through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl, which is novel but also risky because you are doling out big life lessons that even adults find difficult accepting let alone a child. But you said it with such simplicity and innocence. Could you talk about it?

This is also really why I wanted to do the movie because it was so deep and real but also told with humour and it’s almost like a visual poem. You don’t speak to children and I believe you don’t speak to adults either in an intellectual way about pain. You do it in an emotional way with symbols. At one point, Fei Fei says, ‘I just want things to go back to where they were.’ We all experience that.


And this is a film about loss. You wish you could go back. Fei Fei wishes her mom was still there. Children are not immune to loss and pain, and that’s why it’s important to do this kind of a story. Fei Fei She is going to take kids through this journey. This experience of suffering and coming out stronger. You don’t go backwards; you go forward.

Going forward leads you into exquisite sadness that Fei Fei has to go through. There’s no way around it. The only way that you escape from it is like Chang’e sees somebody else in pain like her and she frees Fei Fei, who in turn frees her. It’s a beautiful lesson that children can learn just by living in the skin of Fei Fei.

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