Saturday, October 24, 2020

Earthbound: OVER THE MOON

Over the Moon is just not as good as one would want. Director Glen Keane was the lead animator on such hand-drawn classic characters of the Disney renaissance as Ariel, Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Tarzan. His last feature work for the company was designing Rapunzel for Tangled, a project that began its life as a traditionally sketched film and ended up the studio’s first CG princess musical. Of course, now basically no one is making well-financed hand-drawn animated films—even Ghibli is hard at work on some computerized feature—which meant Keane jumping over to Netflix gave some hope that they’d opened their bank vault for a return to form. Alas, it’s not. It’s another painfully generic-looking CG family feature, in which a girl goes to the moon with a few plucky cute sidekicks and meets glowing fantasy beings and a lunar princess and they sing and dance and the colors are nice and, gee, isn’t it sweet that it all resolves the young lady’s emotional issues?

How is it that animation—a fantastical art that, by its very nature can show us literally anything its creators dream up—has calcified into such a restrictive form? It has a limited palate of plot concerns and a shallow tool box of visual tricks. The exception is the top end of the scale, where you have a company like Disney or (their own) Pixar that will still pour hundreds of millions of dollars to innovate technology for light and movement—adding depth and nuance and some personality to their computer animation—and everyone else, for the most part, is trying to chase their style but at much lower cost. It all looks fine, but so similar, sliding off the brain the instant you see it. The top tier can be striking—the inner glows of a character like Moana or the dazzling colors of Coco are something else—but everyone else goes for these plasticine character models and blandly vibrant picture book light and color displays. Even so, anyone not at the top (your UglyDolls, your Scoob!s) is just making stuff where the plots are thinner, the characters simpler, the music chintzier, the emotions easier.

I don’t really mean to take this larger critique of the whole form out on Keane’s directorial debut, which is a totally watchable and pleasantly boring formulaic animated picture. But it’s just the proverbial straw that broke this animation fan's back. (At least Dreamworks Animation’s so-so Trolls World Tour, for all its enervating cliche, still had me saying, wow, look at those textures!) Larger critiques of the state of the modern family animated film aside, I hardly remember this particular picture less than twelve hours later—the characters are stock, the plot is standard, the songs are unmemorable. (I hope that last claim doesn’t come back to bite me.) Despite admirably featuring a cast of Chinese characters, a setting rooted in that tradition, and a cast of that background, the movie itself is nothing we haven’t seen before a gazillion times before. It wore me out.

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