Animation legend Glen Keane says he came on board to direct the upcoming animated film “Over the Moon” because he found a striking similarity between its protagonist Fei Fei and late NBA legend Kobe Bryant, the subject of his Oscar-winning animated short “Dear Basketball”. Both the stories, the director said, are about people who dreamt of making the impossible possible. Chaitanya Tamhane: Alfonso Cuaron Taught Me How to Be a Professional Filmmaker
“Over the Moon” follows a girl named Fei Fei, who is passionate about science and builds a rocket ship to the moon to prove the existence of Chang’e, the legendary moon goddess in the Chinese culture. Whereas, “Dear Basketball” (2017), also directed by Keane, is based on a letter by Bryant announcing his retirement from basketball in 2015. The Los Angeles Laker player, who also executive produced and lent his voice to the five-minute autobiographical short, died in a helicopter crash in January that also claimed the life of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others. Gemma Chan Sees a ‘Definite Shift’ in Hollywood As Filmmakers Are Going for Colour-Blind Casting
Asked why he decided to take up “Over the Moon” as his feature directorial debut after close to four decades as a Disney animator, Keane told PTI in a Zoom interview, “What I found fascinating was the similarity of the central characters in ‘Dear Basketball’ and ‘Over the Moon’. “This year Kobe passed away. He had such a huge impact on me and our team. We gathered the day after he passed away, talked about him, cried and went through an incredible grieving process. He was a close friend of mine.”
The 66-year-old director said characters like Fei Fei and Bryant who are driven by determination “speak” to him. “Kobe had this childlike belief that the impossible was possible. It could be half a second left on that clock and he was still going to make that shot, and he did and won the championship. He drove himself by this inner belief and yet there was this quiet childlike quality to him.
“When I was reading about Fei Fei, I realised this is the same kind of a character… this determination. She is going to build this rocket to the moon, she is going to see a character no one believes in. I love characters like that,” he added. The American-Chinese fantasy musical adventure, penned by the late Audrey Wells for her daughter Tatiana, highlights the theme of overcoming the loss of a loved one. Wells, also an acclaimed director-producer, died of cancer in 2018.
Keane said normally animation might steer clear of a deep and painful story like “Over the Moon”, but as Wells’ script had “a beautiful intent” behind the story, he was compelled to work on the project. “Audrey Wells was driven to find a way to speak to her daughter after she was gone. She knew she would not be here after this movie was done. Her daughter needed to hear and the best way you can hear something is not necessarily through an intellectual argument, but through symbols and poetry. So much of this film is a visual poem.”
While Fei Fei is mourning the loss of her mother, Chang’e longs for her dead husband, Houyi, the archer. Sadness and joy, he said, are two sides of the same coin, and these characters overcome grief by going into the ‘Chamber of Exquisite Sadness’ on Lunaria, the otherworldly place ruled by the goddess.
“It’s the exquisite sadness because it’s something essential that we have to go through. At one point Fei Fei says, ‘I just wish life could go back to the way it was.’ Every child or adult, even right now, don’t we all say that? The pain we go through becomes part of us. In many ways, it’s the deepest and most beautiful part of us,” he added.
Keane, known for his work on films like “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and “Tangled”, said he understood the importance of being a director after helping other filmmakers realise their vision. “I was trained by men who were directing animators working on sequences of ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Bambi’. I did the same on ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’. But the difference was when I’m animating Ariel, next to me is the director, he’s got the map of where this movie is going.
“In this case, I needed to be the one saying where we needed to go and as much fun as I could have in living in the skin of the character that was incredibly important.” Led by an all Asian American voice cast, “Over the Moon” modernises Chang’e and the filmmaker said as they were turning a sacred character from the Chinese culture “upside down”, it was important they found a way to turn her back again. Keane added his aim is to put the future of animation “in the hands of other cultures to tell their stories” to the world. Set in the Chinese town of Wuzhen, the film is “rooted first in China”, he noted.
“I was tasked to tell it with all the sincerity and authenticity. We walked through this tiny town called Wuzhen. The smell, taste, light, textures, and sounds is what we put in the beginning of the movie,” he said, praising production designer Celine Desrumaux for bringing out the subtleties of the little town. Son of “The Family Circus” cartoonist Bil Keane, the director said he makes animated films as he aims to “grow younger”.
“I’m trying to be as free as my grandchildren are in their drawings. I would do a drawing to make the paper go away so I could step into that world and live there. If I was drawing dinosaurs, I was going back into the time. Like the paper was a time machine. That’s what I was these movies to be.” Starring Cathy Ang, Phillipa Soo, Ken Jeong, John Cho, Ruthie Ann Miles, Margaret Cho, and Sandra Oh, “Over the Moon” will start streaming on Netflix from October 23.