The Disney Veteran Behind Tarzan and Pocahontas Takes On an Asian Fairy Tale About the Moon
The goal of animation is not the simulation of life, but the representation of it. A young Glen Keane was once told, “Glen, don't animate what the character is doing, animate what the character is feeling and thinking.” After a strong career at Disney, working on projects like The Fox & The Hound and Pete’s Dragon, Paperman and Wreck-It Ralph, Keane decided to take his talents to another Los Angeles institution, and won an Academy Award for directing Dear Basketball with Kobe Bryant. After a career of propping up legends, Keane is now ready to take the lead with his feature directorial debut, Over the Moon, an animated update of the legend of the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e.
Glen Keane animated Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tarzan, and more.
Keane’s tenure at Disney is among the most enviable in all of animation. Through the mid- to late-’70s, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) produced a number of prodigious animators who would all go on to be household names, figures like Tim Burton, Brad Bird, and John Lasseter. Burton doodled with personal projects like the original Frankenweenie short, while Bird went to The Simpsons. Keane was among those like John Lasseter who entered the Disney fold, and was mentored by the legendary “Nine Old Men,” a group of Disney’s longtime core animators who had worked on such classics as Snow White, Cinderella, 101 Dalmatians, and more.
Despite Over the Moon being his feature debut, Keane’s career has been anything but quiet. During his time at Disney, Keane himself handled a good chunk of character animation, leading the charge on such iconic characters as Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Tarzan, among countless others. “I have fallen in love with the characters that I animate. There's always a day where I leave the studio and I would... I remember leaving the Paris studio and Tarzan... I felt like I had my arm around him and I knew exactly what he was,” he says.
Keane combines tradition and technology in Over the Moon.
Over the Moon is about a girl named Fei Fei who builds a rocket to find her deceased mother, who Fei believes is living on the moon as its goddess. The 3D animation style a la How to Train Your Dragon and other prestige animation vastly differs from the 2D character animation Keane started with. However, having designed a legendary demo for a potential Where the Wild Things Are film way back in 1982, Keane has always been on the cutting-edge of technology, while deeply respecting hallowed traditions, something that reflects in Over the Moon.
“What surprised me was the technology and the deep roots of tradition. We were riding on their magnetic levitation train, which is in our movie, but it goes 425 kilometers an hour and the wheels don't touch the surface. It just floats. It was incredible. Then the next day we're in this tiny little ancient water town, and walking around and experiencing life there,” he says of a research visit to China.
With the continued liberalization of animation technology, Over the Moon looks to continue the wave of high-budget animation based on very cosmopolitan, internationally minded ideas and cultures, like Kubo and the Two Strings and Coco. “We had a dinner there in a Chinese family's home and Gennie, our producer, sat next to the grandma. And apparently if you sit next to the grandma, your plate is going to be full the whole night long… The family, the round family dinner table with the lazy Susan in the middle became the bookends for our movie to tell our story… it's told through the dinner table, and then there's this amazing movie in between. It's pretty exciting,” he shares.
Moon, a retelling of the Chinese fairy tale, ventures beyond Asian culture.
The most common tale of Chang’e, the moon goddess is that her husband, the archer Yi, was given the immortality elixir as a reward for shooting down nine of 10 suns that were scorching the earth. Yi’s apprentice, Feng Meng, attempts to steal the elixir, but Yi drinks it to keep him from doing so, and flies up to the moon where she can be close to her husband, who resides in the sun.
However, Over the Moon isn’t just about showing off Chinese culture. Says Cathy Ang, who voices Fei Fei, “It’s just so exciting to see a young girl who is so passionate about STEM and she follows her curiosities to the ends of the Earth… She experiments with such determination. She never gives up in the face of failure until she gets what she wants. And it's exciting to play a girl like that because I think kids everywhere could look up to her and that's wonderful.”
As Netflix prepares to release Over the Moon in late 2020, Keane relishes the opportunity to re-introduce a cloistered world to itself. “When we went to China, I had never been there. There was something really powerful about sharing an idea creatively that you just discovered, and going to China and discovering that world was incredible. I mean, if you saw it, if you heard it, if you felt it, if you smelled it, if you tasted it, it got in our movie.”
Over the Moon will premiere on Netflix in late 2020.