"The feature film directorial debut of former superstar Disney animator Glen Keane" cannot possibly help but be a big deal, even if it's not a big deal. Apologies for trying to be cryptic right out of the gate, but I'm doing it with a purpose: the unfortunately reality is that Over the Moon - the name of this directorial debut - is, in fact, not very much of a big deal. The most interesting thing about the film is how desperately it's trying not to be interesting: how much it's trying to hew to all the standard clichés and narrative boilerplate of contemporary children's animation, with maybe just a bit of a twist here or there to make it seem ever so slightly more specific or thoughtful.

But not too specific - in fact, not being too specific is kind of the film's whole deal. This is the latest in an ongoing trend of Chinese studios attempting to make Hollywood-style animated movies, largely by using Hollywood talent, though not necessarily Hollywood-sized budgets. In this case, Pearl Studio, founded as the Shanghai wing of DreamWorks Animation, has struck away from the parent company for the first time (after having collaborated with DWA on Kung Fu Panda 3 and Abominable), and has now partnered with U.S-based international supervillain Netflix to produce a movie for which the bulk of the animation was done by Sony Pictures Imageworks, the Canadian-headquartered CGI house of an U.S. movie studio owned by a Japanese conglomerate. The film is a inspired by Chinese folklore and structured like a 1990s Disney movie - the era during which Keane was at his most powerful - with characters and jokes on loan from 2000s-era DreamWorks. But, like, the less intensely obnoxious 2000s DreamWorks films.

The net result of this United Nations of cartooning is a movie that clearly wants, at a minimum, to be equally accessible to both little Chinese children and little American children, and I'm honestly not convinced that's even an attainable goal. But at any rate, what we have in front of us is not so very different than Abominable was: the setting is Chinese, the cultural context is Chinese, there's a dollop of overt pro-Chinese propaganda (for the length of one scene, the main character will not shut up about the amazing next-generation rail being installed in her neighborhood) the mood is as Yankee as all get-out. The plot is such paint-by-numbers twaddle that I fear I shall fall asleep in the middle of giving the gist of it: Fei Fei (Bryce Taylor Hall) is an adorable little girl who loves to help her family make moon cakes for the autumnal Moon Festival. The only thing she loves even more is the story of Chang'e, the Moon Goddess, who pines for her lost love Houyi in her lonely lunar palace. We are told all of this in not one, but two musical numbers, during which time Fei Fei ages upwards a bit (and is now voiced, as she will be for the rest of the movie, by Cathy Ang), and her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) dies of a disease that makes you press your hand to your forehead and stumble a little.

Jump forward a few more years, and Fei Fei - who has not visibly aged since the end of the musical number, and who could be anywhere from about 10 to about 16 depending on what the specific needs of the scene are - is horrified to discover that her father (John Cho) is courting a certain Mrs. Zhang (Sandra Oh), a very kind and thoughtful and sensitive woman. But any stepmother is a wicked stepmother as far as Fei Fei is concerned, so she concocts a scheme to stop this romance before it can officially end in marriage by building a rocket to the moon, finding proof that Chang'e exists, and using the goddess's immortal fidelity to shame her father into remaining true to the memory of his dead wife. She is accompanied by her own adorable rabbit Bungee, as well as her soon-to-be younger stepbrother Chin (Roberg G. Chiu) and his frog. On the moon, Fei Fei finds the court of Chang'e (Phillipa Soo) with hardly any effort, but to her horror, the moon goddess is hardly a desperate romantic, wasting away; she's a selfish diva who put on dance-pop concerts for all her minions, most of whom are sentient gummi candy moon cakes, and refuses to even listen to Fei Fei's request unless she gets a gift first. And so Fei Fei resigns herself to finding one, eventually recruiting the help of a talking pangolin named Gobi (Ken Jeong), a disgraced exile from the lunar court. More importantly, she learns to love and protect Chin, and to find that her obsessive need to keep her mother's memory front-and-center in her life and the lives of those around her is unhealthy and unsustainable.

There are just all sorts of avenues for animation stock situations there, and Over the Moon indulges in most of them: visually, sonically, narratively. The writing is, above all else, deeply banal: not awful enough to be noteworthy, certainly not sharp enough to be engaging. It just kind of exists to cycle us through all the other things, like the litany of songs that come in two flavors: anonymously tuneless Broadway-style songs for Fei Fei, and poppy bangers for Chang'e. The latter at least have personality, which is different from being good. There's also the usual mild wordplay silly humor, provided largely by Gobi, and gentle slapstick, provided largely by Chin, and a scene that is specifically designed to make you cry, though it suffers from being built upon Chang'e, a character who has not been even a little sympathetic until the exact instant that the film wants us to weep with her.

All about as memorable as a room-temperature fast-food hamburger. Seeing the Disney musical model get adjusted to fit the rest into it is vaguely stimulating, largely because it doesn't work (the film would benefit enormously from cutting Fei Fei's songs), but if there's anything here for viewers whose age is a number with two digits, it's pretty much all on the imagery. Not, I wish to clarify, on the animation: in fact, the character animation is a bit stiff. The rubbery, blobby moon inhabitants are leagues better than the humans, who all feel like they've been sprayed with clear varnish, locking their skin and hair down. But other than a few expressions and reactions that feel a whole lot like the director was pointing his animators squarely at Disney in the '90s (these are disproportionately given to Bungee), I don't think anybody would walk away praising the characters first and foremost.

Where the film really shines is in its design, particularly its lighting and color. The moon inhabitants are all illuminated by a soft, uniform glow from within; they are also painted in large patches of bright, solid colors. As a result, they all feel a bit like bath toys with lightbulbs inside, which I mean not merely as praise, but really giddy, excited praise. And here's where I'll admit that, disastrous story limitations aside, I really quite enjoyed Over the Moon. It is soft and rich-looking, and when it's leaning into the most spectacular aspects of its setting, it has a bright, intoxicatingly-colored aesthetic that's like nothing since Pixar's Coco.

The effect of the internal glow, beyond making the characters pleasant to look at, is that it generally works against the usual depth cues of shading that CG animation loves to play with, so while the characters all tangibly have mass, they appear to lack three-dimensional volume. This means that, while we're watching, they become more about shape of color moving against each other like flat, graphic objects, even when they're moving in three-dimensional space. The result looks rather like a painting done in CGI gouache. Famously (for a given definition of "famous" and a particular audience), Keane was trying to develop a "CGI oil painting" aesthetic for the project that became Disney's Tangled, when he was still slated to direct it, and while Over the Moon isn't that, I still wonder if it's facing in that direction. The flat feeling of the film definitely has that kind of painterly appeal, with its bold, big swatches of color feeling very different from ordinary CGI in some ineffable way. It's a superb aesthetic for the big, bold fantasy register the film is working in, anyways, and it does a lot to push Over the Moon past its drab script. Add in the breathtaking (and very short) introduction to the legend of Chang'e, a full-color descendant of Keane's work on the 2017 short Dear Basketball, and we have a film that is definitely thinking about how expressive and beautiful computer animation can be, if you break it out of the shackles of realistic lighting and layout. It's undoubtedly a compromised work, and I hope that Keane's next film doesn't have to answer to so many masters; but there is promise here, at least.