By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Disney animation legend Glen Keane was looking for something more, even throughout his tenure with the juggernaut. He wasn’t quite sure what it was, even when he was animating characters like Ariel and Beast.
He found it in Netflix’s “Over the Moon,” a colorful, emotional story about Fei Fei, who builds a rocket to the moon after losing her mom to look for Chang’e, a goddess of love.
“I left Disney and started to do some work using an iPhone, like ‘Dear Basketball’ with Kobe (Bryant). Suddenly, then everything that was coming in was wonderful and new and I started to develop a feature I was going to do,” he says.
“Netflix approached me to do this wonderful story that contained the kind of character I love, which is the character who believes the impossible is possible. I’m like that myself.”
Formerly of Paradise Valley, Keane knew he had to do this. The story was written by screenwriter Audrey Wells, who was diagnosed with cancer and died before the film was released in October.
“Audrey knew she would not live to see this movie,” he says. “She was really writing this story for her daughter so she would be able to move on in life. It’s about loving somebody new and going through the pain and embracing change in your life. I was born to do this movie.”
Keane, 66, put a subtle bit of his life in the movie as well. The round table the family sits around recalls a piece of furniture in his childhood home.
“When I was a kid, our family would sit around this round table in the living room,” he recalls. “My mom would have collected coins in a jar throughout the year and we’d all guess the total. Whoever got the closest to it would get everything in the jar.
“We would all gather around and start to count. Those were wonderful times sitting around together, counting that change; and at that same table, we would sit around and have wonderful meals together.”
When his parents passed away—father was “Family Circle” cartoonist Bill Keane—he inherited the table. In “Over the Moon,” the family in China sits around a table like his.
“When I went to China, I sat down in a Chinese family’s home and life was shared through food,” he says. “I think we all gained 10 pounds from this movie. We would gather around this little table.
“On my wall, I had a monitor that I would call ‘my window to the world.’ This was an internationally made film—the modeler was in Spain, the set designer was in Holland, animators were in Canada, Chinese designers in Shanghai, musicians in New York. The world was coming in, and we’d sit around that table and make the movie. In some amazing way, we were preparing for this pandemic where everything went to Zoom. We were already doing the movie that way for two years.”
In a way, the project reminds him of “Dear Basketball,” which won the Academy Award for Best Short Film (Animated) and the Sports Emmy Award for Outstanding Post-Produced Graphic Design. The film is based on a letter Bryant wrote for The Players’ Tribune in 2015.
“Kobe—what a surprise,” he says. “The best things in life are not necessarily things you’re working for. They’re the gifts, straight from God’s hand to us and you receive them. Kobe was like that. ‘Over the Moon’ was like that.
“Kobe is an animation fan. I’ll never forget the day he showed up at the studio. He came in a big, black Suburban. He hopped out alone with Vanessa and the girls. He was walking up and I thought, ‘This is so crazy.’ Our little studio was in West Hollywood, in a little Spanish-style house. It was a humble little place.”
As Bryant gave Keane a hug, the animator wondered what the basketball star thought of his studio.
“He was really quiet, just looking around,” he says. “He said, ‘It’s perfect.’ I said, ‘What’s perfect? What do you mean?’ He said it was everything he wanted it to be.
“What he saw was something that was very much like him—he was a guy who worked. There were no short cuts. It was about an incredible discipline in his life that started when he was in the NBA. He did poorly in a game, and that night he shot 1,000 free throws. He worked hard. In our studio, there was evidence of work and craft. He identified with that.”
The two sat down and watched Bryant’s top 20 plays, which Keane had previously downloaded.
“I said, ‘I can’t animate you unless you can tell me what’s going on in your head at these moments,’” Keane recalls. “We went through each one of those 20 great plays and he described it to me. I realized, for Kobe, his great success was not his athletic skills; it was his intelligence. I found this in the characters I love—they believe the impossible is possible.”
That’s why he wanted to animate Fei Fei.
“This 12-year-old girl builds a rocket to the moon. She knows math, technology, physics, and I animate that in her eyes,” he says. “The other part of her that’s really given to her by her mom is this faith, believing what others don’t believe and seeing what others don’t see. I animated that in Kobe. This little 12-year-old girl, Fei Fei, is the same. It was a wonderful thing to animate two characters with the same amazing thing.”