Glen Keane is a name you might not know by heart, but his work is certainly in your heart. A veteran of Disney animation for almost 40 years, Keane designed and animated characters like Ariel in The Little Mermaid and Elliot in Pete’s Dragon. He worked on Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Tangled, just to name a few. He learned the art of animation from the legendary, original “Nine Old Men” of Disney who made everything from Snow White to Pinocchio. Kobe Bryant asked him to direct his personal — and eventually Oscar-winning — short film Dear Basketball. If anyone has their finger on the pulse of the past, present, and future of animation, it’s Keane, and he’s about to make his feature directorial debut.
The film is called Over the Moon and tells the story of a young girl named Fei Fei who loses her mother. After years of dealing with the heartbreak, she builds a rocket and flies to the moon hoping to prove that the mythic goddess Chang’e actually lives there, just like she was told as a child. It stars Cathy Ang, Ken Jeong, Sandra Oh, Phillipa Soo, John Cho, Margaret Cho, and Kimiko Glenn.
“Fei Fei is the reason why I really wanted to do this,” Keane told Gizmodo over Zoom recently. “Certain things come along and you just cannot say ‘No’ to it because it’s so wonderful. It was like that with Dear Basketball. But this time the script was so beautiful and so clear and described the kind of a character that I love.”
“It’s this girl who’s this combination of her mum and dad,” he continued. “Her dad is a very practical, science-minded guy and she’s got this amazing intelligence…Then she’s got this part of her mum, which seethes with faith and imagination. That’s all in this one girl and it’s going to be communicated through her eyes and these emotions. And I was like ‘I want to animate that girl.’”
As a director, though, Keane doesn’t do much actual animating. What he does is supervise, advise, and have a hand in all aspects of production. As such, he made sure his team hired as diverse a group of animators and talent as possible to tell this interstellar story about ancient Chinese mythology and the real-life struggles of a young woman.
“It was really trusting animators up at Sony to dig deep into their own hearts and souls and put themselves into their work,” Keane said. “Gennie Rim, my producer, really worked hard in making sure this team have as many female animators as possible, as well as being Asian, just to be able to do the uniqueness of this film.”
Keane found that in assembling a diverse cast and crew, he in turn started to discover new things about himself and the medium of animation in general. For example, one day Keane randomly saw a drawing on Facebook. It was of Ariel in the “Part of your World” scene in The Little Mermaid, which he animated. (Keane drops little facts like that into the conversation when you’re talking to him and you can’t believe you are in the presence of such greatness). At the time Keane was struggling to make Fei Fei and the Over the Moon characters look different from the typical Disney or Pixar characters and something in this one piece of art just felt…different.
“First, I looked at it and went ‘Is that mine?’ But I said ‘No, it looks better. What is it?’ [There was] something really different and nice about it proportionally. There was this elongation or something. And I told my producer, ‘I want that. I want to get that into my drawing.’ She said, ‘Well, let’s hire her.’”
So the team hired artist Brittany Myers to come on board and help with the film, which is just one example of how Keane found that the work he’s done during his career inspired a generation, which is now inspiring him right back.
“It was really this wonderful new thing for me on this movie that I am going to keep going on for the rest of my life, which is reverse mentorship,” Keane said. “Surround myself with younger people that are so awesome and wonderful that I can learn from. And I know I’m going to share something that I’ve got hopefully with them, but I am unashamedly learning from them.”
That, Keane thinks, is the key to the future of animation. When asked what he feels is the next step is in the evolution of animation, having lived through not just Disney Animation’s reemergence, but the birth of digital animation, Pixar, and more, Keane thinks even bigger.
“I want people in other countries around the world to be able to tell their stories,” he said. “That’s what I want. I want to be able to work with them. I want to share that with them. I want to be inspired by them.”
“So I think the big thing that’s going to happen is kind of, in some ways, the equivalent of what the internet was in technology, but artistically,” Keane continues. “The equivalent of an artistic version of an internet where you are sharing ideas and working with people from all over the world.”
The kind of global effort that results in a universal, yet multicultural, movie, like Over the Moon which debuts on Netflix October 23.