A film review by Craig J. Koban August 17, 2011

MARS NEEDS MOMS j
½ 

2011, PG, 88 mins.

Seth Green: Milo / Dan Fogler: Gribble / Elisabeth Harnois: Ki / Joan Cusack: Mom / Mindy Sterling: Alien leader

Directed by Simon Wells / Written by Simon Wells and Wendy Wells, based on the book by Berkeley Breathed

MARS NEEDS MOMS is one of the best looking bad films I’ve come across in an awfully long while.  Based on the 2007 picture book of the same name (unread by me) by Berkeley Breathed, the film was produced by Robert Zemeckis and Image Movers Digital, who were largely responsible for the motion capture-infused animated films like THE POLAR EXPRESS and BEOWULF, both which appeared on my lists for the Ten Best Films of their respective years.  MARS NEEDS MOMS is another unequivocally stellar example of motion capture animation and the film is exquisitely sumptuous on a visual level.  Yet, a multi-million dollar looking film should not be so severely undermined by dime store scripting as it is here. 

I am not so sure I understand why Zemeckis’ spear-headed motion capture animation has never really caught on in favor with mainstream audience members and critics alike.  Those that bemoan its distracting "uncanny valley effects" miss the point of the technology altogether: the style of the animation may suggest reality, but more of a heightened and expressionistic form of it.  And, of course, no form of animation, CG or not, will perhaps ever capture all of the subtle nuances of human expression, but what I have always appreciated about motion capture is the fluidity of the images and their level of texture and detail.  Films like BEOWULF and, yes, MARS NEEDS MOMS benefit from the meticulous richness that motion capture animation offers; considering their fantastical environments, they should feel both tangible and otherworldly at the same time. 

Alas, the quality of the animation is not MARS NEEDS MOMS’ real problem (the film is just as joyous and immersive to simply gaze at as any of Zemeckis’ past superlative animation works).  The real issue here is that it tells a clunky, expository heavy, and yet  remorsefully undeveloped premise that barely fills the film’s already scant 88 minute running time.  That, and imagination and a sense of awe and wonder are in egregiously short supply here too. 

Here’s the basics of the plot: Every quarter of a century hairy little baby Martians hatched right from the red planet’s ground and are placed in the care of highly advanced nanny robots.  Now, these nanny bots may be technological empowered creations, but what they really lack are parental skills, which truly perturbs Mars’ chief matriarch (Mindy Serling).  Seeing as these robots do such a bad job of rearing the cute little Martian babies, the Martian leader comes to Earth every generation and kidnaps a mother that appears to have a healthy grasp on loving discipline.  When they get the drugged mother back home to Mars, all of her motherly instincts are zapped out of her brain and uploaded to the nanny bots. 

The Martians seem to really be drawn to one mom in particular (Joan Cusack) who seems to demonstrate a willingness to be both nurturing and punitive with her nine-year-old son, Milo (inexplicably played by Seth Green in body movement form, but voiced appropriately by Seth Dusky) who does not seem to take her grounding of him early in the film very well at all.  After he has been sent to his room for the night he awakens later to realize, to his horror, that his mother has been abducted by the Martians, which leaves him feeling responsible to ensure her safe return back to Earth (the Martians apparently think she is an ideal candidate based on how easily she makes the child take out the trash).  Milo soon finds himself inadvertently on the alien mother ship that has scooped up his mommy and away he goes on the journey of his lifetime. 

When Milo does arrive on Mars he is rightfully stunned, but he is quickly befriended by a pudgy computer hacker genius named Gribble (Dan Fogler), who also at a point in his childhood had his own momma kidnapped by the Martians.  Even though Gribble is a hyperactive motormouthed geek that likes to reminisce about TOP GUN and Smurf Berry Crunch cereal, he does prove to be of great help to Milo (he fits him with a weight belt so that he does not float away in zero gravity).  Milo also is befriended by a liberated Martian named Ki (Elizabeth Harnois) who has learned English by watching bad TV sitcoms from the 70’s, which makes her sound like a hippie lovechild throughout.  With his two new companions, Milo soon learns the secrets of Mars' societal structure (above ground is ruled by the women, whereas the men live like rejects far below the planet’s surface) while engaging in a mission to rescue his mother and return to Earth unharmed. 

MARS NEEDS MOMS is an unrelentingly silly movie.  To be fair, the film has a buoyant lightness and sense of frivolous energy about it, but its underlining story is inanely simplistic and left me asking a lot of basic questions.  Like, for example, how could intelligent beings like these Martians in the film that are capable of building vessels that can travel through wormholes and visit  vast areas of the cosmos…not be able to make their own nanny bots advanced enough to look after unruly babies?  Furthermore, wouldn’t coming all the way to Earth and going to the trouble of kidnapping human females, taking them back to Mars, and then slurping out their DNA for cognitive child-rearing tips seem like a colossal waste of resources and energy?  Is their not a scientist on their planet that could not solve their problem with raising little Martians in a much more expeditious fashion? 

Maybe I am over-analyzing the plot, then again, how in the world do the Martian babies spring form the soil like garden vegetables?  What kind of mating ritual is required for such a process?  Does the degenerate male Martian species plant their alien-seed into the ground?  If so, and if babies sprouting out in the thousands is a problem, why not just ensure that the men are sterile and can’t produce children?  And…and…ah…skip it. 

Aside from thinking about the logical loopholes (again, perhaps too much) during MARS NEEDS MOMS, I guess I just grew really bored with the forward momentum of the story itself, which never really generates as much interest or conflict as it desperately needed to.  The comic relief presented is often generically insipid (you know you’re in trouble when a film requires a “Who Let The Dogs Out?” reference in it) and is usually placed upon the character of Gribble (you also know you’re in trouble when you completely depend on Dan Fogler for comic inspiration).  For as tedious as the script is, it also misses the boat with a shock ending that involves the would-be death of a character that might have produced an unexpected emotional payoff that could have, in turn, nearly saved the film.  No dice, because it takes the safest, road-most-traveled approach. 

MARS NEEDS MOMS (let’s face it…horrible, horrible title) emerged as one of Disney’s worst box office disappointments ever when released earlier this spring (it also has the dubious honor of being the fourth largest box office bomb in cinematic history).  It’s rare for films under the Disney brand that contain bravura animation to do so repugnantly awful at the box office.  At $150 million, MARS NEEDS MOMS does not have to apologize for its proficient and consummately rendered visual splendors (the character animation and the vistas of the creepily foreboding Martian landscapes are absolutely stellar), but it certainly has a lot to own up to in the script department.  At best, MARS NEEDS MOMS will be a good-looking, but trivial and forgettable endurance test for adults and a very modest diversion for kiddies.  

Oh, and by the way, the title is a sly reference to the 1966 film MARS NEEDS WOMEN, a satiric jab that will most likely be lost on the minds of all child audience members and many adults ones as well.

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