A film review by Craig J. Koban August 17, 2011
MARS NEEDS MOMS
2011, PG, 88 mins.
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
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’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
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
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?
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
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.