*½/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B+
screenplay by Simon Wells & Wendy Wells, based on the book by Berkeley Breathed
directed by Simon Wells
by Angelo Muredda It's hard to say who Mars Needs Moms was made for. An expensive but passionless special-effects exercise from yeoman director and co-screenwriter Simon Wells (The Time Machine) and producer Robert Zemeckis, who's put all his creative eggs since The Polar Express in the motion-capture basket, Mars Needs Moms sits uneasily with compatriots like The Pagemaster in the no man's land of children's films too dreary for most children to sit through. If it's too taxing a journey for kids, though, it's largely a bore for anyone else--a flat 80 minutes of animated bodies tumbling through metallic space chutes and neon hallways ripped from Tron: Legacy, scarcely made watchable by some of its impressive technological feats and by its surprisingly subdued tone, which at times borders on the elegiac.
The premise, ported from cartoonist and illustrator Berkeley Breathed's acclaimed picture book of the same name, is that a nasty clan of militaristic Martians, led by the grotesque Supervisor (Mindy Sterling, introducing her Frau Farbissina routine--now with a troubling Asian-inflection--to a generation unfamiliar with Austin Powers), is harvesting Earth moms for their essential mom-ness. The idea is that their extract (not as icky as it sounds, but close) might instil discipline in the alien young, a furry and degenerate crew--eerily coded as African--reared only by a fleet of "nanny-bots." Enter Milo, a well-behaved 9-year-old earthling voiced by Seth Dusky and embodied, to maximum uncanny effect, by 37-year-old Seth Green. Fed up with the summer chores and endless supply of broccoli odiously unloaded on him by his otherwise loving mother (Joan Cusack), Milo wishes aloud that he never had a mom, only to find the Martians all too willing to oblige him. Rushing to apologize for his rudeness, Milo sees his mom being carted away by a spaceship, and secretly boards it en route to Mars. There, he becomes friends with and seeks help from both unhinged fellow human Gribble (Dan Fogler), a Reagan-era tech guru with his own sad backstory, and rogue Martianette Ki (Elisabeth Hanois), a beatnik graffiti artist who's cobbled her English together from '60s Earth sitcoms that star none other than an uncredited Seth Green.
While a decent morality tale about appreciating what you've got could potentially be spun out of this material, Wells and company are clearly more interested in technology than in story, and accordingly stretch their thin narrative to get the most out of the finest motion-capture goodies Disney could buy. The result of this hubris is not only a bloated running time, which barely hits feature-length thanks to copious chase scenes with inconsistent physics and low emotional stakes, but also a curiously stilted visual style. Much has been made of how Zemeckis's former animated productions have dwelled uncomfortably in the uncanny valley and spawned nightmares starring a glassy-eyed Tom Hanks. Familiar faces like Cusack's do no better here: at best she looks like a porcelain doll of her frantic mom from Say Anything, and at worst she suggests a CG effigy of High Fidelity-era John Cusack--a bug-eyed, smirking automaton. Stranded by a script that incapacitates her in the first act and does little to establish the mom credentials for which she's abducted, Cusack is drained of her usual charisma and comes across as little more than a botched special effect, despite the emphasis the title would seem to place on her character. As such, she's the clearest symptom of the far too casual approach to storytelling from which the entire picture suffers.
The less recognizable Fogler fares much better. Part of his success is admittedly technical: where Mom tends to be framed in subdued domestic settings whose mood lighting renders her skin indistinguishable from the smooth kitchen table, Gribble resides in a harshly-lit computer terminal that emphasizes every bit of stubble and bead of sweat on his shopworn face. It's in this striking portrait that we get a sense of why motion-capture aesthetics might appeal to someone like Zemeckis, who has long been drawn to the tension between the artificial and the real, as evidenced in projects as disparate as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the man-volleyball duet Cast Away. But credit should also go to Fogler, whose awkward, overgrown boy, cut off from his past, is an original in a film full of copies. Gribble is a skittish and gloomy creation where sidekicks in movies like this are typically cheerleaders; his cabin fever feels almost too human given his synthetic surroundings, and threatens to bring the film to a real place it isn't quite prepared to visit.
That ambiguity makes Mars Needs Moms at once a mildly diverting sit for adults and a potentially tough sell for families, who dodged the film en masse earlier this year. Wells is hardly a stylist, though he brings some nice authorial touches to early scenes that play like a silent film, as the Supervisor ethnographically surveys the behaviour of Martian and human children alike from a blurry video monitor in space. Too, Wells has the taste to pull back on John Powell's bombastic score in quiet moments between Milo and Gribble, lending a lyricism to this B-story of two children rudderless (and motherless) in space--an underdeveloped human thread too often trampled by Seth Green's thrashing mo-capped body.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Disney brings Mars Needs Moms to Blu-ray in a gorgeous 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. From the fine red dust of Mars to the more subtle lighting in Milo's home, the presentation showcases the animators' nuanced work in detailing a number of different environments. Contrast is strong and colours are rich, particularly in less antiseptic environments like the grimy green lake Milo and Gribble wade through and its vivid, spray-paint-speckled shore. Most impressive for me was the look of Milo's faded yellow hoodie, which seems to have gone through the wash a few too many times. Disney has also provided an aggressive 7.1 DTS-HD MA track. After a fairly pedestrian start that's grounded in the front, we're treated to strong directional effects, like Ki looping around Milo to tag a wall he's leaning against, and nice ambience, especially when Milo bolts out of his home and into the woods after his mom.
Supplementary material is a mixed bag. The most compelling feature, "Life on Mars: The Full Motion-Capture Experience," offers footage of the actual performers (Cusack excluded for some reason) decked out in motion-capture paraphernalia. This picture-in-picture panel comes with an optional, chatty audio commentary reuniting Wells, Green, and Fogel. Wells is chiefly technical, as you may expect, while Green and Fogel mostly contribute anecdotes about the trials of acting under all that gear, with the former slipping in and out of his "Family Guy" voice. The process footage, occasionally replaced by incomplete animatics, will be of value mainly to those already interested in this kind of work; for anyone else, the novelty wears off pretty quickly. What's most revealing here is just how much of the actors' broad performances in that punishingly white set are fleshed out by subtle work from the animators, who recreate them in far more varied conditions.
The next major extra is a series of deleted scenes with video introductions by Wells, running 29 minutes in total. All are in HD, though some are unfinished sketches of scenes with spotty animation; sensitive children should be kept away from animatics with Cusack and Green's faces replaced by horrifying dotted grey masks. The best is the first, an eerie alternate opening featuring a Martian hatchling locked in a pen for surveillance. Next up is "Martian 101" (3 mins., HD), a brief primer on the film's depiction of the Martian language, which turns out to be ad-libbed gibberish; those interested in linguistics had best turn away. Rounding things out is "Fun with Seth" (HD): 2 minutes of cast members praising Green for keeping the set light interspersed with footage of Green himself being shockingly unfunny. Proceed with caution. A retail DVD of the film fills out the package; Disney concurrently releases Mars Needs Moms on the 3D Blu-ray format. Originally published: August 11, 2011.