Film Review: Mars Needs Moms

Motion-capture animation takes a giant step backwards with this unappealing outer-space adventure.

A moment of silence please for the passing of ImageMovers Digital, the Robert Zemeckis-founded studio devoted to advancing the art of his new obsession, motion capture—the controversial process whereby human actors don high-tech suits and deliver performances that are then digitally enhanced by computer animators. IMD grew out of Zemeckis’ previous company ImageMovers, which was created in 1997 and produced live-action films like What Lies Beneath and Cast Away, until the director focused his attention exclusively on motion capture following 2004’s The Polar Express.

Strong box-office returns for Express and its follow-up Beowulf led Disney to acquire the outfit and tack the word “Digital” onto its name. Their first movie under the Mouse House banner was 2009’s A Christmas Carol, which was regarded as something of a critical and commercial disappointment considering the pedigree of the talent and source material involved. In early 2010, Disney announced that they would be closing IMD after releasing its final production, a sci-fi family comedy with the offbeat title Mars Needs Moms.

Would that they had simply spiked this ill-conceived film along with the studio. While Zemeckis’ trio of mo-cap movies were far from flawless (the dark, moody Beowulf was easily the best of the bunch), they at least effectively demonstrated the artistic possibilities—as well as, it must be said, some of the shortcomings—of this new format. Mars Needs Moms, on the other hand, is a terrible advertisement for motion capture, highlighting only its lesser qualities, from stiff character animation to clunky camera movements.

Director Simon Wells—the great grandson of pioneering science-fiction author H.G. Wells—demonstrates none of Zemeckis’ visual imagination or wit. His only notable directorial flourish is sending the camera hurtling after a character whenever he or she falls from a great height, a trick he repeats over and over again during the course of the movie’s interminable 88-minute runtime. Wells is also responsible for the film’s terrible screenplay, which he penned with his wife Wendy from a children’s book by Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed. (Fans of Opus can breathe a sigh of relief—the film bears almost no resemblance to its source material, so Breathed isn’t to blame for this mess. On the other hand, he may want to investigate the possibility of having his name taken off the movie on the grounds of character defamation.)

Mars Needs Moms
seems designed in part to recapture the spirit of such vintage kid-friendly space adventures as Explorers, Flight of the Navigator and SpaceCamp. It follows the exploits of a rambunctious nine-year-old suburban kid, Milo (Seth Green), who tells off his overworked mom (Joan Cusack) after she banishes him to his room for not eating his broccoli at dinner. Later that night, he wakes up to see her being carried away by an alien reconnaissance team. Hitching a ride on their Mars-bound rocket, Milo arrives on the Red Planet and discovers the reason behind his mother’s kidnapping. See, at birth Martians are separated by sex; the boys are cast down onto the planet’s surface to grow up as nonverbal savages while the girls are raised by robot nannies that have been implanted with the personalities of the stolen human moms. Once their minds are downloaded into these machines, the mothers are then incinerated, which seems an awfully wasteful use of what must be an expensive product to import.

This strange state of affairs is presided over by a stern, man-hating matron known as The Supervisor (Mindy Sterling), who barks her commands in what unfortunately sounds like a pronounced Asian accent. While trying to find his mother, Milo bumps into another transplanted Earthling, Gribble (Dan Fogler), a pudgy man-child who followed his own mom to Mars many years ago and saw her zapped to ashes. Trapped there ever since, he lives in mortal terror of being discovered by the Supervisor and her all-female army, but puts his fears aside to help his new friend. Also joining their rescue mission is a rebellious Martian girl named Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), who learned everything she knows about Earth culture by secretly watching clips of old ’60s sitcoms. (Because nothing is funnier or more relevant to today’s kids than gags about hippies and flower power.)

Some may argue that it’s foolish to expect internal logic from a kiddie cartoon (to which I’d simply respond, “Have ya met Pixar?”), but Mars Need Moms is so egregiously inconsistent about the most basic information that it often seems as if Wells is just making the movie up as he goes along. For example, Milo seems able to breathe Martian air for much of the movie, but then the climax hinges on him requiring an oxygen-producing helmet. It’s also unclear how big the ship the female Martians live on is meant to be, as it appears to house not only a towering metropolis, but also a subterranean cavern complete with primitive drawings on the walls. These discrepancies might have been less glaring if the movie were more fun, but for all the running, jumping and fighting that Milo, Gribble and Ki do, the proceedings are noticeably devoid of energy.

While motion capture may yet prove to be the future of cinema, here’s hoping that the next generation of mo-cap moviemakers take their cue from Beowulf, Avatar and even A Christmas Carol rather than Mars Needs Moms.