The latest motion-capture film from Robert Zemeckis’ ImageMovers studio, “Mars Needs Moms” is an ambitious film that provides impressive visual landscapes at the cost of an interesting or even engaging story. “Mars Needs Moms” has most of the components necessary for a good film, but curiously never finds the rhythm it needs to deliver a truly entertaining final product.
With Dad stuck in a stormy airport and unable to get home from a business trip, Milo (Seth Green in performance, Seth Dusky in voice), age 9, is giving his mom fits on another night in the family home. He’s not hungry for dinner, but becomes hungry when she offers him a chance to watch a show he’s been waiting to watch on pay-per-view. He left his clothes in the hallway again. He won’t eat his broccoli, gives it to the cat, and refuses to clean up the cat’s “reaction” to the broccoli. Mom (Joan Cusack) is frustrated, Milo is oblivious, and life goes on. After Milo pushes one too many of Mom’s buttons, pay-per-view is canceled and Milo is ordered to go to bed. He fights but relents. And then later on in the night, Mom catches Milo jumping up and down on his bed, acting crazy, and that leads to a fight where Milo informs Mom that he wishes he never had her for a mom.
Previous to this, Martians have locked in on Mom with their super-secret advanced spy technology and after watching her parent Milo effectively, Mom becomes their next acquisition. We later learn that apparently, the mothers of Mars lack the nurturing capabilities necessary to mother their baby Martians effectively, and so The Supervisor (Mindy Sterling) has concocted a plan to abduct mothers from Earth (nevermind the dads, or who decides whether the Martian mothers are good enough or not. Those are non-factors to the storyline here). Feeling guilty after their fight, Milo wakes up and looks for Mom to apologize, only to find she has been abducted by Martians. Desperate to save her, Milo rushes out to the spaceship, only to get hooked onto the landing gear of the ship and dropped into the hull of the ship as it takes off. Finding his way through the ship, he finds his mother in an incubation chamber and is soon locked away in an isolation pod.When Milo finds the courage to break out of his pod, he in instructed to avoid the security alarms by a voice instructing him to leap down an opening. Traveling through a rabbit hole of sorts, Milo ends up in a Martian landfill, only to be rescued by Gribble (Dan Fogler), another human being who suffered a similar fate over 20 years ago. Together, Gribble and Milo try to save Mom and the tasks prove to be much more difficult both physically and emotionally then either one of them could ever anticipate.
Visuals can only get you by for so long and in so many ways, “Mars Needs Moms” is stunning. The spaceship that Milo ends up on is breathtaking to witness and take in; its realism is affecting. In certain scenes, just looking at the backgrounds, you forget that you are looking at an animated film. That the backgrounds are so vividly realized serves as an incredible testament to the skilled ImageMovers team and the animation that they have delivered bequeaths some pretty stunning results.
Equally as stunning however is how badly the motion capture animation looks on the human being characters. This is not “Avatar” folks. In fact, I would argue that in comparison to Zemeckis and ImageMovers’ other motion-capture pieces – “The Polar Express”, “Monster House” and “Disney’s A Christmas Carol”, for example, the human rendering looks worse here than ever before. It’s not the same old “doll eyes and creepy” argument that dogs most of the human characters throughout motion-capture films in general; rather, the details seem off and the film loses the ability to have its viewers connect with the animated characters on the screen. All the realism afforded the sets, the backdrops, the impressive Mars landscapes and vistas are in startling contrast to the characters we are supposed to care about. I never emotionally connected to Milo, Gribble, or Mom, and as a result, the experience in watching “Mars Needs Moms” is akin to meeting an uninteresting person in a fancy location. You hear them, you put in the time, but you spend more of your time enjoying the artwork or the beautiful architecture, than actually enjoying the person you are with.
While much of the voicework is well delivered, including some clever work in speaking Martian by Mindy Sterling as The Supervisor, and especially Elisabeth Harnois as the rebellious Martian girl, Ki, the work of Dan Fogler as Gribble is a giant distraction. Apparently Simon Wells felt that having Fogler deliver his best Jack Black impression would serve the project best and it was a terrible miscalculation. Fogler’s all over the map in his delivery and his attempts to connect to the material are laughable. Fogler’s performance is distracting, even grating at times. When he is the catalyst to helping Milo accomplish his mission, and in turn ends up in a large majority of the film, the film suffers mightily.
Ultimately, “Mars Needs Moms” has too many faults to truly recommend it as a top-to-bottom success. There’s a lot to like but so many elements were misjudged or miscalculated that the film misses its mark. Reportedly, after completion of the principal animation for the film, Robert Zemeckis shut down ImageMovers in March 2010, only to announce some months later that he was re-opening the studio for a host of new projects. Like Milo, I wonder if Zemeckis was frustrated at what he was seeing and just threw a bit of a temper tantrum.
Either way, “Mars Needs Moms” may leave your kids entertained but induce a similar temper tantrum in adults who see the potential there on screen, but never see it truly come together in any memorable or meaningful way.