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'Mars Needs Moms' Needs Help...Lots of Help

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Friday, Aug 5, 2011
Mars Needs Moms will go down in history as one of those "should have known better" efforts in an artist's oeuvre.
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Mars Needs Moms (Blu-ray)

Director: Simon Wells
Cast: Seth Green, Joan Cusack, Dan Fogler, Elisabeth Harnois, Mindy Sterling

(Walt Disney; US DVD: 9 Aug 2011 (General release))

There are so many things wrong with Mars Needs Moms that, perhaps, it’s best to start off with what the film gets right and then go from there. Sadly, there are so few things worth mentioning that it’s probably a fool’s paradise to mention them as well. Indeed, the least said about this rotten experiment in motion capture the better. As part of an ongoing experiment by former first rate filmmaker Robert Zemeckis, these all CG films (including the superior Monster House, the weird Polar Express, Beowulf, and the tolerable A Christmas Carol) have pushed the boundaries of technology. For every advancement, however, audiences have proven less than impressed. Indeed, the failure of this sci-fi fable forced studio sponsor Disney to reconsider Zemeckis’ next project, a similarly styled re-imagining of the Beatles cartoon classic Yellow Submarine.


Not even a battle with a bunch of Blue Meanines could have saved this sad, staid film. The problems begin with the process itself. Over the course of time, motion capture has gone from an animation advancement to one of performance. Actors now wear complicated rigs and perform their “actions” on a specialized stage. Sensors record the movements which artists then use as reference points for the visuals. As a result, the look is only as visually arresting as the people hired, both in front of and behind the scenes. Casting wise, director Simon Wells (another negative in the production path) brought Seth Green (good), Elizabeth Harnois (bad), and Dan Fogler (the ugly), to the party, and their efforts make/mar the overall result. Add in some crappy character design and you’ve got something guaranteed to frighten children and bore adults.
  
The story centers on young Milo (Green in body, unknown child Seth Dusky as voice), a precocious kid who doesn’t like listening to his ‘bossy’ mother (Joan Cusack). It’s the stern part of her personality that gains the attention of the Martians, however, who need ‘moms’ as program fodder for their computerized robot nannies. Apparently, the leader of the Mars kingdom, a cranky old hag named The Supervisor (Mindy Sterling) has banished the useless men of the species to the bowels of the planet and made females her primary fighting force. This leaves no room for parenting, much to the chagrin of citizens such as Ki (Harnois). So the Martian’s capture Milo’s mother, and he manages to sneak onboard their spaceship before its leaves Earth. Once on the red planet, he runs into fellow human being Gribble (Fogler). Seems his mom was taken years ago, and he’s been stuck on Mars ever since. Together, they will help Milo rescue his parent before she meets a terrible, tragic fate.


First off, the overall narrative is a little numbing for children. They’re used to their cartoon extraterrestrials being more on the cute than cruel side. The Martians here are relatively evil. Sure, the “hairy ones” living underground are hippie like (having taken most of their social cues from a surreal fictional Earth sitcom from the ‘60s), but The Supervisor and her minions resemble angry insects with real hate in their eyes…and what they ‘do’ to the moms is equally unsettling. Thanks to Gribble’s flashback, we get a healthy dose of that reality. Because they are such a threat, Milo really has no chance of defeating them. His ultimate victory must involve a great deal of hockey happenstance as well as character coincidences (Ki turns out to be a secret rebel wanting to return Mars to its more pleasant roots) to function…and even then, it’s oddly anti-climactic. 


As characters, Milo is a bit of a whiny drip. Without Green’s voice (which, in the Blu-ray’s bonus material, does sound out of place), he’s the worst kind of kid - all demands and no dimension. Then there is Harnois, doing a less hate crime version of the red planet’s version of Jar-Jar Binks. A little pseudo Martian goes a long, long way. Elsewhere, Cusack is her same ersatz Lucy self, while Sterling’s Supervisor is just mean menace. But the vote for absolute worst performance here goes to Fogler. Usually fairly dependable (Balls of Fury, Take Me Home Tonight), here he’s a combination of Chris Farley, John Candy, and any other fat movie fool’s worst attributes. He literally grates on your nerves as he delivers his horribly unfunny lines. This leaves Mars Needs Moms without a compassionate center, and sans anyone to root for, the movie’s motives just die.


But that’s the least of Mars Needs Moms problems. No matter the source (one imagines Bloom County’s Berkeley Breathed’s picture book being much, much better), the execution here is subpar. Wells, who really isn’t known for his formidable filmmaking skills, fails to excite us with his vision of the material. Instead, he’s so much of a technician, so enraptured of the new toys he’s been given to play with that he can’t remember to inspire the audience. Certain sequences looks spectacular, but ultimately fail to play. Similarly, the ability to have the actors create the performance limits what the animation can do. As a result, you often wonder why the film wasn’t a combination of live action and CG. It would make more sense than the zombified motion capture work here.


In fact, the biggest problem Zemeckis faces now is getting his technologically tweaked conceit to be viable as a substitute for reality. The fictional characters are fine. It’s the humans that constantly drag us out of the storyline, their slightly surreal appearance arguing for their unnecessary alien inclusion. In fact, with Wells history as part of hand drawn animation, a work based on Breathed’s own images would have been far superior. At least we’d have an excuse for all the oddness. Instead, like many of these motion capture efforts, there is a desire to imitate reality while altering it to the point of frivolity. Mars Needs Moms will go down in history as one of those “should have known better” efforts in an artist’s oeuvre. Sadly, in retrospect, it’s almost impossible to find the fun - or the purpose - in this lame light show. 


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