Mars Needs Moms
Seth Green, Joan Cusack, Dan Fogler, Elisabeth Harnois, Mindy Sterling
US theatrical: 11 Mar 2011 (General release)
UK theatrical: 8 Apr 2011 (General release)
It’s hard to be nine. As Milo (Seth Green’s captured motion, Seth Dusky’s voice) sees it, his dad’s (Tom Everett Scott) not home enough and his mother (Joan Cusack) is forever piling on the chores. Not only does he have to take out the garbage, but he also has to take it to the curb. Not only does he have to come in for dinner, but he has to close the door behind him. And not only does he have to endure dinner before watching his favorite zombie movie on DVD, but he has to eat broccoli, to boot.
When he actually finds a way around that—makes the cat sick in the process—Milo is punished, sent to bed without zombies. Little does he know, as tells his mom, “My life would be so much better if I didn’t have a mother,” that her efforts to discipline him have caught the attention of a space ship from Mars. The crew’s mission is to find a mother whose (metaphorical) brains might be sucked out and uploaded into their army of nannybots, the robots Martians use to raise their parentless hatchlings. By the time Milo decides to apologize to mom for saying such a mean thing, it’s too late—she’s being whisked from her bed out the window into a dark night sky, and he can barely run fast enough to keep up and then stow away on the departing ship.
Long story short, Milo lands on Mars to find not only that his mother’s in danger (the brain suckage is fatal, and he only has six hours to halt the process), but also that there’s another human on the planet, a former boy who 25 years ago stowed away when his mother was abducted. Gribble (Dan Fogler) is scarred by his experience—he saw his mother die—and has remained pre-adolescent in mind and affect. He’s big now, and not a little boisterous, but he’s severely limited in his capacity to see his own desires. Given that he’s not a little happy to have a new playmate (the Martian he’s been hanging with can’t speak English and apparently Gribble hasn’t bothered to learn Martian during all his years of spying on the Martians via his handmade tech), Gribble is not inclined to help Milo save his mom and get off Mars. Or more specifically, he’s not inclined to believe it can be done.
And so, being a frustrated manchild, Gribble lies to his new buddy and pretends to help him, all the while scheming as to their wondrous future as bonded boys forever. Their adventure takes a turn when they discover an unexpected ally among the Martians, a soldier named Ki (Elisabeth Harnois) who loves American ‘70s TV (one favorite show features hippies instructing cops via colorful flower-power graffiti) and yearns for parents, or the idea of parents. As Ki is also made childlike via her enthusiasm for dated American slang (“Mellow out, man!” “I like that crazy love thing!”), the three “kids” are aligned as well through their wish to be mothered. Just like everyone else on Mars.
Ki’s not just childish, however, she’s also an officer in the Martian army, which is made up entirely of females. Hyper-designed by one very angry female, the Supervisor (Mindy Sterling), Mars’ society appears to invert American earth’s gender roles: the girls are sleek, well-armed and trained to carry out brutal assaults on invaders (as well as prodigiously wide-hipped and wasp-waisted, the invention of human male animators, after all), while the boys are hairy and sloppy and apparently disorganized, relegated by the Supervisor to scavenge for garbage on the planet’s bleak surface, a bedraggled community without education, hope or… wait for it… mothers.
As he pitches between this sad lower world and the one above, where the girls live in relative sci-fi-futuristic slickness, Milo doesn’t pay much attention to this social and political arrangement. But the film underscores that the Supervisor is the Super Bad Mom, with a wizened face and screechy voice that make her more cartoonish and also more irritating than anyone else on screen. She’s witchy and inscrutable rather than vivid, however, lapsing into caricature: you might even say that she resembles the racist caricatures of Japanese generals in old U.S.-made WWII movies.
All this makes Milo’s mom is comparatively good (you knew that anyway, but Milo needs the lesson to be reinforced). As the minutes tick away, Milo discovers that he really appreciates that his mom washes his clothes and vacuums the house, that he can forgive Gribble for lying to him and almost getting him killed, and that he can put up with Ki, who’s just starting to see that the “crazy love thing” might extend beyond moms to include manchildren. She likes that Gribble turns red when he’s embarrassed. So what makes Ki appealing for the human boys is that she’s an awesome wide-hipped Martian and also properly fluttery-hearted, very non-threatening even though she kicks a bit of ass too.
The movie is most watchable when she’s doing just that, or better, repelling on wires to spray-paint graffiti on slick compound walls. This even as the action scenes are admittedly a little rambunctious for younger viewers and Milo’s mom’s near-death scene is decidedly upsetting for viewers of all ages. Mars Needs Moms was engineered with the same motion capture animation process as Avatar, in which real life actors perform the parts while wearing body suits rigged with wires. (This process is revealed in the final credits sequence, when you see scenes you’ve already watched acted by Green and Cusack and Harnois, scenes that are frankly more fun in this format, a point that only reinforces how uninteresting the actual movie is.)
But it’s hardly a good sign that when the action slows down, and, say, characters talk to one another, the movie sags perceptibly. It’s a worse thing, in terms of the broader culture, that the Martians call out the humans as “terrorists” and no one blinks an eye. If the term here helps children watching to think about how it is used elsewhere—as a means to demonize them and frighten us—that might be helpful in a long run.