Reviews

'Mars Needs Moms' and Disney Needs Writers

Though Disney execs had the right idea when they greenlit a Berkeley Breathed book, they again blew off the most important step in the creative process: writing the script.


Mars Needs Moms

Director: Simon Wells
Cast: Seth Green, Dan Fogler, Elisabeth Harnois, Mindy Sterling, Joan Cusack
Length: 88 minutes
Studio: ImageMovers, Walt Disney Productions
Year: 2011
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG for sci-fi action and peril
Release date: 2011-08-09

Some bombs you can see coming. If you open the door to your place and find your girlfriend sitting, hands folded, at the dinner table with a packed bag next to her, you know what’s going to happen next. The same goes for if your boss invites you into her office with the HR rep a few days after you lost an account. And if the jury won’t look at you when they come back with their verdict, you better start prepping for some hard time.

With Mars Needs Moms, the latest performance capture vehicle from producer and technology addict Robert Zemeckis, I feel the signs pointing towards spectacular failure were even more obvious.

With most Hollywood failures, there was promise at the onset. Basing a children’s film on a 40-page children’s book by acclaimed author and cartoonist Berkeley Breathed (of Opus, Bill the Cat, and Bloom County fame) is never a bad idea. Making it into a $150 million budgeted behemoth with the latest performance capture technology is, however, a terrible one. Unlike James Cameron’s brilliant use of the new medium, Robert Zemeckis has struggled mightily to find a story worth telling with animated human beings.

The Polar Express, with the bizarre and alienating appearance of its lead actors, was a creative disappointment. Beowulf was entertaining in its action and spectacle, but didn’t prove the need for animation with so many human stars. Then came A Christmas Carol, a film that set back motion capture animation as well as film in general at least a decade. Mars Needs Moms, which Zemeckis only produced, comes closer to grasping the enticing spectacle achieved in Avatar, but still features too many flaws to be considered an advancement.

The faces and eyes, formerly constricted and dull, are much more detailed and expressive. Every so often you’ll notice a momentary freeze, but it’s not as distracting as it was in previous films. The people, though, stand out as separate from their spectacular environment. They never seem to blend in with it even as well as actors mesh with green screens. It’s like watching a football video game when the players’ feet slide through the grass instead of stepping on it. The two worlds, real people and animation, are growing closer together, but they still don’t coexist in the same space.

That said, there's still plenty of gorgeous animation to admire. The scenes on Mars, which make up most of the movie, are filled with lush, brightly colored environments that practically jump at you off the screen (even without 3D). There are a few scenes in a massive garbage dump that actually compare quite favorably with the haunting setting in the finalé of Toy Story 3. Nothing in the story approaches a Pixar level of sophistication, but Disney’s animation is finally catching up.

The real issue then goes back to the first step after acquiring the rights to Breathed’s book. Yes, the adaptation process. It fails miserably. Having not read the book, I can’t speak to its brilliance, but I have read some of his other stories as well as all the Bloom County cartoons. The original author isn’t the problem. It’s Simon and Wendy Wells. Simon, who also directed, had only one writing credit to his name (additional story on Chicken Run) before he penned the adaptation to this wannabe blockbuster with a first-time writer in Wendy.

Wait. Disney thought it was a good idea to trust two first time feature writers with their $150 million family film? What? Have they learned nothing from Pixar? Audiences aren’t showing up for the pretty pictures – they want a compelling story with endearing characters and beautiful animation work. Perhaps Disney thought it could get away with it because Avatar did (get away with it), but Disney forgot that Cameron’s action extravaganza was reusing proven structural tropes. Viewers like familiarity as long as it isn’t too blatant a rip-off. Here, audiences have to first get past a cheesy title, ugly, dull aliens, and annoying voice work by a child and the always-aggravating Dan Fogler.

It didn’t happen. Those who were desperate enough to get their kids out of the house were probably disappointed with the predictability of the narrative and the aforementioned tech issues. Everyone patient enough to wait for the Blu-ray may end up equally disenchanted by the film’s failure to deliver on both its original material and new technology, but they certainly won’t be wondering “How’d they do that?” after getting through the special features.

Like the Beowulf Blu-ray before it, you can watch the entire film as it was shot before animation was added. You can view it via picture or full screen, both with commentary from Seth Green, Fogler, and Simon Wells. Their discussion isn’t anything remarkable, but you can detect a bit of condescension for the film from its stars (for instance, when Fogler makes a fart noise during the film’s emotional climax).

Regardless, the real excitement is watching the actors don their Velcro leotards and jump around a white and gray set with dots on their faces. Crew members push and pull them through obstacle courses made into sets for the final cut. The director and producer can be seen watching in the shot, the most basic and blatant violation of shooting video until this process was implemented.

It’s cool to see how they do it, but it’s far from enough to warrant sitting through another emotionless Disney film based around grating lead characters. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry as much about you heeding my warning. Most of you saw it coming.

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