'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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.