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Mars Needs Moms and the Uncanny Valley

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Disney's CG/3D animated film Mars Needs Moms, which cost close to $200 million to produce and market, continued to suffer in its third weekend, making only $2.2 million for a total worldwide gross of $27 million. Destined to become one of the biggest flops of all time, the film's failure has sent shockwaves through the film industry, which had considered the combination of kids movies, CG animation and 3D as a surefire moneymaker.

Naturally, such a spectacular flop has caused furious head scratching as studio executives try to figure out what happened so future films can avoid a similar fate. Was the concept of Martians kidnapping a parent too scary? Did the fact that "moms" was in the title cause boys to avoid it? Did parents finally put their foot down and refuse to pay inflated ticket prices for subpar 3D fare?

Having seen Mars Needs Moms, I can attest that it simply isn't a good movie in terms of story and characters, but bad word of mouth alone can't explain why the film made just $6.9 million in its opening weekend. To me, the main culprit is producer Robert Zemeckis' continued attempts to use performance capture technology to create photorealistic CG humans, which audiences appear to be rejecting. I discussed why I think this phenomenon is happening in my review of Mars Needs Moms for What the Flick?! But as I discovered through comments left on the video, I was actually describing a concept known as the Uncanny Valley that had first been theorized by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, and that Hollywood is well aware of.

Watch my review of Mars Needs Moms below.

So what is the Uncanny Valley? The theory posits that humans will like a robot that has human features (eyes, mouth, arms and legs, etc.) but is clearly a robot. The more human the robot looks, the more we'll like it. But if that robot begins to look too human without being indistinguishable from humans, we will respond with a powerful feeling of revulsion.

Some believe that the Uncanny Valley effect is caused by culturally- or religiously-supported notions of humans' specialness, or the rejection of the idea that humans are little more than machines made of meat. But the intensity of the rejection and the fact that it doesn't seem to be restricted to age or a specific culture seems to point to a more biological/evolutionary root. In fact, a 2009 Princeton study found that monkeys respond with similar discomfort when presented with images of monkeys that are realistic yet clearly artificial.

It's strange to think that there could be an evolutionary reason for Mars Needs Moms' failure, which has led to Disney closing down Zemeckis' performance capture studio ImageMovers Digital (supposedly after executives saw some test scenes from Mars Needs Moms). But I, for one, am thankful. ImageMovers' next project (now in limbo) was to be a performance-capture CG/3D remake of the wonderful 1968 Beatles animated film Yellow Submarine.

Personally, I prefer to keep the idea of three-dimensional zombie-faced Beatles to my nightmares.

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