The new CG 3D animated film Mars Needs Moms is based on a children's book by Berkeley Breathed, who some of you may know as the creator of the beloved Bloom County comic strip (to read an article by Breathed about the origins of Mars Needs Moms and what it's like to see his "story baby" turned into a mega-budget Disney movie, go here). Unfortunately, one of the producers of Mars Needs Moms is Robert Zemeckis, whose previous work includes making a highly profitable mess out of the beloved children's book The Polar Express, which used nascent performance capture technology and bloated an elegant story to feature length with noisy, pointless action.
Sadly, Mars Needs Moms suffers from the same flaws. But the film does make some interesting observations about parenting here on earth. Watch the trailer for Mars Needs Moms below.
In the film, an authoritarian matriarchal Martian society is desperate to find earthling moms with good parenting skills that can be programmed into the army of nannybots that raises the Martians' young. Milo, a 9-year-old performed by Seth Green (but voiced by child actor Seth Dursky), has such a mom, though he bristles under her authority, even telling her in a moment of anger that he wished he never had a mom. But when Milo's wish is granted and his mom is kidnapped by Martians, Milo travels to Mars to bring her back.
Unfortunately, this means teaming up with an irritating human named Gribble, performed by Dan Fogler, who grew up in Mars' trash dump, and a sympathetic Martian named Ki, performed by Elisabeth Arnois, who has been inspired by a 60s-era TV show to speak in hippie slang and promote flower power, which is about as annoying as you'd imagine. The jabbering, dreadlocked, dopey male Martians who live in the dump are similarly grating. The subterranean Martian world looks nice but seems to be created largely from leftover environments from Wall-E, Tron: Legacy and Avatar.
Zemeckis has been a proponent of performance capture -- where actors' every movement and expression is recorded, then mapped onto digital characters -- since The Polar Express in 2004, and has used it to try to create photorealistic CG humans in Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009). All three of these films received ample (and deserved) criticism for their characters' "dead eyes" and mask-like faces that many have compared to re-animated corpses.
While the technology has clearly improved, it still has a long way to go -- and in my opinion, I'm not sure if it'll ever completely get there. Humans have evolved to recognize the countless non-verbal cues expressed in the tiniest details of the human face. When these details go missing (or eyes lack that ineffable glimmer of life), our brains sound an alarm that something is amiss. Since cartoonish human characters are clearly not trying to look like actual humans, our brains just accept that what we're seeing isn't real and go along for the fictional ride. While Gribble is fairly well-realized, both he and Milo are both haunted by the dead eyes, and Milo's face never really comes to life.
But what about the film's view on parenting? Milo's dad, who you only see briefly, travels for work and is apparently the one who takes Milo on fun outings, leaving Milo's mom, performed by Joan Cusack, in the unenviable role of disciplinarian and taskmaster -- a recognition that it's usually moms who do the difficult, unglamorous job of day-to-day parenting while many dads just show up for playtime. This dynamic is taken to an extreme on Mars, which is ruled by a decrepit female dictator known simply as the Supervisor (Mindy Sterling) who forbids fun, emotion and color, while male Martians are dumped in the planet's trash heap as babies and deemed worthless for only wanting to "dance and play."
Milo's true journey isn't to the red planet and back, but to learn to appreciate the often thankless work of being a good parent, and that unlike the Supervisor, his mom's discipline comes out of love. And nowhere is a mother's love better illustrated than in a beautiful and wordless moment late in the film, that, I'll admit, got me pretty choked up.
But this instance of authentic emotion is one of the only bright spots in an otherwise soulless, charmless effort that seems to say that you should be nice to your mom lest she be kidnapped and destroyed. If it takes an alien abduction to get a kid to take out the garbage, moms are in more trouble than we thought.
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