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Mars Needs Moms

Adventures with Martians

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Writer-director-producer Robert Zemeckis, best known for directing and co-writing the Back to the Future trilogy and directing the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, turned away from live-action filmmaking almost a decade ago to produce computer-animated films using motion-capture as the basis for human- and non-human characters. The results were, to be kind, mixed.

Zemeckis first attempt, The Polar Express, crossed into the so-called “uncanny valley” (photo-realistic or near-photo-realistic characters suffering from the “dead-eye effect”) and never crossed back. Subsequent efforts, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol improved on motion-capture technology, but continued to regularly cross over into the uncanny valley.

An adaptation of Berkeley Breathed’s (Bloom County) 2007 children’s picture book and the last, for now, under Zemeckis’ ImageMovers Digital banner, Mars Needs Moms, continues that gradual, noticeable improvement. Mars Needs Moms centers on Milo (motion-captured by Seth Green, voiced by Seth Robert Dusky), a preteen badly in need of an attitude readjustment.

Milo resents his mother’s (Joan Cusack) constant reminders to do his chores and eat unsavory foods (he strongly dislikes broccoli) and longs for the return of his father (Tom Everett Scott) from a business trip. When, after another bratty outbreak, he wishes he no longer had a mother, he gets his wish. Martians, short on mothers who can raise their female hatchlings (unruly males are discarded, exiled to a subterranean rubbish heap), kidnap Milo’s mom. Milo stows away aboard their spaceship before it takes off and, moments later, arrives on Mars (thanks to wormhole technology).

Milo is immediately captured and quarantined in a pod-like prison cell, but another, one-time stowaway, Gribble (Dan Fogler), stranded on Mars for at least two decades, uses his knowledge of Martian computer systems to free Milo. Milo escapes, meeting Gribble and the male Martians in the bowels of the Martian city. Starved for human contact, Gribble just wants a best bud, a friend, a companion. What he doesn’t want is to mix it up with the female Martians.

Milo, unsurprisingly, wants to save his mother. A deadline — Milo’s mother probably won’t survive the process used to extract her memories and personality — adds urgency to Milo’s task. Milo’s initial attempt fails, but he’s saved by an uncoventional female Martian, Ki (Elizabeth Harnois), savvy in the ways of human culture and the English language, thanks to a TV series set in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, human characters in Mars Needs Moms continue to suffer from the dead-eye effect and still movements, but their presence and interaction with other characters, isn’t as disturbing or disconcerting as previous efforts. That improvement, in turn, will allow moviegoers to judge Mars Needs Moms on its own merits, merits that, include the strong visual designs of a vast Martian underground city, the sub-subterranean bowels of the city, and the Martians.

Mars Needs Moms also offers an engaging, simple-to-follow storyline with an equally strong, if at times, overly sentimental, emotional hook, and the expected set pieces, directed with admirable efficiency and clarity by Simon Wells (the great-grandson of H.G. Wells, author of The War of the Worlds).

Mars Needs Moms isn’t a deep film (as it shouldn’t be, given the intended audience), but it is at its most interesting and (slightly) subversive when it gives moviegoers a peek into Martian culture, culture where over-sensitive males (they’re huggers and dancers) and authoritarian females, led by a fearsome Supervisor (Mindy Sterling), is the norm. It’s not so much a critique of matriarchy as it is a critique of patriarchy, gender roles, and the importance of balance between different forms of parenting (i.e., strict vs. supportive).

Children, however, probably won’t pick up on that particular theme. Instead, they’ll be rooting openly and frequently for Milo to find and save his mom from the Martians.