"Mars Needs Moms": Return to Sender
Mars Needs Moms began its life as a brilliant little picture book by Berkeley Breathed (of Bloom County fame). A bunch of Hollywood action and sci-fi clichés, a mo-cap makeover and some rather disturbing and distracting ideas from other writers has turned it into an ugly, stilted mess. I didn’t have high hopes for this one to begin with, since turning a cute little picture book meant for young children into a special-effects filled action film is the kind of project that reveals every disparaging joke ever made about Hollywood to be completely true. But I was a little surprised at how aggressively bad the movie is: how blatantly it stuffed trite element after trite element into a story where there were none originally, and how forcefully Breathed’s original vision has been shoved to the side. This is a movie to be avoided at all costs.
The motion capture is a whole lot of nothing. The whole process, as far as I can tell, is intended to obscure as much actual acting as it possibly can. The characters, of course, don’t get to perform, as they’re supposed to rely on the actors in the suits. But those performances are obscured in turn by cartoon environment, so that everything just looks clumsy and over-done. For example, a big deal has been made about Seth Green “playing” Milo, but without being told beforehand I doubt anyone would have guessed that was who was in the suit. It’s not so much “a cartoon character that moves like Seth Green” as it is “Seth Green dancing around in a suit made out of some poor cartoon character’s skin”. The faces are the worst, with only the broadest emotions and expressions actually showing through. The voice acting is a breath of fresh air in contrast, but there are still very few performances worth noting (OK, I did kind of like Elisabeth Harnois’s hippie alien), and of course, all the voices seem out of place coming out of the character’s zombie mouths. Mars‘s ugliness can’t just be blamed on motion capture, though. The movie looks boring at its best. Atrocious character designs, bland sets, and a one-note color scheme all combine to make this the most visually unappealing animated movie I’ve seen in quite a while.
The story has every cliché under the sun, which is pretty amazing when the book didn’t have any. A dad who doesn’t have enough time for his son because of work? You bet! An evil empire that needs to be toppled, leading to chase after chase through boring settings? Obviously! A love interest that’s just there for the sake of being there? They created two new characters specifically to fulfill that function! An aged-up hero who’s ten—not four—to better hit some imaginary “target audience”? Just look at the cover! That’d all be bad enough, but somehow the movie doesn’t stop at just burying the original book – it seems to want to become its antithesis.
The original story was a sweet morality story about how you should be nice to your mother. Milo is mean to his mother, and she is kidnapped by Martians who want her to be their mother. In this story, Milo is rude to his mom and she is kidnapped by a society made up of female Martians who have cast out their males and do not know how to mother, so they are going to use Milo’s mother to power a group of “nannybots” who will raise their children for them. Um. It turns out they’ve been doing this for quite a while, and that they pick the mothers who are best at keeping their kids under control. “What kind of message is that to send to a kid”, one character ponders, as I smack my forehead and wonder the same thing. In the end the male Martians—who are warm and tribal, as opposed to the cold, military-based females—reunite with the females in a scene that looks disturbingly like an orgy. I’m not sure what point is trying to be made here. The traditional family unit is important? Mothers should stop being so strict? Don’t do drugs while reading children’s books, your mind will wander? But I do know that it’s certainly out of place in this movie.
There is one idea here that I like; really like, in fact. The rebellious Ki (the hippie alien voiced by Elisabeth Harnois) is pretty funny. She learned English by watching TV and she has a fascination with colors and flowers, painting them everywhere, to the annoyance of the female Martian police. If her story didn’t get so little screen-time compared to the other elements of the movie, I might have liked the film better. A good film could be made out of just that.
Actually, a good film could be made out of the original Mars Needs Moms story, or even out of a story about a repressive matriarchal alien society. But not out of both at the same time, especially when you throw in Hollywood and Robert Zemeckis. The admittedly crisp Blu-ray presentation doesn’t save this one. On the plus side, this is the movie that failed so hard it caused Hollywood to finally take away Zemeckis’s mo-cap toys, so something good came out of this.