VOCAL WORK BY
Seth Green (Not really!), Joan Cusack, Dan Fogler, Elisabeth Harnois, Billy Dee Williams, Breckin Meyer, Tom Everett Scott
Simon Wells, Wendy Wells, Berkeley Breathed (Novel)
Walt Disney Co.
Mars 101: Fun With Seth: Also comes in a DVD/Blu-Ray Combo Pack
There is a brilliant film, really!, trying to get out from underneath the cliche'd quirkiness of Disney's latest animated feature, the Simon Wells directed Mars Needs Moms.
Unfortunately, brilliance never manages to make its way to the big screen and the quirkiness goes for naught as Mars Needs Moms is dripping with faux sentimentality, painstakingly obvious morality lessons and godawful stop-motion animation that looked fake the first time the film's producer, Robert Zemeckis, tried it with his far more masterful The Polar Express.
Based upon a book by Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed, Mars Needs Moms could easily have been a darkly comical, witty and cheeky morality play that appealed to children and adults alike in a manner similar to last week's Johnny Depp vehicle Rango. Unfortunately, Wells either has opted to play it safe or has been held back by studio execs without the balls to truly commit to the material. The end result is an animated feature that is filled with enough cornball dialogue that the film would be the perfect alien double feature with this weekend's other alien opener, Battle: Los Angeles.
Mars Needs Moms isn't so much an awful flick as it is a wasted opportunity to make a truly stellar animated feature based upon prime source material tailor made for it.
Wells, the great grandson of H.G. Wells, seems like an odd choice to direct a film such as Mars Needs Moms, a film that desperately needs the Pixar blend of heart, humanity and stellar graphics. While Wells is reasonably gifted at pulling off the visual aspects of a film, he's never proven to be particularly gifted in the more humane aspects of filmmaking as evidenced by such emotionally vacant flicks as The Prince of Egypt and An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.
In the film, nine-year-old Milo (Seth Green and Seth Dusky) has done what young boys are inclined to do and gotten into a bit of a power-tussle with his exasperated mother (Joan Cusack). Unknown to Milo, aliens have been spying earth looking for moms because well, you guessed it, Mars needs them as Martians apparently aren't particularly gifted in the whole parenting department. When the "Supervisor" (Mindy Sterling) eyes Milo's mother in a classic parenting moment she becomes their next involuntary recruit. Before you know it, mom is whisked off to Mars and young Milo chases after her and becomes a stowaway on the red planet.
Fortunately for Milo, he's not alone for long after he encounters Gribble (an energetic Dan Fogler), the only actual human on the planet whose own presence on Mars is explained as the story unfolds. Can Milo find a way to rescue his mother and rescue their relationship?
This is a Disney film, you know.
Milo and Gribble are soon aided by Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), a rebellious Martian who we learn is behind a certain unacceptable practice that REALLY irritates the Supervisor.
While the stop-motion capture animation style has certainly softened and humanized since Zemeckis incorporated it into the fabric of The Polar Express, it still seems like an odd choice for a cinematic vehicle that requires such a sense of life and humanity within its context. There are aspects of the animation in Mars Needs Moms that are awesome to behold, especially those involving unique landscapes and galactic wonderlands. However, when the focus is on buying into the friendship of Gribble and Milo or the relationship between mother and son, Mars Needs Moms is disappointingly devoid of emotional resonance and the human core that would really drive this film home. Production Designer Doug Chiang and D.P. Robert Presley give the film a rather impressive visual presentation, even if certain scenes do feel remarkably similar to other recent films such as Toy Story 3.
The 3-D animation in Mars Needs Moms is a waste and certainly an unnecessary expense for parents, with only 2-3 scenes clearly designed to elicit "Ooohs" and "Aaahs" and they are short-lived and not particularly impressive.
The film works most effectively when it flaunts its subversive roots, as in a storyline involving the Martian women banishing their hairier male counterparts to work in a garbage pit and a scene-stealing Elisabeth Harnois's vocal work as Ki, a flower-child Martian who learned everything she knows from a 70's sitcom and who is embodied as a wide-eyed and enthusiastic innocent by Harnois. While Fogler's over-the-top vocal stylings grow a bit weary by film's end, his enthusiasm is contagious and his sweet flirtations with Ki manage to bring some humanity to a film desperately in need of it.
It has recently come out, perhaps unintentionally since Seth Green is doing a considerable amount of promo work for the film, that Green's vocal work was replaced by 11-year-old Seth Dusky after it was deemed that Green simply couldn't nail the youthfulness required for the part despite being spot on perfect in the stop motion aspect of the filmmaking. It should come as no surprise that Cusack makes for the perfect wary and wise mother, while Mindy Sterling (Frau Farbissina in the Austin Powers films) is appropriately grating as The Supervisor.
Parents might want to note that Mars Needs Moms does contain at least one scene that may require a bit of a post-viewing conversation due to its more emotionally impactful nature, but on the whole Mars Needs Moms is a perfectly appropriate PG-rated flick.
The script by Simon and Wendy Wells fails to take advantage of Breathed's marvelous source material, too often resorting to tired jokes and outdated pop culture references. The attempts at morality lessons on family, that "crazy love thing" and friendship are so awkwardly obvious that it's as if the writers are actually talking down to kids and not trusting them to actually get the material.
A decent flick that could have been so much more, Mars Needs Moms is one of the more disappointing releases to fall under the Disney banner recently. While there are signs of an absolutely wonderful film bubbling underneath the surface, the film's uneven tone and Well's lack of commitment to Breathed's artistic vision makes Mars Needs Moms feel more like Where the Timid Things Are.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic