Judge Clark Douglas needs better storytelling.
Moms need a little space.
"I'd be better off if I didn't even have a mom!"
Facts of the Case
Milo (played by the combined forces of Seth Green's body and Seth Dusky's voice) is an ordinary 11-year-old kid with an ordinary life and an ordinary mother (Joan Cusack, Grosse Point Blank). Milo and his mom have a good relationship, but an argument involving broccoli causes Milo to say some things he later regrets. Alas, before he has a chance to apologize, something terrible happens: mom is kidnapped by martians! With the aid of a wacky astronaut named Gribble (Dan Fogler, Balls of Fury), Milo must attempt to figure out why the martians have abducted his mother and how to go about rescuing her.
Despite offering some groundbreaking special effects, a story based on generally well-regarded source material, and the seemingly reliable pairing of Robert Zemeckis and the House of Mouse, Disney's Mars Needs Moms turned into one of the biggest box office flops in motion picture history (the film cost $150 million to make, and couldn't even scrounge up one-third of that during its theatrical run). What went wrong, exactly? Let us count the ways.
1. The f'ed-up story: Mars Needs Moms is an incredibly bizarre tale, and not in a good way. Here's the deal—once every twenty-five years, martian babies will pop up out of the ground. Martians are capable of creating remarkable advanced technology, but they have no idea how to raise children. So, they create nanny-bots designed for the purpose of raising the youngsters, and use the masterful parenting techniques of human mothers as programming for the robots. However, to extract the parenting skills from a human requires that the human die after the memory transfer process is complete. There's some kind of dark whimsy in the idea, but "whimsical" is a quality Mars Needs Moms never achieves. As a result, it's just bewilderingly odd.
2. The f'ed-up story: In what I suppose is supposed to be a reversal of extreme sexism, the men of the planet are treated as inferior beings. Because the men do nothing but play and hug each other (no, really), they are deemed useless and are tossed into a garbage dump where they have formed their own cheerful, feral society (babies included). Meanwhile, the woman go about the business of running Mars and handling every job that doesn't involve dancing all day in a garbage dump. The film's concluding message: one sex actually is inferior to another, but that doesn't mean we should act that way. We all learned something, kids!
3. The f'ed up story: It seems that the Martians not only need mothers, but many elements of life on Earth. The proposed solution to the nightmarish, female-dominated world of the red planet? The razzle-dazzle of the 1960s, which a few progressive Martians seek to emulate and use as the basis for a new society someday (except the drugs, music, promiscuity, social chaos, and such—they're basically envisioning the Cleaver family in psychedelic outfits). Yes, this involves phrases like, "Mellow out, man, I'm not the fuzz!" and "I totally dig it!" becoming a part of the Martian mainstream. *sigh*
4. The Uncanny Valley: Many performance-capture animated films have struggled with the creepily unrealistic realism that naturally accompanies the medium, but Mars Needs Moms has a particularly tough time overcoming this roadblock. Milo and his mother in particular just offer some of the most bizarre-looking facial expressions (and the whole "dead eyes in a live body" thing is still a factor, too).
5. It's Emotionally Uninvolving: Despite all the high-stakes life-and-death situations presented here, the story never feels substantial enough to really make us care about whether anyone lives or dies. The film certainly plays with rougher-than-usual emotional territory (a flashback scene in which another little boy's mother is murdered may upset younger viewers), but none of it manages to stick.
6. The Comic Relief Characters Suck: Oh, yes they do. I don't know who decided that the world needed Dan Fogler, but his hyperactive, Jack Black-ish schtick definitely doesn't add anything of value to Mars Needs Moms. He plays the same tiresome character he plays in every film, but this time he's animated. Likewise, the wordless Martian goofballs populating the background of various scenes don't contribute any laughs to the production.
7. The Movie Needs Mom: Considering that Joan Cusack's character is the only compelling, nuanced individual in the entire affair, you would think the film would actually use her. Alas, she only appears in some too-brief bookend scenes (it's telling that her early domestic scenes are the highlight of the film).
8. The Action is Dull: We've seen some thrilling action material in the realm of animation in recent years (Rango, the Kung Fu Panda flicks, Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon, etc.), but the action-packed sequences in Mars Needs Moms are dull, poorly-staged and feel like nothing more than obligatory pandering to attention-deficit youth. Not that the quiet scenes are any better, mind you.
There are a host of other minor complaints I could mention, but I think you've more or less got the idea: Mars Needs Moms is an expensive, bizarre mess of a film that doesn't really work on any level. It simultaneously feels like a grandly ambitious failure and a generic, paint-by-numbers failure, which is perhaps its most impressive accomplishment.
Mars Needs Moms arrives on Blu-ray sporting an exceptional 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. While I find the film's alternately dark and gratingly colorful palette unpleasant to look at for 88 minutes, the transfer itself is excellent. Detail is strong, the bright scenes have a lot of pop, the shading is very impressive (a major virtue during the visually murky first half) and one can appreciate every little nuance the animators have crammed into the flick. The only complaint is that the strong picture only further accentuates the unsettling quality of the performance capture animation. Audio is also spectacular, with a vigorous John Powell score (the film's most entertaining element, as far as I'm concerned) highlighting a busy, immersive track. Dull as the action scenes may be, they'll give your speakers a real workout. This is a considerably more complex track than you might expect; a well-organized and complex science fiction mix that is quite involving. Well done.
Supplements may look thin at a glance, but that's actually not true. The biggest and best supplement is called "Life on Mars," which actually offers a picture-in-picture window allowing you to watch the performance-capture version of the film alongside the finished product. This is rather compelling stuff, and the process itself is much more engaging than the story being told. Better yet, this performance-capture version comes with an optional audio commentary from director Simon Wells and actors Seth Green and Dan Fogler, which is actually a pretty solid listen. Elsewhere, you get two brief, disposable featurettes ("Martian 101" and "Fun With Seth") and some deleted scenes. Also, a DVD copy of the film is included.
Mars Needs Moms is such a failure that I can't even give it the usual "at least the kids will enjoy it" disclaimer, as most of the humor (lots of references to pop culture of the '80s and '60s) will fly over their heads and the story may prove too creepy for them. Meanwhile, adults will find the film insufferable for a variety of entirely different reasons. I hate to say it, but this is one animated epic that deserved its box-office fate. The Blu-ray release looks and sounds great, though.
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