Having amassed a middling critical reception as well as a fair amount of controversy upon its U.S. release almost a month ago, Mars Needs Moms stands presently as one of the largest box office bombs in film history. While Robert Zemeckis‘ performance capture technology remains a contentious issue in the film community, it has seen some success, namely the solid box office posting of Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol and the astronomical returns of James Cameron’s Avatar. Ironically, while Mars Needs Moms is a fair visual improvement over Zemeckis’ previous, his latest work (as a Producer) has struggled to find much of an audience.
It’s a shame, for this odd little sci-fi may not be great, but it’s sure not bad either.
Touted as a silly sci-fi B-movie of sorts, the film begins with 9-year-old Milo (whose likeness “borrows” from Seth Green, while the voice work is performed by Seth Dusky, an actual child) being chided by his mother (Joan Cusack) for not eating his greens and failing to take out the rubbish. A race of Martians, realising her authoritative nature, abduct Milo’s “mom” as they believe her nurturing tendencies will help them raise their own Martian offspring. Milo stows away on a ship in order to follow her, where he meets another human, Gribble (Dan Fogler), who vows to help him find his mother.
Watching Mars Needs Moms, it’s difficult, strangely enough, not to think of Tron Legacy; equally it is visually exuberant – boasting the same visual pallette of blindingly-bright, electronic light blues – and thematically strange. Furthermore, both films are simplistically realised with a plot and characters that aren’t too dissimilar either. It becomes evident very quickly that this film lacks the sophistry of a fine Pixar or even Dreamworks effort, but the plot is serviceable enough, and though the humour is overly broad, it satisfies just fine as a superficial visual treat.
It seems to begin to play out as love letter of sorts to motherhood – though strangely enough wasn’t released in either the U.S. or the U.K. just prior to Mothering Sunday – yet the sparse appearances of Joan Cusack’s no-nonsense mother ultimately deny her character adequate development and the entire concept much agency. At best, it feels like a half-realised idea that didn’t want to get too gooey and alienate the kids.
Sure, it follows the expected trajectory at almost all-times – the first act is the (admittedly near-wordless) set-up, the second act is a thrilling chase, and the third is a go-for-broke escape climax – but it works well within that established framework, as long as you don’t expect many surprises. Very broad gags fill in the gaps, with probably too many pop-culture references, though a savvy joke about Raegan-era red panic is enough not to dismiss its comic intentions entirely.
Dan Fogler’s moon-faced loon Gribble, however, very much threatens the fun; he is the type of character best dealt with in mild doses, though the film insists on doling him out in abundance to considerable irritation. Thus, the subsequent attempt to make of him a sympathetic sad-sack falls flat, simply because it’s hard to care about a quacking, loud, obnoxious crank like him.
The slow-motion dash at the finale invites the most involvement, though up to this point the film is mostly a brisk, fleeting entertainment – lacking wit and milking several sight gags to exhaustion – and not nearly as trescendent or vivid as its mostly spectacular visual package. Certainly not up to the high standard of Pixar – the now-arbitrary emotive flashback scene here just doesn’t hit its tear-jerking stride – but the production is jaw-droppingly good-looking, boasting some rousing voice work (especially Elizabeth Harnois as Ki) and making effective use of 3D. If you enjoyed it, stick around for the credits to see some raw footage of how the performances were captured, with surprising intricacy, no less.
It’s a stretch to stomach Seth Green’s face having been reverse-engineered onto that of a 9-year-old boy – which probably goes a way to explain its paltry cinema gross – but Mars Needs Moms stands among few animated films able to scarcely broach that problematic uncanny valley.
Mars Needs Moms is released in the U.K. from tomorrow.