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Who said animation should look real? Robert Zemeckis, for one, though as evidenced by Disney’s recent closing of his ImageMovers Digital studio, he increasingly appears to be alone in that sentiment. Mars Needs Moms stands as the potentially final Zemeckis-produced motion-capture effort, and, like The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol before it, its characters boast the waxy complexions, unreal movements, and dead eyes of mannequins come to surreal, energetic life.
With an unsettling Joan Cusack facial reproduction lending the proceedings a predictably creepy Madame Tussauds vibe, Mars Needs Moms director Simon Wells founders in his attempts to smoothly integrate detailed human figurines into an intergalactic setting. The result is a jarring dissonance that doesn’t amplify his tale’s out-of-this-world fantasticality as much as call undue attention to his aesthetic’s unconvincing, off-putting strangeness. Only in its roller-coaster centerpieces does Mars Needs Moms gain a small measure of visual panache, hurtling about with an abandon otherwise lacking in its race-against-time saga. Yet even in those instances, imagination is in short supply, with rubbery heroes repeatedly plummeting (down chutes, primarily) or hopping and running in slow motion—images that (to state what has now become the obvious) are seldom enhanced by pedestrian IMAX 3-D effects.
Based on the children’s novel by Berkeley Breathed, Wells’s film (like his prior adaptation of great-granddad H.G.’s The Time Machine) involves a treacherous journey to an extraordinary foreign land. Mere moments after telling Mom (Cusack) that he’d be happier without her, Milo (Seth Green) finds her being kidnapped by noseless, flat-faced Martians; stowing away on their ship, he soon touches down on the red planet, where a portly, lonely, Top Gun–referencing geek named Gribble (Dan Fogler, spouting ’80s-isms as usual) explains the boy’s perilous new circumstances. On orders from the queenly Supervisor (Mindy Sterling) who rules her subterranean kingdom with militaristic ruthlessness, the creatures plan to use a solar-powered device to steal the “discipline” skills of Milo’s mom, which they’ll use to program the nanny robots that help them care for their young, who sprout out of the ground like vegetables. The plot thus hinges on a fundamental illogicality, since the chief differentiating characteristic between mothers and machines isn’t discipline but compassion—a fact that even Mars Needs Moms itself recognizes, since Milo, Gribble, and unlikely ally Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), a rebel Martian graffiti artist educated in Earthly ways by a ’60s-hippie sitcom, eventually triumph in part by teaching their red-planet adversaries about the value of love.
As it barrels forward with a speed seemingly designed to prevent serious consideration of its increasingly nonsensical tale, the film reveals that Mars also hates dads, who sport dreadlocks and koala fur and have been exiled to an underground trash dump because they’re too fond of hugging. Such gender-dynamic reversals, however, are secondary concerns to chases, laser fights, and persistent heartstring-tugging mawkishness, which extends to Gribble’s own mommy-snatching sob story and a finale that disingenuously dares to hint at actual tragedy.
The underlying suggestion that well-behaved kids are apt to lose their exceptional mothers to covetous outside forces—a notion the narrative tries to overtly address (and consequently dismiss)—remains disquieting. But Mars Needs Moms isn’t out to disturb, merely to stimulate through light, sound, and sentimentality, much of it borrowed from genre big brothers. The Martians’ sterile, fluorescent blue-gray metropolis, as well as the Leni Riefenstahl–ish visions of armies in rigid military formation, have been directly downloaded from Tron, while the legacy of Star Wars creeps into everything from the plot’s pressing parent-separation anxieties and villains’ stormtrooper-style uniforms to its male extraterrestrials’ furry, dancing Rasta-Ewok cuddliness. With originality an alien concept, the film proves to be the equivalent of sci-fi-cinema training wheels.