Milo is your average American kid. He loves zombies, but hates taking out the trash. After a particularly nasty blow-up with his mother (Mom as played by Joan Cusack), Milo tells his mother he thinks his life would be better off without her, and he goes to bed angry while mom cries. Fortunately, Milo has a change of heart, but before he can apologize to his mother, there’s a little complication: Mom gets kidnapped by Martians!
You see, it’s time to reprogram the nanny bots that raise Martian children, and to do that they need a fresh mother every 15 years or so. To do that, the Martians find and kidnap a qualified Earth mother, but the Martians will soon find out that Milo is no ordinary kid, especially once he sneaks on board their spaceship and becomes determined to get his mother back at all costs.
Fortunately, he’ll have the help of Gribble (Dan Fogler), the only human on (or rather in) Mars and his knowledge of computer hacking, as well as the help of one Martian hippie named Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), who turned her love of bad fake 60s TV shows into a flower power movement in the middle of the red planet.
You know where this is going. There’s going to be a clash of cultures between the peace-and-love versus the Stormtrooper-like autocratic no-fun Martian regime, people will learn lessons, and Milo and his mother will have a happy ending. That’s not a spoiler. It’s an inevitability, and the movie doesn’t deviate from the necessary plot sequence of these kinds of movies in any way.
Mars Needs Moms has a lot of problems, but the first and foremost is character design. The human characters, especially Milo and Gribble, look frighteningly human-like. If you’re familiar with the theory of Uncanny Valley, that humans are repulsed by facsimiles of humans that are almost, but not exactly like, us, then you’ll realize right away that Mars Needs Moms has bought a big plot of land in Uncanny Valley and the creators are putting up tract homes and planning a subdivision as we speak.
The lead characters are so incredibly disturbing, and that’s before you actually get off Earth to check out the alien design. Then again, I’d expect nothing less from ImageMovers, who specialize in nearly-human monstrosities done via motion capture and CGI as seen in The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol, and Beowulf.
As for the non-humans in the cast, the aliens in Mars Needs Moms look like a cross between the familiar Grays and Jennifer Lopez, mixed with a bit of the weird aliens from Laserblast. That is, they have odd hair, trapezoidal heads, and giant, disturbingly shapely asses. This is the kind of alien species Sir Mix-A-Lot would sing about, except you have to keep the Oakland booty and swap the LA face for Barstow or San Jose. The fact that they all seem to do a whole lot of marching and wearing jodhpurs doesn’t help slim down their bulbous behinds.
When you throw in the fact that the movie is filmed in dim 3D and the Martian cityscape is nothing but gray steel, Mars Needs Moms isn’t much to write home about visually. Certainly, Wall-E did grim cityscapes and sterile spacecraft significantly better than this, and Wall-E even managed to do a city full of garbage better than this, as well. Wall-E was beautiful. Mars Needs Moms is a blurry, gray-scale mess of film, with blurry scenes of falling through pipes standing in for the beautiful space waltz, and a vomiting clockwork bug robot standing in for the cuteness personified that was Wall-E himself.
Mars Needs Moms is a film you’ve seen before from Disney, and they’ve done it worlds better. The script, from Simon and Wendy Wells, is pretty cliché. There’s not much in the way of comic relief, and it’s heavy on the forced maudlin emotion and light on the cleverness that one might expect from a movie about an annoyingly precocious kid. You know how it’s going to play out before it even gets off the ground, and there’s not a lot there to make the trip worth watching.
The 80s references for adults (from Gribble) are forced and will be lost on kids, and the stuff for kids will be grating for all ages. Fortunately, it moves quickly enough and checks in just under 90 minutes of runtime, though it feels longer at times.
It’s telling that the most interesting stuff on screen during Mars Needs Moms wasn’t the completed film, but the behind-the-scenes stuff in the credit sequence. The actors in the film, including Seth Green as Milo, were poured into motion capture suits and filmed running and cavorting through a sound stage environment, with real-life walls and platforms and sets constructed as the practical skeleton on which the film would be glued. That stuff is way more interesting than the movie itself, and if the video release includes an option to watch Mars Needs Moms with flesh and blood humans acting out their parts, I’ll rent it for that alone.
Until then, Mars Needs Moms is an avoidable mess that talks down to kids and bores adults. If Pixar and DreamWorks are the top two tiers in animation, Disney’s digital productions are roughly eighth place, behind a flipbook drawing of a man being stabbed with a pitchfork done by a bored middle-schooler.
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