The last film from Robert Zemeckis’s Image Movers Digital (the studio that gave us Beowulf, A Christmas Carol and the very creepy The Polar Express), Mars Needs Moms is a lacklustre family sci-fi which unfortunately ensures that the studio goes to its rest with a whimper rather than a bang.
Milo (Seth Green, with Seth Dusky’s voice) is a typical nine year old who resents taking the garbage out, tidying his room and eating broccoli. After been scolded by his long-suffering mum (Joan Cusack), he blurts out that his life would be much better without her but quickly changes his mind when she gets whisked away in an alien spacecraft.
Managing to stow away on board, he teams up with a hyperactive human hacker named Gribble (Dan Fogler) who lives in a vast underground Martian dump and a Martian graffiti artist called Ki (Elizabeth Harnois) whose only experience of humanity comes from 60s hippy TV shows, in order to rescue his mom before the sun rises.
Why have the Martians kidnapped his mother? Well, that’s because they’ve evolved into a matriarchal society where the females run the show and the males live like hairy, grunting chimps in the overflowing trash piles. With no sense of family anymore, they’ve lost all maternal instinct and so their young must be raised by robots which need to be programmed by the best moms on earth.
It’s a particularly heavy-handed message of the importance of family (more specifically the traditional father/mother/child family unit) which might grate on some viewers. For the record, it’s harmless enough; it’s not like Disney are condemning non-traditional family units but it is depressingly simplistic and short-sighted for a modern film.
Visually, Mars Needs Moms looks fine but in this age of digital wizardry, we’ve come to expect a higher standard. Mo cap technology has never been wholly successful. While it excels at capturing facial expressions (and Joan Cusack’s model is the perfect example – every little facial tick of hers translates wonderfully to her on-screen avatar), it’s always had a problem with “dead-eye” ever since The Polar Express in 1994; characters stare into the middle distance like they’re new recruits in a zombie army. “Creepy” was probably not what Disney were going for in a family movie.
The cast are solid enough but Seth Green seems like an odd choice for Milo as he only provides the physical action. Green’s a small guy and he performs well but wouldn’t it have made more sense to actually get a kid to play Milo? Elsewhere Dan Fogler’s Gribble’s constant chatter and hyperactivity (apparently there’s no shortage of e-numbers on Mars) very quickly wear out his welcome and Joan Cusack is wasted as she spends most of the movie asleep. Elisabeth Harnois’s wide-eyed Ki is initially compelling but by the 80th time she’s spewed a 1960s catch phrase even she becomes an irritation
With standards of animation ever on the up (Rango, The Illusionist, Toy Story 3, even this week’s Rio), Mars Needs Moms falls someway short of the impressively high bar that its contemporaries have set. It probably doesn’t deserve the savagery with which the US critics have derided it but it’s far from an out of this world experience.