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Mars Needs Moms

A movie directed by Simon Wells

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Martian Maternity Leave

  • Mar 15, 2011
Star Rating:

Mars Needs Moms, based on the book by Berkeley Breathed, is one of those rare films where style and substance go together like peanut butter and jelly. It’s exciting, heartfelt, a visual treat (even in 3D), and a whole lot of fun – a family film in the truest sense. It has been brought to life via performance capture animation, a process I’ve championed since its debut and, in the hands of Robert Zemeckis, has been vital to the success of his latest films; with this process, The Polar Express became a haunting and beautiful Christmas perennial, Beowulf became a vivid and rousing fantasy epic, and Disney’s A Christmas Carol became the definitive adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic. I need no further convincing that performance capture is the ideal medium for these kinds of stories. It really does seem like the imagination leaps directly from our brains and onto the screen.
The characters in these films, and in Mars Needs Moms, have a photorealistic quality about them, as if they existed in a gray zone between reality and fantasy. There are many who find this look creepy. I think it’s just right; reality is heightened, but we’re never completely separated from it, and that makes a deeper connection to the material possible. DVD and television specials has given audiences a peak at the process in real time, but this movie is the first to show it during the end credits, at which point we’re finally allowed to take off our 3D glasses. The actors aren’t on any sets, but are merely working in a barren studio. They wear special jumpsuits and have dots glued to their faces; all of this is in an effort to record – or capture – their facial and bodily movements, which are then transmitted to a computer and painstakingly rendered into full characters.

But let’s not make this about the wonders of technology. Mars Needs Moms is not only sheer entertainment from start to finish, but it also has a thing or two to say about family, friendship – and, of course, the love of our mothers. It’s founded on the premise that Martian newborns have no parents; as soon as they enter the world (or in this case, sprout from the ground), the males are dumped and left to fend for themselves in an underground trash heap while the females are placed in the care of robot nannies. Because they’re machines, they lack the ability to discipline. The main Martian antagonist, known only as the Supervisor (Mindy Sterling), has devised a scheme to spy on the moms of Earth; when a firm and authoritative woman is found, she’s abducted in her sleep, taken to Mars and literally drained of her ability to raise her children.
And with this, we meet nine-year-old Milo (performed by Seth Green, voiced by Seth Dusky), a typical middle-American suburban kid who hitches a ride on a spacecraft when he sees aliens hauling away his mom (Joan Cusack). As it so happens, she was abducted before he had the chance to apologize for saying something very insensitive. Anyone who was raised in a stable household can relate to this: Your mom doesn’t allow you to watch TV unless you eat all your dinner, including your vegetables, and when you’re caught stashing away your food (say, by feeding it to the cat), you’re sent to bed with no TV privileges. These early scenes were for me an emotional triumph, for they tapped into some of my most basic childhood memories. I’d wager they would do the same for most American audiences.

On Mars, much of the action takes place below the surface, where cavernous chambers of chrome and shiny surfaces echo some of the best looking science fiction films, including Star Wars. Milo finds his way into the lower decks, where trash heaps stretch off into the horizon. Amidst the male Martians – fuzzy creatures who speak alien gobbledygook – he meets Gribble (Dan Fogler), an Earthling who dresses like a technological trash man, is surrounded by high tech video screens, and talks like a teenager who refuses to grow up. Why he’s there, I leave to you to discover. Milo also meets a rebel Martian girl named Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), who learned how to speak English by watching a sitcom featuring hippies. As a result, she mixes technotalk with ‘60s lingo, and she spray paints her own form of graffiti. In an effort to save Milo’s mom, the three of them team up; they dodge guards and blasters, they look at holographic maps, and they even use the lower gravity of Mars to their advantage. And, of course, they talk about love and family.
This movie is funny and immensely charming, although there are a couple of one-liners that kids are unlikely to understand, most notably Gribble’s joke about he being a part of Ronald Regan’s anticommunist spy network: “Why do you think they call it the red planet?” Still, the film is a technical and artistic achievement, director Simon Wells achieving a look that crosses childish whimsy with the cover of a yesteryear pulp magazine. There’s plenty of action, but it doesn’t assault the senses – and that’s saying something given the fact that it was shot in 3D. There are bangs and pops and whirs, and yet I never felt as if my ears were on the verge of bleeding. Mars Needs Moms is, above all, a warm and resonant tale of parents and children, who, with just a little patience and understanding, can conceivably get along. Just make sure you eat your vegetables.


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March 18, 2011
Excellent review.
March 19, 2011
Thank you.
March 15, 2011
Great commentary on the Star Wars references and you are spot on with Ki. I liked this one for what it was, but I think I am not its intended audience. I do have to admit that it is good for kids. I had mixed feelings about this movie and I thought some scenes should've been edited better. Nice work, Chris!
March 15, 2011
As long as you can remember what it's like to be a kid with a mom, I'm of the opinion that everyone is the intended audience for this film. My definition of a kid's movie is a film that makes absolutely no effort to appeal to adults. Examples would include Curious George and any of the new Tinkerbell DVDs. But a family movie has something for everyone. Remember, adults were kids once, and they had moms (I am, of course, generalizing). It goes further than that; because adults are more likely to latch onto memories of Star Wars and sci-fi pulp magazines -- and because they're the only ones likely to get Gribble's red planet joke -- I think Mars Needs Moms qualifies as a family movie.
March 15, 2011
well said. I think for a kid movie this would rank high, as a family movie lower and definitely not for adults who may think that this has strong elements of sci-fi in them. I guess as a kid I was used to watching anime and the cartoons I saw back then on Saturday mornings were all super-hero and/or action series. I didn't like Fogler's character/voice acting for some reason, I thought down the movie's pace. Definitely a great movie to show on Mother's Day!
March 16, 2011
I saw Fogler's character more symbolically. He's basically a boy who never grew up; he talks like a teenager, he looks at video screens all day, and he wallows in trash. If he had saved his mom, he would not be this way. Milo sees him and realizes he could end up the same way if he doesn't save his own mom. One could think of it as a future self and a present self meeting face to face. Having said that, I'm forced to ask myself two questions. First, why didn't I include it in my review? Second, am I overthinking this movie?
March 15, 2011
Great write-up, Chris! I was eye-balling this film as a choice for taking my 10-year-old niece to and I'm glad to hear that it would be something she'd like. I always find it necessary to ask if the 3D is necessary nowadays. Since it's the newest trend, sometimes it's not worth all the hype- is that the case in this movie or would you say that we should see it in 3D?
March 15, 2011
Thanks for the comment. I would suggest you save the extra cash and see it in 2D. 3D is overhyped, and it so rarely enhances a movie experience. My three-and-a-half-star rating had nothing to do with the dimension -- it had to do with the story, the characters, and the art direction. And I'm a big fan of performance capture.
March 15, 2011
Thanks, I definitely will! I tend to agree with you and that's why I had to ask the question ;p I'm also a big fan of performance capture, so the fact that you said this film uses that technique makes me think if I take my niece to see it, it'll be a win-win situation! Thanks again.
March 15, 2011
I agree with Chris; I saw it in 2D (THX though) and it was alright. I try to avoid 3D these days...they're not worth the extra $$.
March 16, 2011
Me three ;p Thanks for the tip, Woo! THX is worth it IMHO.
More Mars Needs Moms reviews
review by . March 13, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Visually Impressive With The Timeless Message That Moms Are Awesome!!
Being dragged to the movies can sometimes become difficult, oftentimes I don’t mind but sometimes when there’s nothing else I really want to see, I just go with the flow. Truthfully it was someone’s birthday which is why I ended up seeing “Mars Needs Moms” (I guess this was the better choice than “Red Riding Hood”) along with my friends. The film is a joint effort from Disney and ImageMovers Digital, the motion capture team (led by Robert Zemeckis) …
review by . August 22, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
*1/2 out of ****     I'm totally fine with the majority of filmmakers working in animation crafting features for younger children; that's how it works. Plenty of these movies actually turn out to be fairly appealing, if not lacking in depth. Thus, they are not made entirely for kids, are they? I walked in to "Mars Needs Moms" with such expectations and was significantly let-down when it turned out to be much worse than I expected. It underachieves, yes, but that's not the worst …
Quick Tip by . March 16, 2011
Saw this film yesterday in 3D, and I thought it was, overall, fairly entertaining. I don't think it was as tight thematically as it could've been, but that's mostly b/c much of the film was basically a throwback to a time when truly animated films had simply stories and characters. MARS NEEDS MOMS could've probably used a better title, though that's certainly a minor quibble. I think some critics drubbed the film unnecessarily precisely because it didn't really strike out …
About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #5
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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Mars Needs Moms earned only $1,725,000 on its first day, for a weekend total of $6,825,000. This was the tenth worst opening ever for a film playing in 3000+ theaters.  Due to its very high budget of $150 million, the film is a massive box office bomb and is on track to see losses of well over $100 million for parent studio Disney.

Take out the trash, eat your broccoli—who needs moms, anyway? Nine-year-old Milo (Seth Green) finds out just how much he needs his mom (Joan Cusack) when she’s nabbed by Martians who plan to steal her mom-ness for their own young. Produced by the team behind “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” and “The Polar Express,” “Mars Needs Moms” showcases Milo’s quest to save his mom—a wild adventure in Disney Digital 3D™ and IMAX® 3D that involves stowing away on a spaceship, navigating an elaborate, multi-level planet and taking on the alien nation and their leader (Mindy Sterling). With the help of a tech-savvy, underground earthman named Gribble (Dan Fogler) and a rebel Martian girl called Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), Milo just might find his way back to his mom—in more ways than one. Based on the book by Berkeley Breathed.

Character poster art for "Mars Needs Moms 3D."
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Director: Simon Wells
Genre: Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family
Release Date: 11 March 2011 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG
Screen Writer: Simon Wells, Wendy Wells
Runtime: 88 min
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