Featuring the voices of Seth Dusky, Tom Everett Scott, Joan Cusack, Elisabeth Harnois, Dan Fogler, Dee Bradley Baker and Mindy Sterling; Directed by Simon Wells; 88 minutes; Rated PG for sci-fi action and peril
Walt Disney had some pretty serious separation anxiety when it came to parents (which becomes far less fetishistic when one considers how wracked with incredible guilt he was over his mother dying from a gas leak in the house that he and brother Roy bought her with their “Snow White” spoils in 1938). For example, in the classic “Dumbo” (1941), a sad, floppy-eared elephant spends most of the movie mourning the presence of his mother, who has been deemed mad and locked away. In “Bambi” (1942), a fawn’s mother is shot dead by a hunter (and not-so-coincidentally, an entire generation of kids embraces psychotherapy 20 years later). In “Song Of The South” (1946), a sheltered fancy-boy turns to a grandfatherly old sharecropper while his parents’ marriage disintegrates. These classic themes repeat in many of the Walt Disney company’s films since, including their latest, MARS NEEDS MOMS. Sadly, though, the House of Mouse’s latest attempt to make terrifying dead-eyed digital golems pass as human does not repeat the tradition of paragon quality and timelessness that earn a film the branding “classic.”
Milo (voice of Seth Dusky) is a typical 11-year-old suburban boy who, after angrily wishing his Mother (Joan Cusack) wasn’t his mother, is wracked with incredible guilt after Martians take her to the Red Planet. There, they plan to use her superior maternal skills to raise their latest generation of ground-sprouted Martian girls (with the boys relegated to living underground as motherless trash-picking buffoons). Milo must team with a resourceful Martian girl named Ki (Disney vet Elisabeth Harnois) and bumbling grown-up Terran orphan stowaway Gribble (Dan Fogler) to save Milo’s mother and restore Martian society to the ancient one-Mom, one-Dad standard it has long forsaken [insert misinformed anti-gay marriage Disney jab here].
The movie doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, apart from light entertainment. Is it a subtle gender farce, peripherally examining the roles of men and women by placing them in a sci-fi context? Is it an anti-totalitarianist tear? A vital call for self-expression? Wells and company do not spend enough time on any of these things, instead fixating on Milo’s quest and quietly hoping that everyone in the audience loves their mother so much that no further story development need be attempted. While the voice cast tries – and some, like (the poor man’s Jack Black) Dan Fogler, try too hard – they’re saddled with making sparkly what is just a very plain interpretation of a children’s book.
The expression “Whatever gets the kids to read Shakespeare” is a favorite among parents and teachers who justify untraditional means to bring kids to culture and learning. In this case, it would be a paraphrased, “Whatever gets the kids reading Dr. Hawking.” However, a film that will be so widely promoted by science groups and museums should have some actual science in it. The only big thing that they get right is the low-gravity that Milo experiences on Mars. Everything else, from the seasonable nights (which can actually get as cold as a quick-killing -150º F) to Milo’s mother taking off her helmet (without her head exploding like in “Total Recall”), the movie is just riddled with tumors of truth. Heck, even Brian De Palma’s 2000 bowel evac “Mission To Mars” (based on a retired Disney theme park attraction) had more real science in it, if you stayed awake long enough to see it (or didn’t gauge your eyes out first).
From the movie’s pedigree – based on the children’s book by “Bloom County” creator Berkeley Breathed and directed by Simon “My Grandfather Wrote Goddamned ‘War Of The Worlds'” Wells – one would expect a far more engaging tale. Instead, the story is light on meaning beyond the simple “love your family” message and executed with the kind of wide-eyed “Look what I can do!” attitude that too often substitutes for good storytelling in let’s-lower-the-standard family films such as this, especially since the resurrection of the imperfect smoke-and-mirrors gimmick of 3-D. The all-out effort is a $150 million catastrophe that led to the shuttering of Robert Zemeckis’s Pixar pretender ImageMovers Digital, and it’s not hard to understand why.
The excessive “performance capture” technology in use here – in which human actors don spandex suits adorned with ping pong ball articulation points so that they can be rendered digitally, a la “Looker” – makes one wonder, “For all the damn money they spent on this spectacle, why the heck couldn’t they just have made a live action film, like ‘Explorers’ (Joe Dante’s charming little 1985 space fantasy starring Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix)?” It’s like the great lengths that some vegetarians will go to make their food look and taste like that which they have forsaken, bringing into the world abominations like the meat analog known as Tofurkey. Sure, the effort that goes into creating something altogether new is considerable (and many will fail at it), but at what cost, and ultimately, why? Certainly, the very minor “Mars Needs Moms” is not a grotesque, high-profile creep-out akin to “The Polar Express,” but with its bowed legs, severe overbite and burlap swaddling clothes, it’s not going to be the next Gerber baby, either.•••