'Mars Needs Moms' Needs Therapy
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
I should start by stating a prejudice: I've never been able to completely get into the 3-D quasi-animated films made using the motion-capture technology championed by producer and director Robert Zemeckis. In fact, more often than not, the look of such movies creeps me out.
These pictures, as mavens know, are made by kitting the actors up in these suits that have sensors on them, which capture, digitally or something, the actors' movements and even facial expressions; and artists working on computer add pictorial detail and color and such after that. It's kind of like a high-tech supercharged version of rotoscoping, that animation method that involved tracing over live-action film of a human actor moving. Aside from being useful for coming-at-you 3-D effects, the technology also lets artists change the appearance of the performer to their heart's content.
For instance, in Zemeckis' 2007 film "Beowulf," British actor Ray Winstone, as the title character, speaks with the gruff Winstone voice we all know, has a polished version of the Winstone face, and has the buff, perfectly defined physique of a comic-book hero, which of course Winstone himself does not have. Even when the effect is a consummation devoutly to be wished -- in that same film, Angelina Jolie is restored to the creamy voluptuousness that in real life was long ago subsumed by an unwholesome "Oh, how her arms and legs are thin!" look -- it's still disorienting. In my case, disorienting to the point of alienating.
This point holds in "Mars Needs Moms" right from the start: Hey, there's Joan Cusack, sort of, but with smoother cheeks and sleeker features than ever. Here she plays a mom, named Mom, who's been targeted for kidnapping by the failed matriarchal society of Mars. Once kidnapped, her sharp disciplinary skills will be sapped from her and plugged into the hard drives, or whatever they are, of the Nanny-bots who raise Mars' young hatchlings. As for the rest of her, that will be turned to dust.
What a whacked-out concept, right? The film was scripted by director Simon West, with his wife, Wendy, from a book by ... Berkeley Breathed, the cartoonist who created the popular "Bloom County" strip. But wait, there's more! After the targeting, Mom IS kidnapped by Martians, with young son Milo accidentally in tow. Once on the red planet, Milo finds another human, a seemingly overgrown child named Gribble, who's delighted to have found a new best friend and as such is at first resistant to Milo's insistence that they should rescue Mom from her captors.
Between the literally in-your-face texture of the visuals to the very earnest emotional manipulations of the story line -- Gribble's video game-filled lonesome Martian paradise is an even less pleasure-filled living hell for a no-longer-little boy than "Pinocchio"'s Pleasure Island was, to name just one of many very unpleasant examples -- "Mars Needs Moms" never manages to cohere. As it piles outlandish weirdness upon outlandish weirdness, culminating, sort of, in something of an interspecies romance for Gribble, it just becomes more and more of a grating chore to sit through. Even though it's barely 90 minutes long.
There's not a lot more to say about this picture, unless one wants to wax rueful on how it is that increasingly rare thing -- a Disney misfire -- but "Mars Needs Moms" is precisely the sort of mess that just grows more depressing the more one ruminates on it. One of the film's final images is a half-lift from the somewhat kitschy William Cameron Menzies-directed classic "Invaders From Mars," which exploits childhood trauma in a way that surely inspired Breathed's vision. The lift reminds you how peculiarly effective the '50s film was, almost in spite of itself, and also of how certain results are definitively irreproducible.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.