Friday, January 13, 2012

"Mars Needs Moms" (2011)

Starring Seth Green/Seth Dusky, Dan Fogler and Elisabeth Harnois
Written by Simon and Wendy Wells
Directed by Simon Wells
Rated PG - Peril, violence, scary images
Running Time: 88 Minutes

"Mars Needs Moms" is a motion-captured CG affair that was released to little critical acclaim and even less box office success in 2011.  It's not hard to see why, since it's not a particularly good film, but it does have some merits worth discussing.

Milo (motion capture by Seth Green, voice by Seth Dusky) is a young human boy who feels unfairly punished by his mother (Joan Cusack) and ignored by his father (Tom Everett Scott), who is often away on business.  One night, Martians arrive and kidnap Milo's mom.  Milo follows them to their space ship and stows away on board. 

When they reach Mars, he discovers that the Martian female live in a monochromatic and highly ordered society where the young females are raised by "nanny-bots," machines which can only be used once and are then discarded.  Programming the nanny-bots requires removing the parenting knowledge from a human and implanting it into the bots, which destroys the human.  The male martians are dumped unceremoniously into an underworld filled with garbage. 

Milo meets Gribble (Dan Fogler) another human who attempted to rescue his own mother years previously and failed.  Now grown, Gribble lives alone in the underworld with his robot pet, Two-Cat (Dee Bradley Baker) and has gone just a little bit insane.  Milo also meets a Martian woman named Ki (Elisabeth Harnois) who has been fascinated with Earth's hippie culture, and joins Milo's quest to free his mother.

Milo, Gribble and Ki must infiltrate the Martian citadel, ruled with an iron hand by the Supervisor (Mindy Sterling) and her security forces, and rescue Milo's mom before sunrise activates the machine that will drain her of her memories and kill her. 

The real problem with "Mars Needs Moms" lies in the script.  For much of its runtime, the dialogue is too simplistic, and the jokes unfunny.  The actors give it their all, which is really impressive because the film is loaded with fine performances despite the fact that the material they're given is less than stellar.  Most of the problems center on the dialogue of the Milo character, who spends much of the film repeating his need to find and rescue his mother.  Over, and over, and over again he needs to find his mom.  We know.  We get it, really, we do. 

He also has a habit of announcing his realizations out loud.  Early on, he suddenly realizes that the reason he's trying to rescue his mom is not because she feeds him or tucks him in at night, but because he loves her.  And he recites this out loud as though he's astonished by it... while running down a corridor in a spacesuit.  It just doesn't work.

It's too bad because when the script does succeed, for a few fleeting moments "Mars Needs Moms" becomes quite effective.  Thankfully, the best moments happen at the right moments, which keeps "Mars Needs Moms" from being a total failure.  For example, during their argument at home before she's kidnapped, there is a shot where Milo's mom starts to cry after he says something particularly mean to her, and it's very well-played all around and the film feels right and alive.  But this doesn't happen again until nearly two-thirds of the way through when there's another scene with Gribble describing how he failed to save his own mother years earlier.  The final moment happens at the film's climax, when Milo's mom makes a sacrifice to save her son in front of the eyes of the entire Martian society.

That last part may have been my favorite part of the entire movie based solely on the concept of it - that witnessing a mother's sacrifice for her son and understanding exactly what maternal love is can wake up and change an entire society for the better.  It's a fantastic concept that I wish wasn't weakened by the scene immediately following it where, once again, the script feels the need to force-feed the idea to the audience with ham-fisted dialogue.  If only the rest of the film had been so deft with its drama and smart in the presentation of its ideas, "Mars Needs Moms" would likely have been a far better theatrical success and experience for everyone involved.

In the animation department, "Mars Needs Moms" was built with the same motion-capture technology seen in other recent animated fare like "Beowulf" and "A Christmas Carol."  As such, the characters move in an extremely realistic manner and their faces are detailed and expressive.  Some have had problems with this, regarding the uncanny valley; I didn't - in fact, I was just impressed most of the way through.  One problem I had once again centers on Milo.  All of the motion capture for this character was performed by Seth Green, he of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Austin Powers" fame.  Throughout production, he also voiced the character but it was decided later on that his voice simply sounded too old for and 11-year-old boy, and the voice performance was dubbed over by a young actor named Seth Dusky.

Now, the problem is not that Dusky does a bad job - far from it - but that the character seems to move and act so much like Seth Green that it feels weird hearing Dusky's voice.  In fact, over the end credits we get to see footage of the real actors performing their parts, including Green and the lines he's speaking sound much more natural with his voice than with Dusky's.  I think the producers sort of backed themselves against a wall on this one, since there's no way Green's voice would have worked in the final product, but there's also no getting around the fact that the entire character and his performance is modeled around him in such a specific way.

"Mars Needs Moms" also succeeds in giving us an excellent score from John Powell, who had previously done excellent work in "How to Train Your Dragon" and "X-Men: The Last Stand."  Powell's orchestral score is big and bombastic and highly entertaining, often elevating the pedestrian action sequences in "Mars Needs Moms."  Props to him on that accomplishment.

Overall, "Mars Needs Moms" isn't particularly good.  I got through it based on the impressive animation and the few moments when the film truly gets things right.  It seems to me like it's a little to mature in the ideas its trying to present in order for your kids to get it, while at the same time the presentation of those ideas is too hammy and simplistic for adults to really enjoy.  The few moments of good solid drama it employs don't make up for much of the runtime that just isn't all that interesting, even if it is very pretty to look at.

See Also
How to Train Your Dragon