3 stars out of 5
Before you proclaim this film as yet another 3D-tainted-sci-fi-teen-book adaptation and scoff at its admittedly lame trailer, let’s set the record straight – Mars Needs Moms is actually quite a burst of fun and energy. True, it’s further evidence of Hollywood’s inability to come up with original storylines, but Simon Wells (The Time Machine, The Prince of Egypt) manages to deliver a playful, raucous affair that will amuse and abuse your senses.
Based off Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Berkeley Breathed’s picture book of the same name, Mars Needs Mom opens with a Sims-inspired video capture of bratty American kids throwing spectacular tantrums. Turns out Little Miss Yoda a.k.a The Evil Alien Supervisor (Mindy Sterling having a ball) from Mars and her minions have been closely monitoring behaviour on Earth. Her purpose? To sift out the perfect, all-controlling human mom so she can extract this Type-A gene and transfer it to their “Nanny-bots” – who will then possess the necessary elements to properly raise young martians. 9 year-old Milo (Seth Robert Dusky on vocals and motion-captured by Seth Green), fresh from a huge fight with his mom (Joan Cusack), discovers to his horror that she’s been abducted by aliens, hops into the kidnapper’s UFO to rescue her and ends up marooned on Mars. Now a fugitive, he befriends man-child Gribble (a barely audible Dan Fogler), who enlightens him on The Supervisor’s nefarious intentions. With extra help from a perky, hippy-influenced martian, Ki (Elisabeth Harnois) and a community of tribal creatures who look like they just walked off an animated edition of Apocalypto, they begin a race against the clock to save Milo’s mom.
My misgivings toward CGI created characters run deep, but there’s no denying the astonishing facial details in the film. Every nuance and expression is so realistically and richly captured, you’ll find yourself wondering if you’re watching live actors on screen. Which in principle, is not far from the truth, as the film was created almost entirely using performance capture – a ground breaking technique immortalized in movies like James Cameron’s Avatar. In spite of this, its 3D effects (predictably) don’t add a significant wealth of dimension to the film, except during more action heavy sequences. The plot is also embarrassingly clichéd and weak at times (possible anti-feminism gags and Disney obviously don’t mesh well together), though to his credit, Wells does build a comfortable pace laced with enough ups and downs to entertain even the most restless kids.
While the interminably gifted, stealth comic genius Seth Green didn’t end up voicing his motion-captured character (they eventually thought his voice too mature for a boy in elementary school – someone obviously forgot his contribution to Family Guy), Dusky proved an laudable replacement. Undoubtedly Green would have somehow managed to make his 37 year-old pipes work for the role, but Dusky’s vivacious sincerity adds genuine dimension to Milo. Certainly well-played for an unknown child actor. Cusack is brilliant, especially when engaged in familial moments, and Harnois lends an enchantingly non-abrasive, perky quality to flower-power obsessed Ki. It’s Fogler who disappoints this time with his hardly intelligible rants of dialogue. A reasonable character idiosyncrasy I suppose, since Gribble spent most of his formative years rolling with the martians - whose speech patterns primarily consist of a series of squeaks and grunts. Nonetheless intolerably annoying, especially when you have to waste a good half of your time trying to figure out what he’s saying.
Packed with a heart-warming story and sparks of show stopping visuals, Mars Needs Moms is like a chocolate covered treat for the whole family. If all else fails, some behind-the-scenes footage of the crew and cast decked out in their performance capture suits should wring a laugh or two.