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 techno-talk 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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Walt Disney Pictures