Disney and Robert Zemeckis’ Mars Needs Moms will forever be remembered as the historic box office flop that finally got the acclaimed director to take a step back from his love affair with employing motion-capture in feature films. It’s a strange brew of the creepy character animation style that Polar Express gave birth to, a fight against authority and feminism, and a goofy kid-friendly space adventure, all rolled up into a technical marvel developed light years beyond the story it supports.
Based on the beloved children’s book by Berkeley Breathed, Mars Needs Moms follows a young boy named Milo (voiced by Seth Green, performed by Seth Dursky) whose relationship with his mother (Joan Cusack) is on the rocks. She wants him to eat his broccoli, and he in turn feeds it to the cat. He’d just assume not have a mom to interfere with his life and tells her as much.
The best way to appreciate mom is if she’s kidnapped by Martians who plan to zap her memories to fuel robots to mother their young as this is the way female Martians have been told raising youth works. Milo stows away on the spaceship and quickly finds himself in the bowels of Mars and in the presence of Gribble (Dan Fogler), a chubby and excessively immature man who arrived on the planet many years ago under similar circumstances that Milo did. Together they have to save Milo’s mom from the ruthless Martian women.
Calling Gribble immature is actually an understatement. Fogler, whose obnoxiousness in real life is magnified ten-fold in this performance, acts more like a child than Milo. His decades on Mars have made him a genius capable of sabotaging Martian defenses, yet for no reason he’s content to live out his days living above miles and miles of trash while trying – and failing – to be funny.
Character flaws run beyond Gribble and into the rest of the cast. Almost as obnoxious as Gribble is Ki, a gymnastically gifted Martian gal who learned English by watching 60s television and took away only Flower Power and hippie speak from those shows. Mom, as she’s referred to, is harsh and animated with a scowl on her face, yet Milo flips a switch from “I hate Mom” to “I’ll die to save Mom” in an instant. The Martian Security Chief and main villain looks like a shriveled up prune who once dated Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, and speaks an incomprehensible language with a slightly Asian accent and no subtitles.
In a bizarre story twist, the Martians above ground who run the show are all women, while the men are subjugated to the planet bowels where they can behave like chimpanzees and groom themselves like Rastafarians. The idea of females working for a living instead of raising their kids is absolutely wrong, of course. They should all be raising their children at home in a family setting. That’s at least the message the story of these Martians wants to convey.
This reliance on women to rule and robots powered by the essence of earth moms to raise the young wasn’t always the case, as a cave painting in a massive beautiful underground cavern suggests. It’s a place that’s literally right next to the Martian male community yet, to service the story, was never discovered.
Intended heart or gravitas in Mars Needs Moms was flushed down a garbage chute with Milo after he arrives on the red planet. Near death experiences including a firing squad execution are played for laughs, and a near sacrifice is thrown in simply to appease an earlier instance of foreshadowing. Don’t even get me started on Gribble’s genius idea to prove he’s cool to Milo by letting him by saving him from certain death.
Disney made sure watching this trip to Mars is nothing short of stunning whether tackled in 2D or 3D. Colors ranging from industrial to vibrant pop off the screen, the dark underground portions deliver inky blacks, and there’s no flaws to be found anywhere in the digital animation’s 1080p presentation.
The same praise can be shared with the 3D presentation, in which Disney took the “steady” approach to delivering. I counted only one blatant use of direction for the sake of 3D that had glass shattering and floating around the screen in slow motion. The rest of the film’s otherworldly environments, whether above or below the surface of Mars, uses 3D to subtly and successfully create the illusion of depth within a variety of enclosed and expansive spaces.
Some of you who took or plan to take the plunge on Mars Needs Moms on Blu-ray 3D solely for the 3D aspect might argue it’s not strong enough due to a lack of “wow” moments. I find the 3D to be complimentary to the highly detailed computer animation rather than a nagging distraction.
Disney and 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is always a formula for success on Blu-ray. In Mars Needs Moms, the galactic adventure blasts off with sound that is, pardon the pun, out of this world. There’s a fear in films with extensive LFE and almost continuous background noises that dialogue will suffer as a result. Not so here, as every word – for better or worse – is spoken or childishly exclaimed with pristine clarity. The boring earth segments are less impacting than anything on Mars, but that’s more a function of the sound design than a flaw in the mix. Chalk up another score for the Disney sound engineers.
Beyond the Feature
Disney opted to skimp on bonus features which was anticipated considering the film’s abysmal theatrical performance. There is a small selection of material available on the Blu-ray 2D and 3D discs that offers just enough additional entertainment for parents or kids who need a little more beyond the film.
Deleted Scene in 3D (1 minute, HD) – This brief completed scene of Milo catching his mom’s kidnappers in the act is the only Blu-ray 3D exclusive.
Life on Mars: The Full Motion Capture Experience – This picture-in-picture experience can be viewed with commentary from actors Seth Green and Dan Fogler, along with writer/director Simon Wells, turned on or off. Either way, the PiP window delivers up behind-the-scenes looks at the motion capture sessions and matching early animation. Unfortunately there is no option to view any of the behind-the-scenes material in a separate featurette or documentary.
Deleted Scenes (29 minutes, HD) – A total of seven forgettable deleted scenes are offered, ranging from finished animation to very early concept animation, to a mix of both. Simon Wells offers a brief introduction on each to set up the scene and why it was axed.
Martian 101 (3 minutes, HD) – The Martian language isn’t widely used in the film, but its presence is impossible to ignore given the lack of subtitles. Wells returns with his cast to chat about the language’s genesis and bringing it to life.
Fun With Seth (2 minutes, HD) – A brief stint with Seth on set doing what he does best: being a goofball. I wouldn’t have minded another 15 minutes of this.
Mars Needs Moms isn’t an awful film per se, and the Blu-ray 2D and 3D presentation is top-notch which alone will put it on the radar of those of you who appreciate bringing out the best in your home theater gear. There’s much worse out there, and it’s evident that Wells and his team put their best foot forward to turn the beloved childrens book into a sprawling cinematic adventure.
Despite having a proven template for success to work from, it’s painfully clear that Wells was in over his head in regards to structuring the story and developing the characters. The film’s many flaws jump off the screen and take much of the enjoyment with them. Kids, however, might not pick up on a lot of the issues and may actually fall in love with Milo’s unlikely Martian adventure, for what it’s worth.
– Dan Bradley
Shop for Mars Needs Moms on Blu-ray 3D for a discounted price at Amazon.com (August 9, 2011 release date).