As easy as it is to pillory Mars Needs Moms as another jaundiced motion-capture product fresh off producer Robert Zemeckis’s assembly line, the fact remains that the film itself is uniquely ill-advised. Based on a kid’s story by Berekeley Breathed, the film sports a freakish concept given new life by Zemeckis’s plasticine CGI technology and is, conceptually at least, a breath of fresh air by comparison to more level-headed contemporary animated films.
That having been said, I want to shake the hand of and then half-heartedly scold whoever greenlit Mars Needs Moms, a film whose premise boils down to a family adventure where a boy fights to bring his mom (Joan Cusack) back home from Mars after she’s abducted by aliens for the sake of raising their kids, who pop out of the Martian soil every 25 years. There’s so much money thrown at the screen that the film’s set pieces can’t help but be spectacular. The film’s production values are almost enough to make the film’s monumental shortcomings worth overlooking. But only almost.
There’s a weirdly narrow focus to Mars Needs Moms‘s setup that makes its tangential developments that much more bewildering and maybe even a little endearing. Milo (Seth Green) is a spoiled little wallflower suburbanite whose life revolves exclusively around his parents, making the concept of the kid having neighborhood friends or even knowing people he’d like to eventually befriend a far-flung concept. Instead, when his father is waylaid and unable to come home in time to see the latest zombie movie with Milo, the kid pouts something fierce. One broccoli-related incident later, Milo’s told his mother that he wishes he knew what life without her was like. Then Mom gets abducted, Milo tags along, tries to rescue her, meets Gribble (Dan Fogler), a needy adolescent that wants nothing more than to hang out with Milo and be his friend forever, and enlists Gribble’s help to rescue his mom from the clutches of the Martians. Simple so far, right?
Enter some of the most bizarre ancillary details of a recent studio-produced cartoon: Gribble is actually a child of the ‘80s and won’t stop spouting Reagan-era pop-culture references. He stays trapped in the Martians’ trash dump because it’s the safest place to be, mostly because all the male Martians have already been banished down there, where they take care of the young male Martians. In a junkyard. Away from the prying eyes of the female Martians.
But wait, there’s more: These male Martians look like they were modeled after the Scarecrow from The Wiz and apparently have become great parents ever since they were quarantined from the lady Martians. These women, on the other hand, have no clue how to rear a child and hence abduct other species’ females so as to steal their victims’ sense of parental responsibility and program their nanny robots with nurturing skills. And all the while, Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), a rebellious young girl Martian runs around Mars tagging everything with flower-power graffiti inspired by the footage she’s secretly studied of human culture from the ‘70s (apparently, the Martians at one point were poring over a sitcom that resembles a cross between Laugh-In and That ‘70s Show). This is the stuff that debacles are made of.
And yet Mars Needs Moms has a visual flair that makes the fact that all of its characters are tacky and imbued with inexplicable tics seem insignificant in the long run. The Martians all have rutabaga-shaped heads and their citadel-like headquarters looks like it was ripped off from some long forgotten issue of Heavy Metal. In a world where everything shiny and expensive-looking cranked out American studios has an instantly forgettable look, that’s a very good thing. Director Simon Wells’s (grandson of H.G. and the director of the ill-fated 2002 The Time Machine) frequent use of forced perspective and POV shots also lends its world a uniquely cinematic quality that makes its deranged world that much more fun to gawk at.
It’s too bad that the spell that cinematographer Robert Presley weaves is almost completely undone by Wells’s helter-skelter direction. As long as Mars Needs Moms relies on bizarre concept designs brought to life by millions of dollars’ worth of technology, the film is fine, sometimes even impressive. But as soon as anything that looks even vaguely like an anthropoid enters the picture, all bets are off.