Mars Needs Moms
What It Is
Like a lot of nine-year-olds, Milo (Seth Green’s captured motion, Seth Dusky’s voice) thinks his mother (Joan Cusack) is too hard on him. She wants him to take out the garbage, shut the front door behind him, and eat his broccoli, not to mention forgive his father (Tom Everett Scott) when he doesn’t make it home as promised, because his plane is grounded by bad weather. Still, Milo worries when his frustration leads him to say something he doesn’t really mean, namely, “My life would be so much better if I didn’t have a mother.”
Before he can apologize, mom is whisked away by Martians, and oh yes, Milo is stowing away on the rocket ship. Once the ship lands on the Red Planet, he discovers that the Martians intend to suck out his mother’s knowledge, in order to upload it to a squad of nanny-bots, used to raise Martian children (these hatch from the ground, apparently parentless). The problem is, that the brain-sucking process will leave his mom dead.
Determined to save her, Milo asks for help from another son whose mother was kidnapped and killed by the Martians 25 years ago. Now grown-up — at least in size and weight — Gribble (Dan Fogler) remains a nerdy, lonely boy at heart, so he’s thrilled to have a new playmate, and also have a chance to show off his gizmos and tech savvy. Milo also gets unexpected help from Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), a Martian who loves American ’70s TV (one favorite show features hippies instructing cops via colorful flower-power graffiti) and yearns for parents. She’s a member of the all-girl Martian army, sleek and disciplined and trained to carry out brutal assaults on invaders; their male counterparts are relegated to rummaging for food in garbage heaps, a community without education, hope or... mothers.
Why It’s Fun
Imagining a journey on a space ship is surely fun. But that trip is short and the landing on Mars is hard, meaning, Milo is immediately in trouble, if not immediately aware of how dire that trouble is. But once he makes that discovery and sets about finding his mom, the film becomes predictable. Based on a book by Berkeley Breathed, the movie imposes an obvious lesson: kids need to appreciate their moms. In Milo’s initial view, his mom washes his clothes, makes his food, and vacuums the house. By the end, he sees that her effect is more transcendent: she loves him unconditionally.
Milo’s moments of fun on Mars are brief: he experiments with the low gravity, he comes to value (or at least not dismiss) Ki’s antic misunderstandings of “period” English slang (she’s excited about a “crazy love thing,” wants to “get down”), and he even comes to forgive Gribbles’ misjudgments and be grateful for his courage (which comes to the surface very conveniently).
Milo spends a good deal of time in motion — running after the space ship, enjoying the “cool” ride on it, running from Martians with weapons, and sliding down garbage chutes — he’s a strangely static character. In part this is a function of his design. The film is made with the same motion capture animation process as Avatar, in which real life actors performed the parts while wearing body suits rigged with wires. Still, Milo’s face is more plastic-cartoony than expressive, and he never seems to get over a basic inability to empathize with others, his mother included.
The 3D effects (in IMAX) are functional, but not sensational.
The Martian girls are rendered in depressing, if glossy, black-and-white, while the Martian boys are hairy and hulking and ape-like. While this underscores the joylessness of the soldiers’ lives (as well as the literal bright spots Ki’s guerilla spray-painting provides), it also means the film’s color palette is mostly drab.
Who’s Going To Love It
Kids who like action-adventure will like the idea of this movie more than the execution.
Kids who like to see into how movies are made will love the final credits sequence, which shows the motion-capture process using a few scenes from the film: actors in bodysuits perform the action and dialogue we’ve just seen in the movie, with wires and lights. These scenes are more fun than the animated versions in the movie proper.
Some viewers will appreciate Milo’s emotional journey. Others will like his developing friendship with Gribble, as they bond over their missing moms and fear of being alone.
What To Be Aware Of
Gribble is an extreme example of the forever-immature manchild so popular in recent movies by Judd Apatow. That he wants his mom and not a romantic object only makes his acting out against authority (the Martians) more grating. He has a robot pet and a “sidekick” in the male Martian he calls Wingnut (Kevin Cahoon). (Apparently, Gribble hasn’t learned to speak Martian in the 25 years he’s been trapped on Mars, surrounded by Martians.)
The male Martians’ unhappy predicament is the result of a social order devised years ago by the Supervisor (Mindy Sterling), whose wizened face and screechy voice make her more cartoonish and also more irritating than anyone else on screen. She’s witchy and inscrutable rather than vivid, however, at times lapses into caricature. (At times her features and speech resemble the racist caricatures of Japanese generals in old U.S.-made WWII movies.)
As the Supervisor appears to be the Very Bad Mom, Milo’s mom (unnamed) becomes the Very Good Mom by comparison. Though the lesson is, “be thankful for your mom,” the film provides a brief counter-lesson, in which Milo believes that the Martians have kidnapped his mother because he has been a good and obedient son while they’ve been watching the family from their space ship. If only he’d been disobedient, then they wouldn’t have wanted her! It poses quite a dilemma for a nine-year-old.
The movie features an especially disturbing scene near the end, when Milo believes he’s lost his mother despite all his efforts. It’s a heart-wrenching moment, his “lesson” compressed into a couple of minutes of anguish: viewers who recall the near-loss of Lilo’s sister in Lilo & Stitch will have a sense of how sad and scary it might be for younger viewers.
The film includes a couple of mildly alarming shooting scenes, when the Martians take aim at the humans.
The Martians refer to Milo, Ki, and Gribble as “terrorists,” a faux-topical reference that seems both understandable (from the Martians’ fearful point of view) and hyperbolic.
4 out of 10
Mars Needs Moms
Director: Simon Wells
Cast: Seth Green, Joan Cusack, Dan Fogler, Elisabeth Harnois, Mindy Sterling
Studio: Disney Pictures
US Premiere: March 11, 2011
UK Premiere: April 8, 2011