(by Dustin Putman
Call it poor timing. "Mars Needs Moms," the new motion-capture animated feature from Walt Disney Pictures, is being released just one week after Paramount Pictures' "Rango," a witty, heart-filled, lovingly imaginative ode to spaghetti westerns that talked down to no one and shattered demographics. The studio behind "Rango" also made the brave choice to go out in 2D—the first mainstream animated pic to do so in close to two years—and the results were more bold, colorful and immersive than an old 3D version could have possibly dreamt about. "Mars Needs Moms" returns to the rusty, tri-dimensional fad and seems positively quaint in comparison. Funny, how there is a premium price placed on movies in 3D, yet it is the rare 2D ones that are of inherently higher visual quality and now worth celebrating. Article continues below
The usual 3D deficiencies aside—a dimmer picture, dulled colors, and a shimmering/blurring effect that occurs if the viewer isn't constantly staring straight ahead at the screen with their bulky plastic glasses on—how is "Mars Needs Moms" as a film? It's splendid to look at and the possibilities of the premise are boundless. The screenplay, by writer-director Simon Wells (2002's "The Time Machine") and co-writer Wendy Wells, is another matter entirely, leaving a lot to be desired as it too often resorts to thrill ride antics posing as scenes instead of adequately exploring the fantastical realms of its narrative and setting. Because of this, the experience becomes an impersonal, borderline-mechanical one book-ended by the dramatic warmth its middle hour hasn't a speck of.
While his father is away on a business trip, rambunctious 10-year-old Milo (37-year-old Seth Green, his voice put through a modifier and left indistinguishable) locks horns with his loving, understandably harried mother (Joan Cusack) and utters words to her he instantly regrets: "I wish I didn't have a mom." Before the night is out, his mom has been abducted and, trying to save her, Milo has secretly boarded the UFO that intends to take her to Mars so she can parent the planet's new baby hatchlings. Befriending the other human on Mars, grown mechanic Gribble (Dan Fogler), whose own mother was taken from him years ago, Milo will do whatever it takes to save his parent, overthrow Mars dictator Supervisor (Mindy Sterling), and make it safely back home.
"Mars Needs Moms" is poignant enough in its opening and closing that one can't really call it ineffectual. In the scenes between Milo and his mother, there is a ring of truth hit in its depiction of an unbreakable parent-child bond. The gaping middle, however, is just that—an emotionally detached onslaught of hectic action and racing around without any regard for how frightening and awe-inspiring a trip aboard an alien spacecraft to their home planet might be. Milo slides down a garbage shoot that takes on the appearance of the world's biggest playground slide. He collapses through the floor and into a dump site. He takes a perilous fall off a cliff. He runs around the corridors of a spaceship and spies on aliens who line up and march for the Supervisor like members of the Third Reich. It's very much like the second, more tedious act of 2008's "Wall•E" all over again, only without as much thematic subtext. It gets old quickly, and only recovers once Milo's mom re-enters the picture (a pee-in-the-face gag used as the concluding tag then knocks it back down a peg).
Interestingly, the highlight of "Mars Needs Moms" is its end credits, featuring footage of the live-action cast performing their roles prior to the animators coming in and turning them into digital characters. Less in-the-know audiences will be amazed by this (if not simply confused) since few probably realize the process of the motion-capture animation format. Technically, there is little to complain about with the film. It looks dazzling, and will no doubt look even better once it's on glorious 2D Blu-Ray. The material that surrounds its look is what doesn't work. It's bland and neither here-nor-there, an adventure-fantasy that could have used more story innovation to go along with its state-of-the-art aesthetics. If the end credits are any indication, a full-length making-of documentary would probably be altogether more captivating than the movie itself.