A boy learns to appreciate his mother and saves a planet in the process in the amped-up sci-fi family adventure “Mars Needs Moms.” Working against an ungainly title and a rather formulaic marketing campaign, pic is a modestly enjoyable performance-capture creation bearing the unmistakable imprint of producer Robert Zemeckis. Adults may roll their eyes at the prospect of yet another slick, premium-priced videogame posing as a 3D movie, but kids, boys especially, will respond to its high-throttle action and dazzling, f/x-laden chase and battle sequences. Imax showings should bolster returns for this Disney release.
As the primary advocate of performance capture since 2004’s”The Polar Express,” Zemeckis is determined to popularize the format despite its detractors. Certainly, Zemeckis products “Beowulf,” “Monster House” and “A Christmas Carol” have shown that as the technology becomes more refined, the physical animation can look increasingly realistic. Still, some viewers have expressed a visceral disdain for the format, likening the blank-eyed human characters to walking corpses, which is why non-humans, like the Na’vi in “Avatar” and the aliens in “Mars Needs Moms,” fare better.
Helmer Simon Wells (who adapted the screenplay with his wife Wendy from Berkeley Breathed’s book) infuses the proceedings with brisk energy and, aptly, a boy’s sense of wide-eyed wonder. Oddly, that boy is played by an actor in his 30s, Seth Green, whose facial expressions provided the foundation for the performance, while young Seth Dusky delivered the dialogue (carefully matched to Green’s original voicework).
The resulting creation, 9-year-old Milo, is introduced locked in a battle of wills with his mom (Joan Cusack) while his dad (Tom Everett Scott) is away on business. Refusing to eat his dinner, do his chores or heed any of his mother’s nagging demands, Milo insists things would be better if he didn’t have a mom, but soon regrets his words when she’s abducted by fleet-footed aliens.
While his mom sleeps under the eye of her captors, Milo steals away aboard the spaceship. Landing on Mars, Milo begins to make his way through the planet’s various underground strata and mazelike tunnels. Guided by a mysterious stranger’s voice, he manages to elude the Martian army (looking like transplants from “Triumph of the Will”), hiding briefly with a tribe of good-natured, trash-dwelling Martian Rastafarians led by Wingnut (Kevin Cahoon). Trying to describe what a mother does, Milo mimes sweeping and feeding; this perplexes them.
Nearby, Milo meets Gribble (Dan Fogler), a human who followed his own mom to Mars during a similar abduction 25 years earlier. As Gribble helpfully explains, Martians are hatched without parents, and the adults of the species are unable to raise the young on their own. So every few decades, they land on Earth, abduct a human mother and download her powers of discipline, passing those skills on to the fleet of Nannybots who will care for them. The notion that human mothers are the universe’s most accomplished disciplinarians is perhaps the film’s most inventive conceit.
Gribble gives Milo a Martian watch that indicates how much time remains before his mom is irrevocably downloaded. (The downloading of Gribble’s mom is shown briefly; her final fate, potentially upsetting to little ones, is implied.) While attempting the rescue, they encounter the evil Supervisor (Mindy Sterling, riffing on her Frau Farbissina from “Austin Powers”) and the kindly, earth-friendly graffiti tagger Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), a Banksy from beyond.
As the various forces convene, building up to a climactic battle sequence, the plot’s preposterousness becomes irrelevant; its primary goal, at this point, is to deliver thrills. Late in the game, there’s a key moment between mother and child that’s as poignant as it is anachronistic, as manipulative as it is effective.
On a technical level, “Mars Needs Moms” is well assembled and proficiently directed. Production design, however, appears to be such a pastiche of sci-fi classics that one can only hope it’s intended as homage.