“Mars Needs Moms” is a fun movie. I wasn’t expecting it to be, but it is. It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t strive too much to keep the parents entertained, or to keep the kids laughing with unlimited dumb jokes, but instead simply tries to tell a solid story with a positive message. It often seems like there aren’t enough of those.
At the same time, I was also not expecting to take issue with the setting and background of the plot, a generally innocuous part of children’s cinema. I ended up enjoying it quite a bit, but found myself dealing with some curious ideological problems. There’s something mildly off-putting about the way the filmmakers construct Martian society and then subsequently judge it and fix it, and the subsequent message they give the film. More on that later.
What makes “Mars Needs Moms” work? To start, the setup is uncomplicated and endearing. Milo (Seth Green) is a typical kid who doesn’t like broccoli, loves zombies, and has a wonderful mother. Unfortunately, Mom (Joan Cusack) is too good at parenting, and the Martians abduct her to raise an entire generation of new infants. Milo manages to grab onto the spaceship, flies off to Mars, and spends the next 80-odd minutes trying to get her back.
Along the way he’s helped by Gribble (Dan Fogler), an adult who has been alone on the Red Planet since he was dropped there as a kid in the mid-80s and is a source for the film’s thankfully few pop culture jokes. Gribble loves video games, lives at the bottom of the Martian city’s trash chute, and has been dying to have a new friend. He’s somewhat annoying at first, both to Milo and to the audience, but as he overcomes his fears and helps his new buddy get his mom back you warm up to him.
The characters are great, even though Mom spends the vast majority of the film inert and speechless. Gribble and Milo have good chemistry and Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), the Flower Power Martian, is particularly delightful. She speaks English because she stole a whole bunch of 1970s TV emissions from the Supervisor (Mindy Sterling), and their influence turned her into a groovy artist/revolutionary. There’s actually quite a bit of fun to be had with the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘00s lingo interaction between Ki, Gribble and Milo; the film even manages to stick mostly to slang and attitude jokes, avoiding irritating pop culture references.
There’s also an interesting visual palette, which seems to take a lot of inspiration from the bare and intimidating aesthetics of the Imperial fleet in “Star Wars.” The Martian city has the same solemn and inhuman feel as a droid army or the interiors of the Death Star, though without that level of panache. The giant trash heap beneath the city is equally Lucas-reminiscent, and while the film is not particularly stunning there’s a nice visual coherence.
On that same note, the motion-capture is perhaps the least creepy that Zemeckis’s production company has done yet, and it appears we may finally be out of the scary world of fake Tom Hanks. Perhaps that’s because all of the characters except Mom look totally different from their voice actors; Seth Green for obvious reasons, Gribble needs a very specific appearance and the rest of the cast are Martians. There are definitely moments in which the boundary between real-life Joan Cusack and her motion-capture double is almost uncomfortably strange, though it’s not a predominant issue.
And speaking of being somewhat uncomfortable, there is the strange gender politics of the film. Why do the Martians need to kidnap a mom? Well, Mars is ruled by a totalitarian and somewhat scary Supervisor, who makes sure that all of the males are sent to live in the trash heap and all of the females live in an extremely strict society on the surface. She’s cold and intimidating. Ki, on the other hand, is a bit of a cultural rebel, the one female on the surface who thinks differently and spreads her hippie joy via flower power art. As the film progresses, it becomes not just about saving Mom but also the launching of a revolution against the Supervisor to bring love back to Mars. Milo first teaches Ki about family and happiness, inspiring her to be the first Martian to stand up to the Supervisor, and in the process learns just how much he loves his Mom.
It’s heartwarming, and revolution is always a great way to add excitement to a movie. I really like the idea of “love as crucial to a society,” and having a totalitarian state that just needs some flower power to save itself is kind of a cool idea. What drove me absolutely crazy, however, is the choice made by the filmmakers to make it hinge directly on the issue of gender. How did this society become so loveless and horrible? It’s because a bitter woman (the Supervisor) managed to take control, kicked out all of the men and created an oppressive totalitarian state. The idea that saves Mars and causes the people to finally kick out the Supervisor is their realization that there used to be the institution of the perfect loving family, made up of a man, a woman and a child. The men come up from the trash heaps, the women realize that they’ve been fooled, and they join together to kick out the heartless career-woman that got them into this mess.
Now, I’m all for love. And I don’t really think that this is on any level a conscious effort by the writers to project some sort of classical definition of the nuclear family onto your children. Rather, it seems to me that the filmmakers wanted a compelling story of the power of love, and got a little carried away. What annoys me is simply that “Mars Needs Moms” would have worked just as well if its cold and impersonal society had been composed of both male and female Martians. The introduction of gender politics into the script was entirely unnecessary, and if anything just takes away from the experience.
After all, at core the message of the movie is really uncomplicated: love your mom. Keep it simple, people, and it’ll work out. All you need is love.