Robert Zemeckis has spent the past few years, since 2004’s uncanny valley-crossing “The Polar Express,” trying to convince the movie-going public of the validity of his brand of motion capture animation. For the most part, audiences have resisted, but he still keeps plugging away. And even a new deal with Disney to distribute his animated wonders wasn’t enough to guarantee its success; it was quietly shuttered this year.
The last motion capture movie to be released by Zemeckis’ company (through Disney, at least) is this week’s “Mars Needs Moms,” co-written and directed by Simon Wells and based on a slender children’s book by Berkeley Breathed. And the movie, a slapdash sci-fi flick for the kiddies, is so artistically and dramatically inert that you won’t miss the studio at all. At the very least you’ll just be thankful that you won’t have to look at the dead-eyed automatons that largely dominate these productions.
The story might have made sense in a 30-page illustrated book, but on the big screen it makes very little: Mars, it seems, is lousy at raising babies. It needs to program its “nanny-bots” with real world experience, so every 25 years or so, they scoop up a mother from planet earth. They have a complex mechanism that drains the abducted mother’s memories and mannerisms, a process that ends with the earth-mother being killed. The aliens have targeted the mother (Joan Cusack) of Milo (“performed” by Seth Green, voiced by Seth Robert Dusky), and in the process, end up bringing Milo with her to the red planet.
So far, so snooze, right? Well, things become downright manic once they reach the planet, as a mad dash for mom begins. Tangentially, it involves a fat-ass earthling named Gribble (Dan Fogler), whose mother was abducted 25 years before, a revolt by the Martians, and a senior official (Elisabeth Harnois) who moonlights as a Banksy-esque graffiti artist (yes, seriously). The movie’s story feels both incredibly busy and surprisingly flat.
Part of this is because mom is whisked away almost immediately after we meet her; there’s no legwork done in establishing her relationship with her son, and as such we don’t care all that much about what happens to her, or whether or not Milo can retrieve her from the memory-draining, mom-evaporating machine. To us, she’s just a collection of pixels.
And the pixels aren’t all that interesting or engaging, either. Wells, who made “The Prince of Egypt,” a movie with considerably more scope with considerably less technology, is too enraptured with the motion capture technology to bother telling much of a story. If “How to Train Your Dragon” was concerned with using the immersive power of 3D to simulate flight, “Mars Needs Moms” is mostly hung up synthesizing the sensation of falling or weightlessness. And, really, it’s a bore; it feels like you’re careening through a water park slide for 90 minutes. (It should be noted, however, that John Powell‘s score, a nifty Theremin-enriched affair that wouldn’t be out of place at Tomorrowland, is totally brilliant.)
From a design point of view, too, “Mars Needs Moms” severely suffers. The alien creatures themselves are totally disappointing – a combination of the bent-knee creatures from that Charlie Sheen movie “The Arrival,” paired with the nasty abductors from the underrated true story “Fire in the Sky.” The male aliens, who are forced to live in the planet’s vast garbage dump, look like gangly hippies, with dreadlocks and beards (no, this isn’t a joke). Apparently, Mars has Burning Man too. The character designs look even worse compared to “Rango,” an animated film that positively overflows with wonderfully conceived creatures (and one that isn’t bogged down by the robotic quality of motion capture).
But as problematic as the technical and narrative aspects of “Mars Needs Moms” are, the movie’s gender politics are even worse. It’s almost too much to get into, but the way the movie defines gender is backwards and potentially harmful. When describing his mother to the Martians, Milo says that she’s the one who “makes the food” and “vacuums the house” (yes, really). The Martian society is split down gender lines, with the women being hardened taskmasters who run the show while the men, obsessed with hugging, remain underground with the trash. Oh, and the reason the aliens choose Milo’s mom? Because she forces him to take out the trash. That’s right: the whole movie’s plot is put into motion because they recognized that she’s a bitch.
When the movie ends, you want to rip off your 3D glasses and never have to suffer through another one of these rigidly animated, emotion-free snore-fests. Except that there’s more stuff over the closing credits, including a side-by-side look at the stuff they “filmed” in live action and how it was translated to animation. It’s almost like the filmmakers are saying “Look at how much work this took!” Which is all well and good if that work translated to something in the least bit interesting. Instead, people will look back at the motion capture antics of Robert Zemeckis and ask: Why did he waste his time? [D]