Mars Needs Moms (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Here's the irony of motion-capture animation, one that Mars Needs Moms only reinforces: For a technology intended to make animated humans look more real, it sure hasn't been used to tell stories that are more human.
When Robert Zemeckis pioneered the idea for a feature-length film in The Polar Express in 2004, plenty of critics picked on the creepy-looking characters with their hollowed-out mouths. But even as Zemeckis fine-tuned the technology for Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, the narratives themselves remained uninvolving. Always a filmmaker fond of his state-of-the-art toys, Zemeckis focused almost entirely on what he could do with this particular approach to visual storytelling, forgetting that he needed to have us care about what was happening to these strange-looking people.
For this film, Zemeckis only produces, turning over the directing chair to Simon Wells (Prince of Egypt), but everything feels very much according to the Zemeckis game plan. Expanded from a simple, quirky picture book by cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, the story follows 9-year-old Milo (Seth Green), who rebels to the point that he tells his mother (Joan Cusack) that he wishes he didn't even have a mom. And naturally, his wish nearly comes true.
Mom is abducted by Martians, seeking a responsible Earth parent whose emotions will help program the robots that tend to Martian infants. Milo manages to stow away on the ship that worm-holes them instantly back to Mars, where he discovers another human, Gribble (Dan Fogler), who was similarly marooned years earlier, and may be his only help in saving Mom.
The Mars that Milo discovers has a social structure with potentially fascinating details. Living entirely below the planet's surface, the Martians have become a matriarchy with a Brave New World-like approach to raising its "hatchlings." The females are separated from the males by the society's female Supervisor (Mindy Sterling) in part because — dig this — the males are too huggy and emotional to allow the important functions of society to proceed efficiently.
But the filmmakers fail to delve further into such questions as how things came to be this way. This is a movie targeted at kids, so it stays centered on Milo's quest to save Mom before a countdown clock expires. Along the way, Milo will naturally come to appreciate her, mostly thanks to Gribble, a fun, ramped-up version of the stereotypical still-living-in-mom's-basement post-adolescent nerd, only without the mom. His relationship with Milo could have been something with a unique tension: a kid looking for someone who can act as a parent, dealing with an adult who's only looking for someone to be his buddy.
Yet that's a level of storytelling intricacy beyond anything the film explores. Instead, we get elaborate set designs that are terribly cool in an "Isn't this awesome in 3-D" sort of way. Yet with these motion-captured characters, it feels even less genuinely engaging than a now-conventional computer-animated story.
And that's the fundamental frustration with Mars Needs Moms: squandered potential that would have given the storytelling some depth. The Supervisor's motivations are dispatched in the same speck of time usually given to the villain's confession in a Scooby-Doo episode, and Milo's change of heart comes with little effort. Motion-capture technology may be advancing so that the insides of characters' mouths are more realistic, but the movies won't take the next step until there's just as much creative energy devoted to the insides of their souls.