Milo: Seth Green (motion capture), Seth Dursky (voice)
Gribble: Dan Fogler
Ki: Elisabeth Harnois
Mom: Joan Cusack
Supervisor: Mindy Sterling
Wingnut: Kevin Cahoon
Dad: Tom Everett Scott
Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Simon Wells. Written by Simon Wells & Wendy Wells. Based on the children’s book by Berkeley Breathed. Running time: 88 min. Rated PG (for sci-fi action and peril).
Whenever a movie comes out that’s based on a book, you inevitably hear about how the book was better. This is generally because in order to fit a novel into the two-hour running time of a feature-length movie, much of the details of the story must be cut. When it comes to children’s books, there usually isn’t enough material to cover 90 minutes of running time. A couple years ago the expansion of the children’s book “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” resulted in an irreverent and visually stunning film that didn’t seem to share much in common with the book of the same name. Now, comes “Mars Needs Moms”, another children’s book that needed to add an entire story to fit it into a feature-length film. The results this time are less imaginative and visually dull compared to the book.
I also come to this movie with the advantage of having heard the audio book version, performed by virtuoso voice artist Fred Berman. The fact that Disney did not employ Berman’s vocal styling was a disappointment to me, but those they did assemble do their best. Director Simon Wells (“The Time Machine”) uses the same performance motion capture technique used by Robert Zemeckis in “The Polar Express” and the most recent version of “A Christmas Carol”, where an actor performs all the action of the part and computers assign CGI animation based on that performance. Both the physical and vocal performances provided by the actors are energetic and affecting.
The basic story of both the book and the film is centered on a boy named Milo (the combined physical performance of Seth Green of “Old Dogs” and vocal performance of Seth Dursky), who doesn’t appreciate his mother (Joan Cusack, “Toy Story 3”), all the chores she makes him do, and most especially the fact that she makes him eat broccoli. He realizes how much he loves her when one night Martians kidnap her. They take her to Mars to help mother their children. Milo stows away in their space ship to save her.
The movie adds a couple of subplots to that story that make up the majority of the film’s action. Gribble (Dan Fogler, “Kung Fu Panda”) is another human trapped on Mars who helps Milo escape the Martians, but wants Milo to stay with him. There is also a Martian named Ki (Elizabeth Harnois, “Miami Medical”) who rebels against the strict rule of the Martian Supervisor (Mindy Sterling, “Austin Powers” series) and also helps Milo.
Where the movie falls flat is in its design. The book has very stylized illustrations by the book’s author, Berkley Breathed. Breathed is best known for his cartoon strip “Bloom County”. His characters are visually well-defined, floppy and full of weight. The colors he uses in the book are bright and span the spectrum. His Martians are fat and goofy, and sometimes spindly and freaky. None of these words can be used to describe the designs found in the movie. The Martians are all too typical, a basic humanoid form with some slightly exaggerated features, big eyes, and flat noses. That could describe countless aliens from an endless list of movies. Why wouldn’t they use Breathed’s designs?
As for the rest of the production design, it feels lifeless compared to most CGI animated fare these days. Too many grays, blues and darker hues, not enough bright and bubbly colors. The humans are almost too realistically rendered for this material, which is quite fantastical. They all look just like the actors performing them. It’s as if the filmmakers got so caught up in the motion capture concept that it never occurred to anyone to use their imagination.
Mars is bleak and featureless. The Martians live underground in a vast future city that shows how far into the Mars rock these aliens are willing to dig but little about how they live. There’s a vast sea of garbage beneath the city where all the unwanted beings are deposited along with the trash. This brings to mind the environmental concerns we grapple with on Earth, but nothing is ever said about this garbage pit. Surely some sort of surface dwelling that the Martians had somehow hidden from Earth’s detection could’ve provided a more interesting landscape for the events of this movie.
In the story’s final moments the movie begins to redeem its lack of imagination with some genuine emotions between Milo and his mom. The film contains a great message about the strength of the family unit and how too much bureaucracy can dull the spirit and hide what’s best for the greater good. By the end of the film this message has become the driving force, but with the gloomy design of the picture, its delivery feels heavy and forced.
I cannot fathom why Wells and his design team would abandon the beautiful imagery created by Breathed for his original book. The story has the potential to be at once fun, socially critical, and emotionally powerful. Instead, it feels like a paint-by-numbers coloring book. You can see a good story, but you’re powerless to change its drab palate and unimaginative artwork.