The news that Berkeley Breathed’s touching children’s book was being adapted to film was met with excitement in my household, until it was revealed that the film would follow the horrendous Robert Zemeckis model of CG animation via motion capture. As it turns out, that mo-cap approach isn’t the worst thing about this lousy film, but it’s one culprit on a long list.
Milo (Seth Green) is an average Earth boy living with a harried single mom and generally failing to appreciate the effort she puts forth for him. After a heated argument one night, Milo realizes the error of his ways and goes to his mom’s room to apologize to her, where he finds her being kidnapped by aliens about to blast off in their spaceship. He stows away onboard to rescue her, finding himself quickly transported to the low-gravity underground confines of Mars where he stumbles across a tribe of primitive and dopey aliens in a junkyard before finding his way to the lair of another human named Gribble.
Gribble is approaching middle age but was once in Milo’s same situation, which was how he found himself stranded on the red planet, so he teams up with Milo on a race to rescue Milo’s mom before the Martians turn her brain to goo. See, the Martians above the junkyard are a matriarchal society without mothers, with all of the women working and farming out their mothering duties to nannybots who take their direction from mothering instincts downloaded from a human donor. Unfortunately, that donor dies during the transference process, putting Milo on a strict rescue deadline. We know how this will turn out, and those few minutes of emotional payoff are the sole redeeming quality of the film, the only time it legitimately and successfully adapts the tear-jerking theme of the original book.
So where does it go wrong? Let’s start with the characters, or rather the additional characters, because the book keeps the focus fully on the mother and son while the film introduces the grating and obnoxious Gribble as well as a hippie chick Martian named Ki who divert our attention with their worthless antics. Gribble is so unlikable, so brash, so fat, that it’s shocking that he made it through the planning stages of the film to ruin the final product. Even his name is annoying! Ki is marginally better, but when she gets saddled with hippie sensibilities due to her exposure to ’60s Earth TV, we’re left to roll our eyes at her flower power foolishness.
Then we have the character design and models. The designs are unimaginative, from the wide-hipped and wide-eyed Martians to their sterile interiors and weapons. The character bodies are animated well since they’re just mo-cap, but the faces widely vary in quality between characters, ranging from the very low and barely animated quality of the mom (Joan Cusack) to the too-real Gribble, making for poor believability when they interact with each other. Gribble is so photo-realistic that they may as well have not bothered to motion capture actor Dan Fogler, with every nuance of his facial tics translated in perfect high definition.
But most of all, writer/director Simon Wells is at fault here. Wells hasn’t helmed a picture since The Time Machine reboot in 2002, and he hasn’t been missed. When you open your film with a Martian baby popping out of the ground butt first, it’s a pretty clear sign you’re already on the wrong track. I understand that it’s a challenge to adapt a 30-something page children’s book into a feature-length movie, but wasting time with borderline racist alien men mimicking Milo’s expressions for failed comic effect as well as incorporating and then poorly directing the Gribble and Ki characters detract from rather than enhance the project. Where the original book had humor and heart thanks to Bloom County mastermind Breathed, the film adaptation has Gribble.
The Blu-ray image and sound quality are reliably precise, ensuring that every pixel and beep of this misfire are presented in all of their glory. The bonus features include the option to watch the film in mo-cap mode, as well as an amusing featurette about Seth Green’s clowning around on set. Mars Needs Mom is available on 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, 4-disc Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/DVD/Digital combo pack, DVD, and digital download on August 9th, 2011.