“Who knew mothering was so hard?”
If you thought that mothering was hard, you should see the work and creativity that goes into making a motion-capture computer animation feature. What started with The Polar Express led to a wonderful holiday special in the hands of Walt Disney with last year’s charming A Christmas Carol. Now Disney has taken the magic one step farther with the recent release of Mars Needs Moms.
“These are hatchlings. They are baby Martians, and they pop out of the ground like potatoes every 25 years or so. And the Martians, they’re terrible at mothering, which is ironic really, since the ones running the place upstairs, they’re all female.”
If the title sounds somewhat familiar, there’s a pretty good reason for that, and I’m sure that it’s not at all coincidental. A 1967 low-budget science fiction film from Larry Buchanan came on the scene entitled Mars Needs Women. It was a silly little movie with Batman’s Yvonne Craig. The film spotted the catchy tagline of “They were looking for chicks to go all the way”. The idea was a Martian expedition comes to Earth looking for women to help continue their species on the Red Planet. Simon Wells has changed the story up a bit, but the idea is actually somewhat the same. Mars still needs women, but it’s no longer for procreation. Mars has plenty of children. It’s mothers who know how to keep the rug rats in line that happen to be in short supply. It’s a nice little idea for a typical Disney family-friendly release.
“What they are good at is building robots, right? So they build these nanny-bots to raise the girls. And each nanny-bot gets one kid to raise, and then it’s toast. It can’t be reused after that.”
The setup is in place. Enter Milo (Green). His mother (Cusack) appears to be quite the tyrant to the kid, and he makes the mistake of wishing he didn’t have a mom at all. There’s an old saying that when the gods are angry with us, they give us exactly what we ask for. Believe me, it’s true as it turns out. But, as Baby (our chief of security and dog film critic) is fond of saying around here: “Let’s not talk about that right now”. Milo thinks twice about the statement when he sees how much it hurt her. He decides to go and apologize just as she’s being kidnapped by Martians. He stows away on the ship and ends up on Mars. There he meets Gribble (Fogler). He’s a young man who also followed his mom when she was kidnapped. He was unable to save her and has lived as a scavenger in a Martian junkyard all of those years. He takes Milo in but tries to convince him that it’s hopeless to try and save his mom. But Milo’s not taking no for an answer. With their Martian friend Ki (Harnois) they take on the Martian establishment and risk execution to save Milo’s mom.
“They have to program the nanny-bots each time, right? So, they find someone who is really good at controlling their own kid. See, all these Martians care about is order and discipline.”
When it comes to programming and creating state-of-the-art animation, Disney has always been at the vanguard. Mars Needs Moms is no exception in that regard. Expect to be dazzled with incredible visuals here. The environments are almost photo-realistic and realize sweet detail on every level. While the humans still haven’t gotten quite right, it’s all made up for with the improved motion-capture performances. The technology works. These characters display expressive emotional performances that just can’t be imitated by a computer or skilled animator …yet. Seth Green is particularly adept at the method, and so Milo becomes as real as you can get. Honestly, Dan Fogler gets a bit annoying as Gribble, but you can’t fault the technology for that. Unlike the previous efforts which needed to just express human facial expressions, Elisabeth Harnois is simply magical as the Martian Ki. The expressions translate perfectly. Combined with some terrific voice performances she’s a stand-out character, indeed. From a technological and performance standpoint this film is nearly flawless.
The real drag on the film is the story and pace itself. Simon Wells has exhibited wonderful imagination in the past. He should. He’s the grandson of noted author H.G. Wells, and his great-grandfather delivered one of the most memorable Martian stories ever written in War Of The Worlds. But Simon Wells doesn’t seem to connect all of the dots here. He relies too heavily on the technology and performances that I found the story just a little to “cute” and silly. Much of it is slapstick cat-and-mouse material that just doesn’t allow the visual presentation to take off. This ends up playing out too much like a Looney Tunes short. There are some very nice emotional moments to be found, and it’s a better family film than it gets credit for being. All of the warm and fuzzy family values that Disney has so successfully branded are there. I think Wells and his wife Wendy did themselves a disservice when they reminded themselves they were playing to children. Pixar has proven over again that the best kid films are the ones that don’t treat their audience as kids. This one tends to aim too narrowly and just misses being quite an extraordinary film. It’s worth a rental, but it’s not going to join the Disney classics on your video shelf.
Mars Needs Moms is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 33 mbps. There’s no question that the only way to enjoy this film is in high definition. This is the kind of production that was made for Blu-ray. The images are rich with sharpness and very fine detail. There are layers of texture here that are quite impressive. From the red soil of the Martian surface to the detail of the motion-capture faces, this is a showcase kind of high-definition image presentation. Black levels are deep and beautifully dark. There’s layers upon layers of shadow definition. It’s truly a masterpiece presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is not quite as perfect as the image, but it’s close. Elisabeth Harnois provides the perfect example of how cool the audio can be here. She creates such sounds and nuance with her voice that it’s entertaining just as itself. The score does intrude at times during several of the hijinx segments. Dialog comes through quite nicely. There is some incredible sub response, and you won’t lack for dynamic ranges at all. Surrounds provide both strong ambients and rather subtle ear candy making for a nice immersive experience.
There is an Audio Commentary with Simon Wells, Seth Green and Dan Fogler. They clown around quite a bit and talk about high hopes for the franchise. Unfortunately, there’s little chance we’ll see more from these characters in the future.
Life On Mars – The Full Motion Capture Experience: It’s like getting two movies in one. You can access a small box throughout the film that displays the actors performing the film in their motion-capture suits. It’s rather enjoyable and educational.
Fun With Seth: (2:28) Wanna see something funny? Watch Seth Green and other members of the cast have a blast in their motion-capture leotards.
Martian 101: (2:51) Watch the cast as they create the Martian language.
Deleted Scenes: (28:31) There are 7 with a play all option and introduction by Simon Wells. They are in various stages of completion.
Trailer/ DVD Copy/Digital Copy
Disney is not used to such disappointment at the box office with their milestone films. But this film will likely rank as one of the studio’s biggest disasters in recent years. These kinds of films cost a ton of money to make. We’re talkin’ over $150 million, and that doesn’t cover promotion. With all of that coin on the line, you wouldn’t expect the film to pull in a little over $21 million, would you? It’s a shame, really. The film is such a technological achievement. But films need to do more than wow us. They need to connect with the audience. This one clearly did not. It’s worth checking out for the phenomenal visuals, but that’s about it. “Maybe there is such a thing as too much TV.”