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Following his success with the nightmare-inducing Polar Express, Robert Zemeckis decided to continue creating uncanny valley festivals utilizing motion capture and virtual camera technology for the rest of his life, and sold his soul to the evil minions of Mocap Satan (true story). He directed more actors wearing electrodes for when he made Beowulf, but between directing gigs he and his studio ImageMovers Digital gave newcomer Gil Kenan a chance to direct Monster House. Monster House ended up being a fantastic horror-comedy for kids, successfully aiming for a slightly higher age group, and not being afraid of being a bit scary. And the mocap characters only looked kind of grotesque thanks to a more caricatured look. Monster House pulled in decent box office numbers, and was generally well received by critics and audiences, which leads logically to Zemeckis and ImageMovers making another film using the same formula. Monster House was a kid-friendly homage to ‘50s/‘60s haunted house films, so the second film in this would-be series would be a similar kid-friendly homage to ‘50s/’60s science fiction. Also logical. ImageMovers, who since teamed with Disney, hired Simon Wells to adapt multi-award winning cartoonist/writer Berkeley Breathed’s (Bloom County) ‘Mars Needs Moms’. This is where this production started to go wrong, as Wells hadn’t worked as a writer/director since he butchered his great grandfather H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine in 2002 (despite the relative promise of Prince of Egypt). Whatever else went wrong is left up to our collective imaginations, because in the end Mars Needs Moms was such a massive flop Disney severed ties with ImageMovers Digital indefinitely (it’s even rumored that Disney renamed John Carter of Mars as simply John Carter due to the possible impact of the word ‘Mars’ causing a second film to fail this spectacularly).

Mars Needs Moms
Of course popular opinion doesn’t always dictate the actual value of a film (case in point – the monetary triumph of three Transformers movies), so I was eager(ish?) to actually see the film and make up my own mind. To tell you the truth, I was hoping to buck the critical trend. Unfortunately, I’m not finding the gumption to defend such a middling, unmemorable piece of work. The story follows the common modern fairy tale motif where the protagonist says something he/she regrets, then has to atone while experiencing an adventure through the looking glass (also see Labyrinth). In this case little miscreant Milo tells his mom he wishes he didn’t have a mom, only to have her kidnapped by Martians a few minutes later. Out side of the basic set up there isn’t much plot here, rather a series of increasingly perilous chase scenes as Milo tries to rescue his mother, who is about to have her parenting skills sucked from her brain for use with nanny-bots. In theory these are all pretty exciting, but Wells never really captures a sense of weight, dynamics or, worst of all, wonder required to make them worthy of our attention. There’s also absolutely no reason to root for any of the characters in their attempted escapes and rescues, nor are we given any geographic positioning to make the sudden rescues make any sense (characters often appear out of nowhere in the nick of time despite time constraints). Seth Green (motion capture) and Seth Dusky (voice) achieve a modicum of respect as the generally undefined lead Milo, but the supporting characters are mostly defined by period specific pop culture references. Gribble (Dan Folger), a lonely human that lives beneath the surface of Mars, was brought to the red planet as a kid in the 1980s, and is emotionally stuck in the era, while good Martian Ki (Elisabeth Harnois) has learned about Earth through 1960s broadcasts, and acts like a lovesick hippy for most of the film. These two characters even have a brief and stupid argument over the meaning of the word ‘bad’.

I was kind of taken aback by the sense of threat, as the trailers and title kind of imply a giant intergalactic misunderstanding, but the Martians are flat out killing the mothers they kidnap, and when they capture Gribble the Martians don’t imprison him, they set him before a firing squad. I won’t spoil the exceedingly traumatic thing that happens around the climax, but rest assured – your children will be bawling their little eyes out. At one point Gribble recalls watching his mother die, and the audience gets to watch the memory with him as he sobs through the story. This kind of sticks a kink in the whole whimsy thing, and tonally speaking never achieves the intended gravitas. More upsetting is Gribble in general, whose motivations appear to revolve mostly around decades of unrequited sexuality (there’s something very pedophile about his initial plans for Milo, and he ‘love at first sights’ the first Martian female he happens across) though I’m sure most of the children in the audience will overlook his issues. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it (the production did re-film some of his scenes to make him a little more sympathetic). I’m also hoping there’s a more interesting story behind the female dominant society of Mars in Breathed’s book, but just like every other element in this trifling story, the explanation we get is quite rushed.

Mars Needs Moms
Generally speaking I’m not a fan of motion capture when it’s utilized for an entirely animated look. It works fine when disguising animated elements in otherwise live action films, but it looks stiff, unnatural, and, well, just generally creepy when mixed with more of its own kind. The beauty of animation is that it does things live action can never do, so for the most part (I’m sure there are exceptions) I don’t understand the mindset behind trying to make something animated appear real if shooting it real would suffice for more than half of the production. The character movements are realistic in all the wrong ways (no one ever stands totally still, limb movement is stiff), and uncanny in all the wrong ways (eyes are dead, mouths that speak as if they were filled with marshmallows). The more overtly animated bits, specifically the Martian heads and faces, hold up much better. I will admit that certain actors can do amazing things with the technology, and that it appears that Seth Green is one of them. It seems that years of recording reference videos for his Robot Chicken staff has paid off. I will also admit that the technology has its place, will only improve with time, and that it does free actors from their physical appearance, and keep them as an important part of the filmmaking equation.

Mars Needs Moms

Video


It may have lost them epic handfuls of cash, but Disney didn’t scrimp with the image quality on this 2.40:1, 1080p Blu-ray transfer. Mars Needs Moms is, as mentioned, produced entirely in the computer, so pesky things like film grain, even digital grain, aren’t an issue. Really there’s nothing notable in terms of artefacts or compression problems whatsoever. The general look here is pretty smooth and soft. There is texture, especially in Martian hair and around Gribble’s garbage dump base of operations, and these are plenty intricate, but overall the 1080p abilities a put to the best use in maintaining contrast and colour quality. Wells and his animators almost exclusively utilize deep focus, so sharpness is needed and present. The lack of colour on the upper tiers of Mars is an actual plot point of sorts, so the change in tone from location to location is the transfer greatest challenge and effort. Contrast levels are really only sharp around the outer edges of objects and characters, but the colours usually keep the various elements discernable in complex shots.

Audio


Disney didn’t scrimp on the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack either. For the most part Wells takes Steven Spielberg’s patented family film approach and allows the music and dialogue tell his story, leaving the general sound design reasonably subtle considering the scope and genre. There are neat and aggressive surround effects when it comes to scenes of characters falling (there’s a lot of falling), and the big spaceship stuff rumbles the LFE quite effectively, but a majority of effects work takes place in the center channel, while the musical score blasts through the stereo and surround channels. Dialogue heavy scenes are often shorn of any effects work at all, outside of vocal echoes. The voice effects are pretty consistent and natural, except for Joan Cusack, who sounds like she literally phoned in her performance. John Powell’s aggressively John Williams-esque music isn’t the best, but sounds gorgeous, and Well’s willingness to push it so far into the aural foreground is commendable in a way. The only exception to the musical superiority of the track is the end credit roll, which features Queen’s ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’, which has been stretched over the stereo and surround tracks at random. For some reason the guitar solo is in the rear left channel.

Mars Needs Moms

Extras


Blu-ray extras start with ‘Life on Mars: The Full Motion-Capture Experience’, a fun picture in picture option that allows the audience to see the actors on the motion capture stage, acting out the entire film. Something similar was included on the Beowulf HD-DVD and Blu-ray. The smaller picture that features the mocap footage is too small overall, but this disc includes a fun commentary track with director Simon Wells, and actors Seth Green and Dan Folger. This is largely a technical minded track, but the mere presence of Green propels the track’s entertainment value well beyond expectations. Folger doesn’t talk much at all, but Wells and Green have oodles of hilarious behind the scenes stories to share. It’s also fun to note that if you don’t care to listen to the commentary, you can turn it off, and listen to Green’s actual vocal performance (which I thought was neat).

The discs other extras include ‘Fun with Seth’ (2:30 HD), a general EPK style look at the fun that Green creates around the set, ‘Martian 101’ (2:50, HD) a brief look at the process of organically developing the Martian language with the actors, six deleted scenes with Wells introductions (presented in various forms, from finished animation to rough layout and actor in dot-face performances, 26:30, HD), trailers, and Disney digital copy and Blu-ray 3D ads.

Mars Needs Moms

Overall


So yeah, the critics were right to dump on Mars Needs Moms, and audiences were right to stay away. It’s a slick looking, but it’s mostly dull, isn’t creative enough to earn its lopsided tonal shifts (it will frighten your children without ever engaging them), and wastes the ample talent of Seth Green. The animation is kind of creepy too. The A/V quality is top notch, almost perfect, and the extra features include an amusing PiP option that lets us in on the silly motion capture process, complete with an option commentary track featuring the aforementioned Seth Green.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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