Invasion of the mom snatchers
By Sean O'Connell
Friday, March 11, 2011
Where on Earth would you be without your mom? Well, if you are Milo, the pint-size but courageous hero of Simon Wells's inventive and vigorous new "Mars Needs Moms," you might not be on Earth at all.
Unlike those greedy, mommy-snatching Martians slithering through this interplanetary adventure, "Mars Needs Moms" doesn't need much to help it succeed. A few snips to its midsection might reduce some of the chaotic energy that clogs a busy second act. And the motion-capture animation could use a polish. But "Mars" works well, and precious few improvements are necessary.
Parents, however, will need tissues. Lots of tissues. Because Wells - great-grandson of science-fiction pioneer H.G. Wells - and his creative team travel nearly 250 million miles through outer space to unearth valuable life lessons about parenting and the strength of family. And motion-captured tears shed by a motion-captured mom still achieve the desired emotional response so long as the sentiment underlying the animated story is played properly.
The digital technique, which uses microscopic cameras and strategically placed sensors to digitally capture an actor's performance, has come a long way since 2004's "The Polar Express." It still can't replicate the photo-realism achieved by contemporary animated films such as "Rango" or Pixar's assorted masterpieces. But that doesn't take away from how much "Mars" touches our
Not that Wells has made an ooey-gooey love fest. The fast-moving "Mars" starts with an argument between Milo (Seth Green) and his loving but firm mother (Joan Cusack). Sent to bed before he can watch his favorite zombie horror movie on pay per view, Milo blurts out how much better his life would be without his mom. He's about to find out how wrong he is.
Listening in on their conversation - from many miles away - is the Supervisor (Mindy Sterling), a Martian leader scouring our planet for a prize-winning mom. Every 25 years, Mars endures a baby boom, producing infantile hatchlings who need to be taught discipline. Martian scientists have devised cold, robotic nanny-bots but must download an earthling mother's memories before the parenting program can successfully reboot. Milo witnesses his mom's abduction and manages to stowaway in the alien craft before it leaves our planet. Now he has until sunrise to retrieve his mom or he'll lose her forever.
Once Wells has established his out-of-this-world premise, "Mars" settles into a more traditional, down-to-earth routine. Milo encounters an ally on the red planet named Gribble (Dan Fogler), an abandoned astronaut held over from Ronald Reagan's top-secret, anti-Communism space initiative who twitches like a Red Bull addict and spouts '80s catchphrases. In truth, he's a requisite sidekick character Disney animators regularly trot out for comic relief. Thankfully, he ranks low on the annoyance scale, falling somewhere between Mulan's Mushu the dragon and Aladdin's magic genie.
Sequestered in a cluttered bunker (lifted directly from "The Matrix"), Gribble plugs into the Martian infrastructure and helps Milo maneuver around the alien planet so he can find his mom. It's on these dangerous missions that Wells exposes his harsh, uninviting Martian environments and turns them into adventurous playgrounds. Savvy moms and dads will recognize reference
points to sci-fi classics. The Supervisor stomps down cavernous hallways that call to mind Darth Vader's Death Star lair. Gribble's home base, a garbage dump, looks eerily similar to Wall-E's trash-strewn planet. And while Wells's ice-blue color
scheme borrows from both "Tron" films and a litany of "Star Trek" episodes, a majestic musical score by the great composer John Powell somehow makes everything old feel fresh and wondrous again.
As does the main character.
When the spaceship carrying Milo's mom to a distant planet breaches our stratosphere, Milo temporarily forgets the dire nature of his predicament and declares, "This is so cool." I'm pretty sure most of the kids, as well as the young at heart, sitting in the audience will agree.
Contains sci-fi action and peril.