The home fires were burning a little too hot. The 4-year-old boy had a stubborn gullet, and his mother, growing ever impatient, was more steamed than the rebuffed broccoli stalk that sat between them. Domestic tensions escalated.
“On an August night five years ago, my flesh-and-bones son Milo, 4, pushed away a plate of broccoli and declared he’d eat it when California balanced its budget,” recounts the husband/father in this momentous scenario, Pulitzer-winning cartoonist and author Berkeley Breathed. “My wife returned fire and dropped his PlayStation into the compost bucket. Before I could foam him with flame retardant, out he came with: ‘I wish I’d never had a mother!’ ”
Milo had pulled out the emotional napalm. Mom collapsed in tears. And Breathed did what dads and artists often do best: He retreated to his office, used the heat of the moment to find a spark of inspiration — and eventually had the basis for a children’s book and a big-budget animated movie (“a ray of light born amidst the darkness,” he recalls).
That slice of vociferous, cruciferous real life plays out in the opening moments of “Mars Needs Moms,” Disney’s 3-D/Imax/“motion-capture”/cutting-every-technological-edge animated feature film based on Breathed’s book. It was delivered to the screen over the weekend by producer Robert “Polar Express” Zemeckis, Simon (great-grandson of sci-fi writer H.G.) Wells and wife Wendy Wells. And even in pixelated digital-paint form, through the filter of time and chunky 3-D glasses, that scene still delivers a sting.
So what does young master Milo think today, five years hence, with his cut-Mom-to-the-quick utterance now immortalized on film?
“He now believes that his reward for saying an obscenely offensive thing to his mother is being made a character in even more big Disney movies,” says Breathed, who first gained national fame three decades ago by drawing Opus the penguin and the rest of his colorful cast in the superstar comic strip “Bloom County.” “If you think I’m worried about this, you would be correct. I am also worried I’ll be contacted by Child Protective Services about my parenting decisions.”
Parenting, of course, sits at the emotional heart of “Mars Needs Moms,” as does learning to appreciate a caring parent. When Mom (voiced by Joan Cusack) is abducted by Martians requiring the brains of mamas who know a thing or two about discipline, spacecraft stowaway Milo (voiced by Seth Dusky) embarks on a thrill ride of a rescue mission.
Breathed had been seduced by Hollywood’s siren song before, only to see some of his “book babies,” as he calls them, go neglected, rejected and unproduced.
“ ‘Red Ranger Came Calling’ has been in development in two studios for all these years,” the Southern California-based author says of his 1995 picture book. “Opus was plucked naked for five years at Miramax, and they still couldn’t find the bird they wanted to cook. And cook they would have.”
The “Mars” experience, however, was different. “I knew ‘Mars Needs Moms!’ would be a movie seconds after the title came to mind. Similarly, I also knew that my daughter would be calling me a dork as a default term of endearment eventually. There are certain instincts one learns to trust.”
So Breathed entrusted the care of his Martian book-baby to Zemeckis, whose animated and CGI works include “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “The Polar Express” (also adapted from a popular children’s book) and “A Christmas Carol.” Yet Breathed well knew that a Disney budget in no way guaranteed he’d see hefty Disney dollars from the film.
“Yes, technically, I have a piece of the ‘movie’s net profits,’ ” Breathed says wryly. “As I’ve said, wrap your tongue around that last phrase like you would the word ‘leprechaun.’
“Commercial expectations?” Breathed writes in an e-mail. “ ‘Nobody Knows Anything’ is a true and wise axiom in this business, and people who publicly forget this are destined to be labeled Stupid . . . or worse, Toxic.” (The $150 million film’s disappointing opening-weekend take of $6.9 million was far below industry expectations.)
As an artist who first found an audience three decades ago with his University of Texas strip “Academia Waltz” — the precursor to his Pulitzer-winning “Bloom County,” which was syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group — Breathed focuses on the emotional messages over the marketplace.
“Here’s what I know: The book was built backward from a story beat that I, as an author and especially a parent, found a devastating emotional moment,” he says. “The filmmakers could have lost sight of this as easily and effortlessly as my son loses any money that I place in his pocket. They did not. These effective emotional beats are rare in either picture books or family movies.
“I can boldly if a bit churlishly declare that movie-choosing families will not detect such a thing in ‘Battle: Los Angeles.’ . . . Hollywood is war. Ya gotta pick a side.” (Many moviegoers chose “Battle,” to the tune of a $36 million opening.)
In giving Hollywood the green light, Breathed was also willing to turn over his Martian book-baby entirely and absolutely. “ ‘Author’s Creative Control.’ File this under ‘movie net profits’ and ‘leprechaun.’ The producers of ‘Mars Needs Moms’ had their own unique ideas for the film’s creative direction and explored them wholly unfettered from my own.”
One of the production team’s best decisions was to cast the voice of Cusack, the Disney/Pixar veteran who voiced Jessie in two of the pioneering “Toy Story” films.
“If it were up to me, she’d be that as well as legally part of my family,” Breathed says. “Her voice and performances are always spectacularly unique. A lovely actress and woman.”
As for the “motion-capture” animation, which digitally paints the performances of live actors, Breathed says: “It’s proving to be a hugely powerful tool in the animator’s bag of tricks. I suspect that its uses will evolve as filmmakers resist its Sirens’ call of hyper-realism. [Steven] Spielberg’s ‘Tin Tin’ is coming out in summer . . . and will be one of the last big tests maybe.”
Speaking of Spielberg, another popular Breathed picture book has heeded the call of Hollywood: The artist says he’s working with DreamWorks on turning “Flawed Dogs” into a film.
“I’ll be an executive producer and involved with all aspects of the production on this one,” Breathed says. “Maybe leprechauns do exist.”