Here's the irony of motion-capture animation, one that Mars Needs Moms only serves to reinforce: For a technology that's intended to make animated humans look more real, it sure hasn't been used to tell stories that are more human.
When Robert Zemeckis pioneered the idea for a feature-length film in The Polar Express in 2004, plenty of critics picked on the creepy-looking characters with their hollowed-out mouths. But even as Zemeckis fine-tuned the technology for Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, the narratives themselves remained remote and uninvolving. Always a filmmaker fond of his state-of-the-art toys, Zemeckis focused almost entirely on what he could do with this particular approach to visual storytelling, forgetting that somewhere along the line, he needed to have us care about what was happening to these strange-looking people.
For Mars Needs Moms, producer Zemeckis turns over the directing chair to Simon Wells (Prince of Egypt), but everything feels very much according to the Zemeckis game plan. Like Polar Express, it's a feature expanded from a simple, quirky picture book, this one by cartoonist Berkeley Breathed (Outland, Opus). Here, a nine-year-old boy named Milo (voiced by Seth Green) pushes his rebellion to the point that he tells his mother (Joan Cusack) that he wishes he didn't even have a mom. And naturally, his wish nearly comes true: Mom is abducted by Martians seeking a responsible earth parent whose emotions will help program the robots that tend to Martian infants. He manages to stow away on the ship that worm-holes them instantly back to Mars, where he discovers another human, Gribble (Dan Fogler), who was similarly marooned years earlier, and may be his only help in saving mom.
The Mars that Milo discovers has a social structure with potentially fascinating details. Living entirely below the planet's surface, the Martians have become a matriarchy with a Brave New World-like approach to raising its "hatchlings." The females are separated from the males by the society's female Supervisor (Austin Powers' Mindy Sterling) in part because - dig this twist - the males are too huggy and emotional to allow the important functions of society to proceed efficiently.
But Wells, Zemeckis and company apparently are only vaguely interested in the answers. This is a movie targeted at kids, after all, so it needs to keep moving, and keep centered on Milo's quest to save his mother before a countdown clock runs out. Along the way, Milo will naturally come to appreciate his mother, mostly thanks to his interaction with the also-motherless Gribble, who here, serves a roughly similar function as Jessie in Toy Story 2 with a tale of past heartbreak informing our protagonist's current predicament. And Gribble is a genuinely fun and well-conceived character - a ramped-up version of the stereotypical still-living-in-mom's-basement post-adolescent nerd, only without the mom. His relationship with Milo could have been something with a unique tension: a kid looking for someone who can act as a parent, dealing with an adult who's only looking for someone to be his buddy.
Yet that's also a level of storytelling intricacy beyond anything Mars Needs Moms is prepared to explore. So instead, we get plenty of elaborate set designs: the massive subterranean junk-heap that serves as the home of Gribble and the discarded Martian males; sterile hallways giving way to massive chambers. It's all terribly cool in an "isn't this awesome in 3D" sort of way, yet somehow with these motion-captured characters, it feels even less genuinely engaging than a now-conventional computer-animated story. It's more like one of those direct-to-DVD Lego adventures for kids, all rudimentary plot mechanics stocked with plastic figurines.
And that's the fundamental frustration with this movie. As much potential as it has to give its storytelling some depth, no one seems willing to put in the time. Motion-capture technology may allow the inside of characters' mouths to look more realistic, but the movies won't take the next step until there's just as much creative energy devoted to the inside of their souls.
Mars Needs Moms
Directed by Simon Wells
Starring Seth Green, Dan Fogler, Joan Cusack