"Mars Needs Moms" is a 3-D-animated film shooting for the stars (or in this case, Mars). Its craftsmanship showcases the latest in performance-capture technology (à la "Avatar"). And its story -- about the relationship between a mother and son -- is meant to make you weep (à la "Toy Story 3").
What ends up onscreen, however, is simply sufficient. "Mars Needs Moms" doesn't crash-land into "Yogi Bear" territory, but it definitely doesn't soar to "Toy Story 3" heights of animated grandeur.
While the scope of "Mars Needs Moms" concerns an epic space adventure, it starts with a familiar predicament: Milo, who's 9, won't eat his broccoli. He's sent to bed upset. He wakes up just as Martians kidnap his mom (voiced by Joan Cusack). He gives chase, barely making it onto their alien spacecraft.
The Martians have transformed the Red Planet's innards into a vast city of towering metallic terraces and neon-lit passageways -- like unused set pieces from the "Star Wars" prequels. While technologically advanced, these aliens are terrible parents. So they kidnap human mothers, extract parenting skills from their brains and transfer the knowledge into the "nanny-bots" that raise their children. The result is fatal.
Also peculiar: The Martians are all female, led by a despotic matriarch known simply as the Supervisor, who resembles E.T. in a wig. Her minions, however, look like shapely Stormtroopers.
So where are the males? The Supervisor has created a high-tech paradise where forward-thinking, independent females have banished the primitive, buffoonish males even farther underground. Let's think about this for a minute: Female Martians seeking independence from traditional mothering roles expel the dopey males, thus creating a rigid female utopia where parenting is intergalactically outsourced. Wait a second. Is Disney saying feminism leads to authoritarianism? Nah, they couldn't be saying that.
Gibble and Ki
Back to the kiddie action. In his quest to save dear mom, Milo is joined by two allies: Gribble, a plump neurotic human who claims he's a marooned astronaut, and Ki, a rebellious Martian girl who's secretly in love with life on Earth (specifically 1960s American counterculture). At night, Ki splashes giant graffiti on the walls of the underground city -- her dissident murals a cross between Pollock and Banksy.
While "Mars Needs Moms" carries the Disney brand, it was made by Robert Zemeckis' animation studio, which produced "The Polar Express," "Beowolf" and "A Christmas Carol." Like those films, the voice actors in "Mars Needs Moms" actually had to act out their roles on a sound stage wearing skin-tight black suits. Milo's physical appearance is performed by Seth Green, but he's voiced by the young Seth Dusky. While the 3-D worlds created for these kinds of films are beautiful to look at, there's still something screwy going on with the human faces onscreen. They look creepy, like mannequins come to life.
"Mars Needs Moms" is fast and fun, but it's also stocked with the usual cavalcade of cloying life lessons. Love your mother (duh). You don't know what you've got till it's gone (thanks). And all you need is love (got it). Again, simply sufficient.
Mars doesn't need moms. It needs brighter ideas.
Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909 Follow him on Twitter: @tomhorgen