In 1967, Tommy Kirk starred in "Mars Needs Women," one in a string of B-movies that he ended up doing after Disney decided not to renew his contract--allegedly because they found out he was gay. Kirk went from doing classic films like "Old Yeller" (1957), "The Shaggy Dog" (1959), "The Absent-Minded Professor" (1961) and "The Monkey's Uncle" (1965) to schlock like that made-for-TV movie, in which he played a Martian on an interplanetary search for females.
Well, Mars still needs women--more specifically, moms--in this 2011 motion-capture animated feature from Walt Disney Studios. If Kirk noticed, I'm sure he thought it ironic and dripping with poetic justice that Disney has come full circle. Welcome to MY world, he must have thought, because "Mars Needs Moms" obviously drew some inspiration from that 1967 film, but it wasn't promoted much and it was almost as big a bomb as "Mars Needs Women."
Sometimes a film benefits from low expectations. If you've heard the negative buzz and head into this anticipating something truly awful, you're going to be pleasantly surprised. "Mars Needs Moms" isn't as bad as the 35 percent "rotten" rating at Rotten Tomatoes would have you believe, but it's still a film that hovers in the 5-6 out of 10 range. Not enough happens, and what's here is utterly familiar or illogical.
A simplistic set-up shows Martians tuning in on Earth and ruling out moms who give in to their kids. The militaristic women who rule Mars apparently favor discipline and no-nonsense child-rearing, though we're never sure how exactly the birthing process evolved to where baby Martians pop out of individual sections on a grid, miles away from their moms or these shriveled-looking rulers. But as soon as they zero in on Milo's mom (Joan Cusack), they lock down their target and grab her. Naturally, Milo's last words to her were "I wish I never had a mom," and that level of familiar obviousness continues throughout this 88-minute film, which is based on a book by cartoonist Berkeley Breathed. The Martian civilization has superb-enough surveillance to detect moms everywhere, but nothing that would tell them that Milo just ran after them and climbed aboard their spaceship?
Seth Green was originally cast to be the pre-teen Milo, but after he did all the mo-cap action-suit work and recorded his voice, the studio decided he didn't sound enough like a boy, and real kid Peleg Rand was brought onboard for the looping sessions. But it all feels seamless enough.
Once on Mars, Milo meets the other main character, a nerdy middle-aged guy named Gribble (Dan Fogler) who chased after his own abducted mom when he was Milo's age and has been on the Red Planet ever since. Unfortunately, these Martian women aren't after nannies; they want mom essence, and extracting it pretty much does in poor Mom. Gribble tells him they have only hours before the same fate befalls Milo's mom, and so the film kicks into rescue mode, with Milo also assisted by a rebellious Martian named Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), who's patterned her speech and behavior after ‘60s Earthlings. So if the Martians can tune into us with such ease, why is it that only one of them was affected by American life? More disturbing, how is it that Gribble, all alone on Mars, develops a "Matrix"-like high-tech command post that allows him to monitor Martian behavior and do all sorts of slice ‘em dice ‘em stuff? We can accept such a thing in "TRON: Legacy" because it's a virtual world and the one who stays there all alone is the designer. Here, it just doesn't make sense.
Director Simon Wells and Wendy Wells, who co-wrote the screenplay, obviously hoped that no one would think too much about such things. Their audience was the same as Breathed's, and the moral (appreciate your mom) just as straight as the crow flies. That's really the bottom line for "Mars Needs Moms": it's strictly for kids or fans of motion-capture technology curious to see how the relatively new medium is progressing. One of the film's producers is Robert Zemeckis, who has dedicated himself to trying to perfect motion-capture, in which performers wear sleek suits covered with sensor dots and dots all over their body parts, so that their movements are recorded as base information that CGI artists can then animate.
When it works well--in this film, with Gribble in action--it's amazing to watch. But I personally won't be a fan of motion-capture animation until they find a way to make children and young people with smooth skin as realistic-looking as the codgers and middle-aged slobs with five o'clock shadow. The kid and young mom in this film look just a little creepy, which makes it tough to feel any kind of warmth toward them or feel the emotions between them. Also, I'm not sure why the deliberate decision was made to depict Mars and space life with an even duller earth-toned palette than that other underperforming Disney space adventure, "Treasure Planet" (2002). I expected the Red Planet to be just a little more vibrant than the wasteland we see here--one as hellish as what we saw in "The Lion King" after the pretender took over the pride and ruined the land. It's especially hell for the Martian men, who are chucked down a chute to a wasteland that even T.S. Eliot could not imagine.
Those are the negatives. The positives are the voice talents and the mo-cap technology when it's firing on all cylinders. Gribble and an underground cave scene are particularly impressive. With a stronger story, meatier subplots, and a little more care taken with the film's inner logic, it could have been something special.
Of the 2D Blu-ray I noted that the palette might be duller in some sequences than I would have preferred and the vistas of the Red Planet don't pop out at you the way they do in some animated films, but there's much to admire in the animation and art design of "Mars Needs Moms," and I gave it a 9 out of 10. Colors are true-looking, black levels are strong enough to hold edge detail in murkier scenes, and the cave scene and brightly lit sequences make you marvel at the level of detail. I noticed no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50 GB disc. "Mars Needs Moms" is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio. But you could tell from watching the 2D version that there were few objects "thrown" at the viewer deliberately to highlight the 3D presentation.
The 3D version is more of an extra-sensory depth perception experience. Unlike the Blu-ray, I did notice slight ghosting on several of the figures intended to pop out of the foreground into your living space, but for the most part the visual experience is pretty awesome. Though the Blu-ray had plenty of depth, the 3D version expands naturally, free of the gimmickry that befalls too many 3D releases. Ghosting aside, I'd have to say that it's an enjoyable enough experience to also rate a 9 out of 10.
"Mars Needs Moms" is rated PG for sci-fi action and peril.
As with the Blu-ray, the featured audio is a sparkling English DTS-HD MA 7.1 that's as dynamic as can be, once the boy and his mom are aboard the spaceship. Your subwoofer and rear effects speakers will stay busy with all the sounds that this movie throws at you from that point--sounds which travel naturally across the soundfield. And the tones are rich at all levels, with dialogue nicely prioritized so lines are never crushed by all of the ambient sounds or by the musical score. Additional audio options are English DVS 2.0 Dolby Digital, and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Exclusive to the 3D Blu-ray is a 3D deleted scene that runs about a minute long. It's an alternate scene showing Milo catching a glimpse of the Martians grabbing his Mom, rather than waking and having to put two-and-two together.
The big bonus feature on the Blu-ray is "Life on Mars: The Full Motion-Capture Experience," which allows you to watch what's happening with those suits inside a Picture-in-Picture window while the film plays. Also included in those PIP boxes are early attempts at animation. It's fascinating for a while, but you really have to feel for the performers. It looks like very hard work, and gets tedious after 20 minutes or so. You can watch with or without an audio commentary by the director and actors Green and Fogler, who offer a better-than-average take on the film. The only other substantial bonus feature is roughly 30 minutes of deleted scenes (seven of them). A three-minute "Martian 101" has the director and cast talking about how they devised a Martian language, and the fact that it only takes three minutes tells you you're not exactly dealing with Klingon. Rounding out the bonus features is a two-minute clip of Green clowning around on the set.
Since this is a combo pack, you'd have to consider the Blu-ray and DVD extras as well. Same with the Digital Copy. There was none on the Blu-ray version, so if "Mars Needs Moms" is on your buy list, for an extra five dollars (at Amazon) this combo pack seems the way to go. That's like paying $2.50 for a Digital Copy and $2.50 for a 3D version you may or may not use, if you're not 3D-capable now.
"Mars Needs Moms" isn't as bad as you've heard, nor is it as good as it could have been. Will it entertain your family? That depends on how much your kids like mo-cap technology, and how much attention they pay to the inner logic of a film. As for the 3D Blu-ray, there's not much of a "wow" factor here, if your idea of "wow" is things being thrown in the direction of the viewers. But there's a real natural depth to the 3D that surpasses what we see on the 2D Blu-ray.