Thursday, April 14, 2011

Film Review with Robert Mann - Mars Needs Moms

Mars Needs Moms 3D ***½ Mars Needs Moms 2D *** 

On March 12, 2010, it was announced that ImageMovers Digital, the digital film studio founded by Robert Zemeckis in 1997 (at which time it was simply called ImageMovers, it being renamed ImageMovers Digital after being bought by The Walt Disney Company in 2007) and run by him ever since, would be closing, the studio officially being closed in May last year. The company, which produced several films directed and/or produced by Zemeckis, among them What Lies Beneath and Cast Away, was pioneering in its embracing of motion capture animation, a medium that Zemeckis has, on several occasions, claimed to be the future of filmmaking, although few others have agreed with him, the general consensus being that the human characters captured in motion capture films generally end up looking too cold and emotionless.
Such criticisms have never stopped Zemeckis, however, and, while films made in this particular animation form have never delivered stellar box office results (despite carrying humungous production budgets), he has either directed or produced a number of films in the medium, among them The Polar Express, Monster House, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol and now ImageMovers’ final film, Mars Needs Moms. Based on the 2007 children’s picture book of the same name by Berkeley Breathed, an American cartoonist children’s book author/illustrator, director and screenwriter, Mars Needs Moms – the title of which is a twist on the title of American International Pictures’ 1966 film Mars Needs Women – hasn’t exactly sent ImageMovers Digital off with a bang, more of a whimper in fact. 

Written and directed by Simon Wells (with Wendy Wells as co-writer) – a somewhat appropriate choice given that he is the great-grandson of legendary War of the Worlds author H.G. Wells – who has an extensive track record in animation, having worked as a storyboard artist on the DreamWorks Animation films Antz, The Road to El Dorado, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Shrek 2, Shark Tale, Madagascar and Flushed Away, and directed the films An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story, Balto and The Prince of Egypt, and who also directed the 2002 remake of The Time Machine (for which the fact that he was H.G. Wells son was apparently a complete coincidence and had no role in him getting the job of directing the film), the commercial performance of Mars Needs Moms to date has been nothing short of disastrous and the response from critics hasn’t been much better. 

Carrying a production budget of $150 million, the film – which was greenlit by former Disney CEO Dick Cook, who “stepped down” (read that to mean he was fired) on September 18, 2009 – has thus far only earned $20 million in the states, where it looks likely to gross little more and, on its release in UK cinemas last weekend, it has fared even worse, barely managing to make it into the top ten (and then only just making it because advanced screenings held the previous weekend were thrown in, previews that earned it a large percentage of its overall ‘opening weekend’ figure) and performing so abysmally (not helped by the first truly nice weather we’ve had in quite some time) that some cinemas are even dropping it before the Easter school holiday has begun in certain areas – ouch! I suspect that the rather strange sounding title may not have done the film any favours but even then such lousy box office results are not only dreadful but extremely surprising as well. 

With ImageMovers Digital now no more, it appears that motion capture animation may be gone with it but, while its box office performance has already sent the studio off with a whimper from a business standpoint, does Mars Needs Moms at least manage to send the studio off with a bang in terms of its film quality? Milo (played by Seth Green, voiced by Seth Robert Dusky) is a typical nine year old boy who would rather spend his free time playing videogames than doing chores. One night, tired of his mother (Joan Cusack) constantly telling him what to do and with his father (Tom Everett Scott) away on business, Milo impulsively says to her that he wishes he didn’t have a mom. Before he can apologise, however, he finds that she has been abducted by Martians who intend to extract her “momness” in order to implant it into the nanny robots that look after their young. Stowing away on the ship that takes his mother, Milo soon finds himself embarking on a breathtaking, death-defying adventure on the completely alien world that is Mars. 

There he meets Gribble (Dan Fogler), an Earthman who has been stranded on the red planet ever since he followed his mother to Mars when she was abducted many years earlier, alone but for his bionic pet Two-Cat (Dee Bradley Baker) and friendly male Martian Wingnut (Kevin Cahoon), and who has spent his years there building many incredible inventions that might just prove useful in his mission to rescue his mother. While reluctant at first, Gribble agrees to help Milo rescue his mother before time runs out and she is gone for good. But to do so they must face up against an entire planet of Martians who, headed by the megalomaniacal Supervisor (Mindy Sterling), will stop at nothing to prevent them from rescuing Milo’s mother. More help is at hand, though, in the form of free spirited teenage Martian Ki (Elisabeth Harnois) who, after seeing some 60s Earth TV broadcasts, has adopted a hippie outlook on the world and secretly tags the dull and grey world of the Martian city with colourful tags. With time running out before Milo’s mother has her “momness” extracted, they must work together to save her before it is too late and perhaps along the way they can save Mars from the Supervisor’s oppressiveness as well. 

Three people against an entire planet of Martians? When you want your mom back, there's nothing that can stand in the way! It is very likely that by now you will have heard the many bad reviews for Mars Needs Moms, not to mention how badly the film has performed at the box office, and come to the conclusion that the film isn’t worth seeing. It would be a shame if this is indeed the case, however, as, while this is a film that is far from perfect, it is also one that has many reasons to see it, particularly in 3D on the big screen. The animation here is of the photo realistic variety and frequently proves stunning. Depicting a variety of Martian landscapes, ranging from the desolate deserts and canyons of the planet’s surface with the stars shining in the sky above to the clean, sterile and high tech world of the underground city and the dirty garbage and furnace filled world beneath the city to a giant glow in the dark cave and lagoon and even some ancient Martian ruins, the alien world seen here is one that looks truly amazing and with the 3D – which is primarily used to create a sense of depth far beyond the screen, the film doing a fantastic job of this, the extra dimension working together with the life like visuals to create a sense that what we are witnessing really is right before our eyes, although there are some instances of slight (and very welcome) 3D gimmickry such as a scene reminiscent of Avatar where jellyfish like creatures float through the air and a glass shattering scene where shards of glass are sent flying out of the screen – creating an impressive depth of field, something that is particularly evident in scenes where the characters are falling which create a spectacular sense of height, the landscapes frequently look as though they really are right before your eyes with it often feeling as though Mars really is just a stone’s throw away. 

The Earth based scenes aren’t that visually interesting by comparison but these are brief and within the space of ten minutes we are whisked away to Mars. The animation design in general is hard to fault, all the landscapes being superbly rendered and the underground Martian city, complete with some very Tron-esque visuals and a definite hint of Star Wars too, having a very cool, futuristic look – as well as being a perfect environment to benefit from being in 3D. The production design is very good if not especially original, both the Martian spaceship – which has a cool retro thing going on – and the Martians themselves – of which there are several species, the females being clean and high tech, controlling everything in the city, while the males are more feral and tribal, ruling the world down below – looking a bit familiar but nonetheless being well done. 

The film also frequently proves quite beautiful, delivering some very psychedelic visuals in shots of Ki tagging the Martian city with colour, shots which truly are vibrant. The film is also quite exciting on a number of occasions with laser riddled action sequences that have a rollercoaster style feel to them certain to keep younger viewers quite satisfied, although there is a sense of wasted potential at times, the impression being created that a lot more could have been done here. This brings us to some of the film’s failings. The human characters look almost real here – in fact Joan Cusack’s character looks just like her and the same is true of Dan Fogler – but not quite and they’re so close to being life like that it actually seems almost creepy at times – and the pet cat in one early scene truly is creepy. While body movements and general facial expressions are pretty well captured, there are still some major issues in the capturing of eye movements with the characters sometimes looking a bit blank and emotionless as a result, the shortcomings of motion capture seeming far more noticeable in this film that in other motion capture efforts. 

Also, while this film may boast some amazing visuals, what it possesses in its visuals it sadly lacks in its writing. Often seeming like a series of action sequences with little plot in between, what plot there is being very schmaltzy, the film often fails to make the necessary impact in its non action scenes, dramatic or emotional, although one late scene will certainly pull at your heartstrings. The film could also do with a bit of humour, something that is greatly lacking here. The performances, at least, are generally pretty good and if you stay through the credits, where we get a peek behind the scenes seeing how the motion capture was done and get an insight into how much work was put into making the film, you may hold a greater appreciation for some of them. With the exception of Seth Robert Dusky, who was brought in to voice Milo when Seth Green’s voice was deemed too mature for a nine year old character, the actors don’t just lend their voices to the role, they actually play them, their every movement being captured through mo-cap and staying through the credits will show you that the cast members portraying the Martian characters actually are speaking the way they are heard in the film with no computer enhancements of any kind. 

So, the totally adorable giggle that Elisabeth Harnois – who is totally hip and lovable in the role by the way – does as Ki is actually her and the way the Supervisor speaks is actually Mindy Sterling herself. All in all, Mars Needs Moms is a film that is missing some key ingredients, being stunning as a work of animation but rather lacking in other key areas, but with all the hard work that has so clearly been put into making it, it really deserves better than it has gotten. Some films deserve to be colossal flops but this isn’t one of them and while this film isn’t quite out of this world it really should be seen on the big screen and before your cinema stops showing – so, what are you waiting for, go and see it right now! 
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

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