Mars Needs Moms is a decent movie. Maybe even a pretty good movie. But nobody seems excited about it, and that's probably because it was made using Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture process, as used in Polar Express and Christmas Carol.
But you're missing out on a film that's actually pretty fun, if you damn this movie just because of the fears of another Zemeckis trudge through the "uncanny valley" of dead-looking, not-quite-human faces. Mars Needs Moms looks much, much better than Polar Express. And it's a nifty adventure, based on a book by Berke Breathed. Spoilers ahead.
So let's talk about the mo-cap thing first. I think they've managed to get rid of a lot of the creepiness that was on display in Polar Express. According to this article from the New York Times, motion-capture technology has advanced massively in the past seven years, and Avatar represented a huge leap forward — nobody accused the Na'vi of being in the uncanny valley, that I know of.
I saw a screening of Mars Needs Moms a while ago, and I actually forgot this film was mo-cap until I got to the closing credits, and they showed some footage of Seth Green and other actors goofing it up while covered with millions of dots. And only then did it dawn on me, "Oh, they filmed the whole thing in mo-cap. Duh." Part of that is because I haven't really been paying that much attention to the news about this film. And part of it is because they managed to transform Seth Green into a nine-year-old boy while still preserving his movements and stuff. (Green's voice is dubbed by Seth Dusky, an actual child actor.)
And the two Seths, collectively make up a fairly engaging nine-year-old boy — he's got the right mixture of obnoxiousness and sweetness. He's playing Milo, a character who could be absolutely loathsome in the hands of most actors — especially most child actors. As it is, Milo's merely kind of obnoxious, especially early on in the film.
That's before Milo learns the film's all-important Valuable Lesson. In a nutshell, Milo is sort of a bratty kid who sasses his mom when she tries to get him to eat his vegetables and do his chores and stuff. Until the Martians notice that Milo's mom is pretty good at imposing discipline, and decide to abduct her so they can use her brainwaves to program their new generation of nanny-bots. Milo stows away on board the Martians' spaceship and then has to rescue his mom before her brain is destroyed. Along the way, he learns just how much he really needs his mom.
I haven't read Breathed's original book, so I have no idea how closely they stuck to its storyline, but the basic storytelling in the movie is quite well done. Milo connects with two allies on Mars: Gribble, the only other human on Mars who lost his own mom 30 years ago, and Ki, a rebel against the repressive regime of the Supervisor. It turns out that the reason why Mars has been kidnapping human mothers and creating nanny-bots is because the Martians no longer raise their own children. The female Martians are too busy running the planet, and the male Martians are banished to the trash heaps underground, where Gribble also lives.
The Supervisor has also banned color and creativity from her somewhat stereotypical dystopia, but Ki glimpses a 1960s show about hippies, and starts tagging the gleaming white buildings with bright "flower power" colors. As with so many dystopias, the lack of hands-on parenting is linked to the lack of loving-kindness in the society. Gribble, Ki and Milo become the main rebels against the oppressive regime, with a hefty amount of silliness, slapstick and lunacy.
One thing that elevates Mars Needs Moms above a lot of other animated science fiction romps is the fact that it sticks pretty closely to real science most of the time. The Martians have to open a wormhole to travel instantly between Mars and Earth. Milo struggles with Mars' lighter gravity and has to wear a weight belt for a while. Nobody can breathe on the surface of Mars, which becomes a major plot point. There are a few other places where the movie goes to some lengths to stay reasonably accurate with its science.
The movie has plenty of stuff to say about motherhood, but luckily it never lectures the audience. You can take this film as simply preaching that parenting is hard work and shouldn't be taken for granted — or you can view it as a somewhat conservative screed against working moms who use "nanny-bots" to raise their kids. (The film seems to try and sidestep this reading — at the end, when the nanny-bots are disposed of, it seems like the male Martians are doing most of the childcare — unlike Milo's own business-traveler dad, back on Earth.) You could also view the film as criticizing the whole idea of a separation of labor, and arguing that child-rearing should be everyone's job.
But mostly, the point of Mars Needs Moms is that moms are awesome. Which it's hard to argue with, and a good message to indoctrinate your own kids with. Milo's own panic over losing his mom starts out as just wondering who's going to make his food and wash his clothes — but over the course of the film, he grows to appreciate how much his mom loves him, and what a little jerk he was to her. (Although you're left wondering, at the end, whether the little "stinker," as his dad calls him, will really change that much.)
And there's a moment towards the end of the film that will get you as choked up — and then as elated — as any Pixar film. I'm pretty sure it's lifted directly from the Breathed book — there's a drawing of it on Breathed's own site — and it's absolutely clever and heart-warming and thrilling. Without giving too much away, Milo's mom proves that she's willing to give her life to save his, and then she's saved in a genuinely clever, thematically resonant fashion. The film has a really strong ending, that elevates everything that's come before.
So anyway, I wasn't bothered by any "dead eyes" syndrome with this film — but maybe I'm just a secret zombie-sympathizer. I found Mars Needs Moms a touching tribute to mothers, as well as a jolly swashbuckling space opera that makes a decent effort to have good science. Given that you can't drag your kids to see Battle: Los Angeles or Red Riding Hood, you might as well get your ass to Mars.