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Disney's "Mars Needs Moms" combines out-of-this-world adventure with down-to-earth humor and heart

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Disney's "Mars Needs Moms" combines out-of-this-world adventure with down-to-earth humor and heart

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As I was watching Disney's "Mars Needs Moms" at this past weekend's press screening, I was reminded of something that Steve Kloves (i.e. the veteran screenwriter who's adapted all but one of the "Harry Potter" books for the big screen) recently told the NY Times. When asked about his initial meetings with Harry's infamously hands-on creator, J. K. Rowling (to be specific, whether she had given him any guidance in regards to how to turn "Sorcerer's Stone" into a motion picture), Steve replied:

"The first day I met her, she said: 'I know the movies can't be the books. All that I ask is that you be true to the characters.'"  

Well, Simon & Wendy Wells seem to have borrowed a few pages from Steve Kloves' playbook. For while their big screen 3D adaptation of "Mars Needs Moms" (which opens in theaters nationwide tomorrow) may not be faithful to the exact storyline of Berkeley Breathed's 2007 picture book, this film is entirely true to its characters. More importantly, to the big emotions that made "Mars Needs Moms" (the book) such a memorable read.


Copyright 2007 Berkeley Breathed / Philomel Books

Mind you, Simon & Wendy have aged up Milo, the 5 year-old boy who served as the protagonist of Berkeley's charming tale. In "Mars Needs Moms" (the movie), Milo is now a 9-year-old boy who's recently been giving his Mom a lot of guff. And when these two lock horns once too often right before bedtime, Milo says something that's pretty unforgivable: He tells his mother that "I wish that I didn't have a Mom."

Now I know. Whenever  people talk about motion pictures that are produced using performance-capture technology, they always harp on the dead eyes of the characters in these films. How the human characters never quite look right and/or move far too stiffly.

Well, ImageMovers Digital must have used some NextGen performance-capture technology while they were making "Mars Needs Moms." For the human characters (as they're depicted in this particular motion picture) are decidedly superior to the ones that we've seen in other Robert Zemeckis productions like "The Polar Express," "Monster House," "Beowulf" and "Disney's A Christmas Carol." Which is why - when Milo blurts out that he wishes that he didn't have a Mom --the raw hurt that registers on the Mother character's face is almost startling.


Seth Green and Joan Cusack on set during "Mars Needs Moms"
performance-capture shoot. Photo by Joseph Lederer.
Copyright ImageMovers Digital LLC. All rights reserved

Of course, what really helps here is that Simon & Wendy assembled a first-class cast to handle the performance-capture end of things on "Mars Needs Moms." Seth Green, Joan Cusask, Dan Fogler, Elisabeth Harnois and Mindy Sterling (among others) all went above and beyond the call here. Delivering highly energetic yet subtle performances which the artists, animators and technicians who actually produced this animated feature were then able to use to make this sci-fi comedy adventure even more entertaining.

Which isn't to say that "Mars Needs Moms" is a perfect motion picture. I have to say that when Gribble (i.e. the overweight human man-child who's been living below the surface of Mars for years, hidden away in the planet's trash heaps)  first entered this movie, I thought that the filmmakers had made a serious mis-step. Gribble was initially such a cliché (i.e. You know? That socially awkward nerd who's super-skilled when it comes to technology & gaming, but absolutely lousy when it comes to dealing with other actual human beings?) that this character actually pulled me out of "Mars Needs Moms" for a little bit.

But then the Wells did a very smart thing. They revealed Gribble's back story. And then what had initially appeared to be a broadly (perhaps too broad) comic character was now someone genuinely sympathetic. A character that the audience could care about  and  root for.


Copyright ImageMovers Digital LLC. All rights reserved

And the same could pretty much be said for the character of Ki, the Martian rebel who taught herself English by watching 1970s sitcoms. What had started out as a seemingly clichéd story idea - in the hands of the "Mars Needs Moms" production team - suddenly becomes something deeper, smarter, more moving.

Which - when you get right down to it - is exactly what the Wells did with the rest of "Mars Needs Moms." They took a 38-page picture book, which - while it was an admittedly fun and ultimately moving tale -wasn't really enough to support a full-length animated feature. And then Simon & Wendy made some smart story choices that helped extend & strengthen Berkeley's story. While - at the same time - preserving "Mars Needs Moms" emotional center.

So, yeah. Some people - when they talk about this ImageMovers Digital production - will go on & on about the performance-capture technology that was used to make "Mars Needs Mars" and/or debate how effective the use of 3D in this Walt Disney Pictures release was.


(L to R) Wendy Wells, Simon Wells, Seth Green, Jody Breathed. Berkeley Breath, Mindy
Sterling and Jack Rapke. Photo by Josephe Lederer. Copyright ImagerMovers Digital
LLC. All rights reserved

But me? Whenever I talk about "Mars Needs Moms," I'm going to borrow a phrase from J.K. Rowling. In that, I know that the movie can't ever be the book. But the film  that the "Mars Needs Moms" production team  produced manages to preserve what was best about Berkeley Breathed's book, while - at the same time - teasing the threads of that story out. With the end result being a visually pleasing performance-capture project that has plenty of humor & heart.

So don't let those "Mars Needs Moms" TV commercials (which - yes, I'll admit it - make far too many references to Gribble's Butt Blasters) throw you. For while this new Walt Disney Pictures release may promise an out-of-this-world comic adventure, it's this film's down-to-earth emotional message that you'll wind up remembering.

Your thoughts?

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  • Gribble looks way too real. It kind of grosses me out.

    Are young kids clamoring to see a movie that has the word "moms" in the title?

  • considering this movie has been universally panned how much you being paid for this review Jim?

  • Bob?  Shut up. If Jim likes the movie, let him like it. I know it's not made by Pixar, but perhaps the animation industry can put out an entertaining film from other studios.

  • Looks like it's a flop at the box-office. It likely won't even reach $10 million over the 3 days. Can we expect an article on this on Monday?

  • This film has gotten epically bad reviews and it is a box office debacle of equally epic proportions. It grossed $1.7 mil. on 4,400 screens, including 2,440 3-D platforms Friday. In the internet era when a film is universally derided by critics and shunned by audiences, yet someone with a reputation gives it a thumbs up, you've got to wonder if there was a quid pro quo. It's happened before, Harry Knowles' Ain't-It-Cool has been caught doing it and as a result that site has lost all credibility.

  • Alex & Bob --

    Let me say flat-out that there was no quid pro quo.

    To be specific: I wasn't paid by Disney to post a positive review of this motion picture. I wasn't (like the Harry Knowles / "Godzilla" example that Alex cites) flown in to attend the world premiere of this film nor did I attend the global press junket. As for the "Mars Needs Moms" promotional / press screening that I attended last Saturday morning in Reading, MA ... Well, it was just like every other promotional / press screening that I've ever attended. In that I -- as a reporter -- had to pay my own way to get there (i.e. gas, parking). And none of the New England-based PR reps who actually arrange these screenings ever attempted to influence my opinions and/or the opinions of all of the other writers & critics who typically attend these events.

    So why did I like "Mars Needs Moms" when so many other people who reviewed this film didn't? To be honest, if you actually read through a lot of the reviews that are out there, you'll see that it's not so much that the other reviewers didn't like this Simon Wells movie but -- rather -- that they absolutely hate, hate, HATE performance-capture. Which is why they then use most of their reviews / stories as an excuse to once again bash this film-making format and/or complain about how Hollywood is making far too many 3D movies these days.

    Once you pare away all of the bitching about performance-capture and/or 3D, the language that's used in a lot of these reviews is fairly consistent. In that the reviewers themselves say that "Mars Needs Moms" is a marked improvement  over "The Polar Express" and "Disney's A Christmas Carol." That the big emotional moments in this Simon Wells film do actually land with the audience, etc. In short, that this was an entertaining movie that -- because it was made with performance-capture technology -- still wound up being a cinematic equivalent of a pinata. With far too many people using their "Mars Needs Moms" reviews as an excuse to once again bash Robert Zemeckis for daring to try & advance this particular film-making format.

    But as for "Mars Needs Moms" box office performance this past weekend ... I don't know what to tell you (Though I have heard from at least one person at the Studio that this may be another "Princess and the Frog" situation. As in: That males under 25 just wouldn't be caught dead going into a film that had the word "Moms" in its title). Perhaps the better question might be why is a movie that actually got worse reviews than "Mars Needs Moms," "Battle: Los Angeles" (which currently has a 32% Rotten Tomatoes rating versus "MNM" 's 42% rating) is projected to be No. 1 at the box office this weekend? Earning $36 million to "Mars" $7 million?

    That -- to my way of thinking -- is a far bigger mystery than why I might have written a positive review of "Mars Needs Moms."

    Anyway ... Again, just to revisit Bob & Alex's claims / charges: There was absolutely no quid pro quo. I wasn't paid by The Walt Disney Company to write a positive review of "Mars Needs Moms." It's just my personal opinion that this Simon Wells film is entertaining, has a strong emotional core and -- in spite of its poor box office performance -- still well worth checking out.

    That said, your mileage (i.e. your own personal opinion of this motion picture) may vary.

  • Can always count on JMH to sing the praises of a bona fide flop.  The movie looked awful in every way, and the weekend numbers prove that it was.  Sigh.  Finish up the back story of Light Magic and refund me the $10 I sent you for the Disneyland tour CD that you flaked on.

  • Honestly, I saw the trailer and didn't even notice it was mocapped.  People are far too focused on it these days; it really has come a long way since Polar Express.

  • Guys, Mars Needs Moms wasn't universally panned.  In fact, most of the reviews I've seen are pretty much in the middle.  Jim's review may be more positive than most, but he isn't doing a 180 turn from the mass of critical opinion

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