Disney's new movie Mars Needs Moms suffers from a classic mistake: focusing too much on one aspect of a production -- and in this case it's the visuals. The result is an unbalanced mess that looks terrific but doesn't have enough substance to leave the audience with anything more to "ooh" and "ah" at other than all the pretty colors. As we all know from that one really really hot girl/guy in high school who's now overweight and working a dead-end job looks can only go so far.
Adapted from the children's novel by Berkeley Breathed and directed by Simon Wells Mars Needs Moms follows Milo (acted by Seth Green voiced by Seth Robert Dusky) as he chases after his mother who's been stolen by Martians just a few hours after he told her he'd be better off without her. Once he arrives on Mars (by sneaking on the ship) he meets Gribble (Dan Fogler) who informs him of his problem: the Martians are ruled by a ruthless queen-like Supervisor (Mindy Sterling) who's decided that the hatchlings (babies who sprout from the ground like vegetables) must be divided: all males are thrown away into the dump and the females are raised by "nanny-bots" -- robots programmed by the "discipline" energy of good moms like Milo's from Earth. Milo and Gribble buddy-up and with the help of a rebel Martian named Ki (Elisabeth Harnois) the three of them venture to save Milo's mom before it's too late.
And venture on they do. Coming from producer Robert Zemeckis and utilizing the same motion-capture technology as The Polar Express A Christmas Carol and Beowulf Mars Needs Moms rushes forward embracing its visually stunning universe without taking a moment to stop and breathe. The characters never have a chance to do anything significant that would make the audience think they're substantial or important -- especially Gribble whom the filmmakers really really want us to care for. On top of that it relies on a plot line that we've all seen before and instead of diving into the parts that made it interesting (like the question of why men were thrown in the garbage and not women) it skims safely along the surface doing its best to avoid anything deeper than basic themes.
But that may be a little too picky. After all the movie is just supposed to be a fun little child's tale right? In that vein it succeeds. We feel like we're on an amusement park ride thanks to Ki's vibrant '60s flower-power paintings and the adventures on the Red Planet's surface. Even the moments that aren't super fast-paced present environments that are beautiful. Plus Fogler's performance as Gribble (as Jack Black-esque as it was) gives us some fun enjoyable moments and one-liners that kids will no doubt love.
Yet at the same time Mars Needs Moms' visuals aren't all glorious. In fact some hurt the plot because frankly the humans aren't animated very well. There's no life in their eyes. Simple movements like walking look awkward and too often characters facial expressions don't match the urgency found in their voices. Instead the animation just turns all the characters into weird cartoony versions of themselves that look so "almost human" they appear fake. And as always it's difficult to care for fake people.
Children will definitely enjoy Mars Needs Moms but from a filmmaking standpoint Wells really missed an opportunity to deliver something other than neat visuals and one-liners.
Zack (Dane Cook) is more than a box boy at Super Club—a not-so-thinly veiled version of Costco/Walmart style warehouse stores. He sort of lives there too with his secret lounge behind the stacks where he hangs with other Super Club outcasts (Andy Dick Harland Williams and Brian George) and trades damaged goods on the black market. Vince (Dax Shepard) is the Super Club’s superstar checker employee of the month 17 months in a row. Naturally Zack and Vince are mortal enemies and Zack takes Vince down several pegs with pranks such as writing obscene comments on his monthly award photo. But when Super Club transfers Amy (Jessica Simpson) from another store word gets around she has a thing for employees of the month. That’s all the motivation it takes for Zack to strive for box-stocking excellence. Once Vince realizes Zack is threatening his record he and his flunky Jorge (Efran Ramirez) conspire to keep him from achieving even minor success at mopping up spills or finding lost children. But as Zack starts to show Vince up he risks becoming a company man and losing touch with his friends. Can he get the girl and keep it real? Employee is suppose to be a vehicle for Cook’s relatable observational and sometimes smart-ass brand of humor. But either the script doesn’t do him justice or his persona doesn’t translate to fictional characters. His Zack seems like every other movie slacker only tamer (writing “I love anal” is as edgy as his PG-13 pranks get) and less sympathetic. Shepard is more endearing as the pathetically work-obsessed Vince. His attempts to be charming are so outrageously uncomfortable you almost wish Amy would hook up with him and teach him a few social skills. Simpson is totally adorable as the all-American love object with enough self-esteem to make her seem attainable. Naturally she also manages to squeeze her into some cleavage-producing dresses. The supporting cast however is all over the place. Ramirez shows he won’t be typecast as the same Latino character he played in Napoleon Dynamite by playing a guy with no personality at all. George satirizes a typical Indian clerk but is not nearly as effective as say The Simpsons’ Apu. Dick looks like he’s going through some sort of substance abuse withdrawal playing a cartoonish character with a cross-eyed condition while Williams just does the same monotone weirdo he always does. Silly comedies like this are hardly the type of movies directors use to express their range of cutting edge cinematic techniques. Usually if you just let the comedians run wild it works. First-time feature director Greg Coolidge doesn’t necessarily do anything wrong. The guys getting hit in the crotch are framed properly and the reaction shots are cut in with proper timing. The problem is the material just isn’t funny. Coolidge had a hand in the script so he is somewhat to blame for not beefing the laughs up with more insightful digs at warehouse stores or office romances. Employee feels more like a B-movie you’d watch on cable late at night a vehicle for a standup comedian peppered with other TV show bit players who are ALL capable of so much more. For example Cook Williams and even Dick do great stand-up. Shepard could have stayed in character in real life situations as he proved on Punk’d or they could have found absurdity in everyday activities for Simpson. I mean how could they not have her handle some bulk Chicken of the Sea? Come on it’s right there! Employee of the Month instead just wastes everyone's time.