Seth Green as Milo
Seth Robert Dusky as the voice of Milo
Dan Fogler as Gribble
Elisabeth Harnois as Ki
Joan Cusack as Milo’s Mom
Mindy Sterling as The Supervisor
Dee Bradley Baker as Two-Cat
Kevin Cahoon as Wingnut
James Earl Jones as Ja Mi
Breckin Meyer as Spangro
Billy Dee Williams as Myzic
Tom Everett Scott as Milo’s Dad
Directed by Simon Wells
No movie called “Mars Needs Moms” has any right being this good.
But it is and silly title aside director Simon Wells (“Prince of Egypt,” “The Time Machine”) has managed a feat that once seemed only the province of Pixar, cobbling together a story of parental love, filial responsibility, comedy, adventure, sadness and love with such style and grace as to seem effortless.
Young Milo (performance captured by Seth Green through Robert Zemeckis’ performance capture process and voiced by Seth Robert Dusky) is your typical kid: interested in his hobbies and passions (video games and zombies) and less so in his responsibilities (taking out the garbage and eating his broccoli). Which means he doesn’t at all appreciate the care (and yes, nagging) of his mother (Joan Cusack) who, like a good mother should, tries to make him do what he should rather than what he wants. But while those qualities may seem like a great burden to Milo, they are exactly what the secret, subterranean inhabitants of Mars are looking for to serve as a template for the legions of Nannybots they use to raise their own children, leaving the Martians themselves free to focus on running their police state.
If that sounds like a bizarre premise, bordering on the ridiculous, that’s because it is. And yet from that Wells and co-writer Wendy Wells have wrung a genuinely touching tale of a son learning to appreciate his mother and the lengths to which he will go to rescue her.
Astronomical lengths, as it turns out, as Milo witnesses his mother being kidnapped by Martians and follows after her, hitching a ride all the way to Mars and bravely diving into the midst of Martian society, doing whatever he has to do to bring her home.
It would be so terribly easy to turn this sort of premise into an excuse for howlingly annoying characters who yell every line in a funny voice, cute sidekick aliens or robots, over-the-top site gags interspersed with zany adventure moments. In 3D. And, to be fair, all of that actually is in the finished product, proving that none of these elements are bad in and of themselves, just consistently used badly in packaged product designed to appeal to a certain age group rather than designed to tell a story. In the world of “Mars Needs Moms” however, they are merely part of a whole rather than the reason for the film’s being, and used in moderation fit neatly into the tapestry Wells weaves.
A big part of that is Wells’ choice for verisimilitude as the watch word of the piece, which is really challenging when you consider you’re talking about a film called “Mars Needs Moms,” but there you have it.
Part of it is both necessitated and benefited by the use of performance capture for the characters, creating extremely realistic animation performances that for the first time truly seem to fit the story rather than just serve as a whim of the director. Green’s performance in particular perfectly creates the childishness and innocence of Milo, obnoxious without being annoying and always empathetic. He’s also ably helped by his supporting cast. Fogler and Harnois create complete characters, each real and understandable and most importantly believable as people, their actions based entirely on the characteristics their lives have led them to develop.
Which comes back again to the extreme eye for detail, not just for set and shot but for story and character, Wells evinces in ever frame. The Martians spend most of their screen time babbling in a foreign language we occasionally get translated and Milo has to continually deal with the fact that Mars has weaker gravity than Earth causing him to bound around like an astronaut on the moon.
It’s during his initial attempt to get his feet under himself that he bounces into Gribble (Fogler), a man much like himself who got stuck on Mars as a boy and grew up without a mother. At first extremely loud and obnoxious, Fogler’s performance and Wells’ careful eye for character keeps him remaining so for long, transforming him from just an annoying cohort to a willing accomplice with problems and weaknesses he struggles to overcome to help himself and his new friends. More importantly, Wells works to make us understand what would make Gribble the person he is, a man-child stuck in an understandable case of arrested development that’s initial neediness and immaturity forces Milo to re-examine his own life choices.
It’s that attention to detail that really makes “Mars Needs Moms” go, with not a single moment wasted, from Gribble’s flashback of racing across the Martian desert with an extra helmet to the ridiculously banal ’70s sitcom that awakens Martian graffiti artist Ki (Harnois) to the pleasures of life not provided by the stern Supervisor (Mindy Sterling). Each part not only fits logically within the whole but comes back again and again to play a larger part in the plot as Wells ups the ante on the stakes and the danger minute after minute during the big finale.
And needless to say it looks great. Computer-animated films are one of the few where 3D’s nuances are immediately obvious and Wells (a seasoned animator himself) takes great advantage of it, from showcasing the scale of the Martian facility to rollicking rides through the complex’s tunnels and underground river system. But most importantly, he never messes with the animation just to mess with it. There’s a place for everything and everything is in its place.
It may not have great depth but it does have meaning, its characters aren’t particularly complex but they are complete. By taking time to put thought into why the characters do what they do and how that effects the world around them, and building his plot out from those foundations, Wells has created a film where the finished product, rather than being just a collection of parts–some good, some bad–is a whole from which no one part can be removed. “Mars Needs Moms” is quite simply light family entertainment done right.