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Word of Mouth: 'Mars Needs Moms' needs to capture more buzz

Disney's costly motion-capture film 'Mars Needs Moms' is in for a tough weekend against 'Battle: L.A.' and 'Red Riding Hood.'

March 10, 2011|By John Horn and Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times
  • Gribble, left, and Milo in "Mars Needs Moms."
Gribble, left, and Milo in "Mars Needs Moms." (ImageMovers Digital )

"Mars Needs Moms!" is a short children's book filled with outsized illustrations and an even greater moral: Don't undervalue your mother. The challenge for the makers of the pricey 3-D Disney film based on Berkeley Breathed's story is to make sure ticket buyers don't undervalue the movie, too — or worse, ignore it outright.

"Will it go out and touch people? I really, really hope so," says Simon Wells, who directed "Mars Needs Moms" (the movie lost the book's exclamation point) and co-wrote the film with his wife, Wendy.

Three years in the making and premiering Friday, "Mars Needs Moms" comes from Disney's short-lived partnership with director and producer Robert Zemeckis' ImageMovers Digital. The unit specialized in motion-capture films similar to "Avatar," in which live actors' facial and body movements are mapped onto animated characters.

The collaboration, which was disbanded a year ago, previously yielded 2009's "A Christmas Carol." The Dickens adaptation grossed more than $325 million worldwide, but cost an estimated $200 million to produce. When Disney closed ImageMovers, it took a write-off on its investment in the production facility.

"Mars Needs Moms" didn't cost as much as "A Christmas Carol" — the budget was about $150 million — but the movie, with a cast including Seth Green (television's "Robot Chicken") and Dan Fogler ("Take Me Home Tonight"), faces an exceptionally tough test this weekend.

Audience tracking surveys indicate that moviegoers are far more interested in Sony's alien-invasion action film "Battle: Los Angeles," while the Warner Bros. werewolf thriller "Red Riding Hood" is enjoying solid support among women, chiefly those younger than 25. Even though people are more aware of "Mars Needs Moms" than "Battle L.A.," they are materially less interested in seeing the PG-rated "Mars Needs Moms." The second "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" movie, which doesn't open until March 25, already has stronger ticket buying interest than "Mars Needs Moms."

An exhibitor showing the film said that "Mars Needs Moms" may be suffering from circumstances beyond its control. While computer-animated 3-D movies were rare, special events just a few years ago, such films now open every few weeks — the near-term slate includes "Rio," "Hoodwinked Too!" "Kung Fu Panda 2," "Cars 2" and "The Smurfs." What's more, said the exhibitor, who asked not to be identified so as not to jeopardize his relationship with Disney, budget-conscious parents may not want to pay the 3-D ticket surcharge, particularly for a movie with no recognizable stars.

Green says the low interest in "Mars Needs Moms" is not from Disney's lack of salesmanship.

"I've seen posters and billboards and bus stops and TV ads and trailers before prominent movies in theaters," Green says. "But we're in such a busy and jam-packed media culture right now that it's very difficult to get any messaging through to individual people at any point about anything. So I'm just out there trying to tell people that it's a really good movie. I personally am very proud of this and support it. And then you sort of hope for the best."

Breathed, who won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning for his "Bloom County" comic strip, is a fanciful humorist whose often-outrageous fables end with unexpectedly poignant messages — the case not only with "Mars Needs Moms!" but also his books "Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big" and "The Last Basselope."

Breathed's 38-page "Mars Needs Moms!" was inspired by a particularly cruel insult that his then 4-year-old son hurled at Breathed's wife. It focuses on a young man named Milo (the same as the author's child) whose mother is kidnapped by Martians. The aliens needed parenting help, because their children sprout from the ground like potatoes. But as soon as his mom is nabbed, Milo realizes how much he needs her, and has an especially powerful epiphany when she helps save his life.

Wells, who collaborated with Zemeckis on the 2004 blockbuster "The Polar Express," was called soon after ImageMovers acquired the book's movie rights. "They had the book, and Bob said, 'Have you any interest in doing a motion-capture movie?'"

Wells had co-directed the animated "Prince of Egypt" and the live-action "The Time Machine" and was intrigued by the potential of motion capture, even if some of its earliest iterations had produced somewhat creepy, vacant faces. Because Breathed's book combines human emotions with fantastical creatures, Wells and his wife agreed that motion capture would suit the story well.

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