Gribble, left, and Milo in "Mars Needs Moms." (ImageMovers Digital )
Although it may be true that "Mars Needs Moms," the red planet needs emotion more. Or is it more emotion? Either way, the result is the same. Instead of breathing life into cartoonist Berkeley Breathed's cheeky kids morality tale, the movie — with all its 3-D motion capture animation flash — flatlines.
Live versus lifelike continues to be problematic for this particular technique. Despite refinements in the years since filmmaker Robert Zemeckis — a producer on "Mars" — pushed it into the long-form, storytelling arena in 2004 with "The Polar Express," its characters still carry the Stepford look.
Director Simon Wells has had his struggles on the emotional front. The filmmaker, the great grandson of H.G. Wells, inherited the name but little of the originality of his ancestor. Instead, his work tends toward the middle-ground, beginning with 1991's "An American Tail: Fievel Goes West." There are usually splashy visuals like the lush palette of "The Prince of Egypt," but little heart, most disappointingly in his adaptation of great granddad's classic novel, "The Time Machine" in 2002. "Mars," with Wells' wife, Wendy, writing the screenplay, continues that trend.
To that end, the look of Mars itself is terrific from the moment its dull reddish surface breaks open to reveal a complex, vibrant city underneath. With "Polar Express" alums on the creative frontlines, led by production designer Doug Chiang and director of photography Robert Presley, there is an inventive blend of the sort of high-tech sleekness you'd expect from an advanced alien culture alongside the mountains of trash generated by a productive people who haven't discovered recycling yet. As to their use of solar power, we'll get to that.
There is a compelling story underneath that upper crust as well — a boy realizing how much he loves his mom. And a suitable kid-centric spin — just as he figures it out, she's spirited away by Martians and he's racing against time and interplanetary odds to get her back.
It took two Seths (no relation) to bring 9-year-old Milo, our broccoli-hater at the center of things, to simulated life — S. Green the elder giving him all the right moves, S. Dusky the younger, the voice — for it was a fight over the gross green stuff that starts this whole affair. That's a real enough mom-kid struggle, but any friction fizzles in fights that sound as if there is one beat too many between lines, particularly in the opening scenes between Milo and Mom (Joan Cusack), as in "Milooooo…" (one, two, three…) "Aw, Mom."
Fortunately things improve on Mars with the entry of Gribble (Dan Fogler), Mars' lone human resident, a gadget junkie of a guy who is thrilled to have another Earthling in the house. In "Mars," Fogler redefines the notion of unbridled glee, giving Gribble a double shot of the kinetic energy and guilelessness that is helping him salvage other just-OK movies these days, most recently in the '80s-bashing "Take Me Home Tonight."
In addition to his entertainment value, Gribble is an important ally for Milo because he knows his way around the Supervisor (Mindy Sterling), a screeching ancient harpy in charge of security forces. If something akin to the sound of nails-on-the-blackboard was the goal, then Sterling succeeds in sterling fashion. Much more successful in every sense is Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), the day-glow graffiti street artist who is covering Mars cityscapes in neon colors. Things light up literally and figuratively every time Harnois' Ki shows up, and teaming her with Milo and Gribble — again, literally and figuratively — almost saves the day (or at least makes it more bearable).
In addition to the eerily surreal effect of the characters, the story has its own creep factor to deal with. As it turns out, Mars doesn't need moms exactly, but mom brains, solar-powered machine extracted mom brains to be exact. That brainpower is used to program the latest model of nanny-bots who care for each new generation of Martian girls. Never mind the boys, they are a disposable commodity — perhaps not the message you want to send young ones. Speaking of which, the film's one emotional surge comes in a Bambi-like moment that had some of the kids in my vicinity whimpering, so parents be forewarned.
As breathtakingly visual as the trip to "Mars" is, the 3-D aspect is overrated and the glasses are getting so heavy they may leave permanent dents on little noses. Worse, Breathed's genius, that sense of the absurd that he constructs to help kids ride out the darker undercurrents of the tale, has gone missing along with Milo's mom. Maybe the Martians stole that too.