Earth not ready for ‘Mars Needs Moms’

It’s not surprising that ‘Mars Needs Moms’ failed so miserably at the box office – the $150 million film making a pathetic $6.9 million on opening weekend – because Disney KILLED THE WRONG MOM!

There’s a rich history of cinematic matricide in Disney animated features, and indeed many stories aimed at children, as parents are well aware. Bambi’s mom – shot dead. Nemo’s mom – eaten by a barracuda. Cinderella’s mom – met an uncertain fate, replaced by evil stepmother. Ditto Snow White. Killing the mother of the main character is a sure-fire dramatic hook that instantly grabs the interest of Disney’s ravenous target market: Small children with moms.

Sure, the evil aliens in Mars Needs Moms disintegrate one mother – whose son is a creepy grown-up kid named Gribble, who’s been stranded on the Red Planet by himself ever since – but only captures and threatens to kill the mother of the story’s hero, a boy named Milo. He spends the entire film trying to rescue her. Spoiler alert: He does. Then mom saves him. Cue tears of joy. And everybody learns a little lesson in the end. Even the Martians. Mom remains alive. This is the movie’s fatal flaw.

On the surface, Mars Needs Moms has all the elements of a successful kids’ movie: A kid as the hero, a goofy sidekick, an unlikely ally, an even goofier sidekick, an impossible quest and plenty of hapless bad guys in their way. In Berkeley Breathed’s sweet little book of the same name, the Martians are the colour of jellybeans and nice. Since Martians grow motherless from the ground like potatoes, they need Earth moms, they saw them in their telescopes, it’s obvious – for driving to soccer, packing lunches, bandaging boo-boos – but, like certain little boys, didn’t quite understand the all-encompassing and universal love of a mother for her children. The Martians in the book quickly see the light and let mom and her son go free. In the film, the Martians are dull-coloured and mean, capturing Earth mothers to suck the mothering instincts out of their brains (which destroys the subject in the process; with all their technology you think they’d be able to fix that) so they could be programmed into the nanny-bots that raise the Martian children. Girls are kept near the surface in the headquarters and groomed for leadership, while the boys are cast into the vast Martian junk-heaps to live a tribal existence down below. It’s a lot of loose ends, but it all works out in the end for everybody. Sorry, that should’ve been another spoiler alert.

While Mars Needs Moms boasts one the most original stories ever seen in an animated feature, this film is doomed on many levels. It’s dark. It’s creepy. It’s not really a comedy. It’s not really for boys because what boy wants to see a movie about his mom? And girls won’t like it because it’s a science-fiction adventure. Who is it for? The screenplay is disjointed. It’s hard to figure out what’s going on half the time. The Martian world is cluttered, junky, like Blade Runner from Hell. And frankly, the motion-capture animation is creepy. The characters look too real, grotesque. The closing credit montage of Seth Green (Milo), Joan Cusack (Milo’s mom) and the other actors working through their lines in full sensor-equipped, motion-capture suits is somehow the most disturbing thing of all. It seems like such a lot of trouble for such a questionable payoff. Why didn’t they just use live actors? Might’ve saved a few million dollars there. Plus it’s a film about moms, remember? Producers totally screwed the pooch by not waiting for a Mother’s Day release.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of all in this ambitious movie is that it makes moms and dads cry. Not just get a little misty. Not just a lump in your throat. We’re talking real tears here, right at that point – as in the book – where Milo comes to realize how much his mother, that nagging broccoli bully, loves him. It’s a gut-shot of maternal sentimentality observers are helpless to resist. The kids don’t get it, of course. I posit that any grown-up who doesn’t weep at that climactic point in the story isn’t from Earth – or at least not a parent, in which case you wouldn’t even be watching the film to begin with, would you? So that’s the real problem. You blow $100 to take your kids to the movies for an afternoon escape. You don’t want to cry. That’s what romantic comedies are for. Better that your kids cry – so you’d better kill the right mom.