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'Mars Needs Moms' - New York International Children’s Film Festival Intro

As dependable as the vernal equinox and the return of Daylight Savings Time, the New York International Children’s Film Festival is back in town to help wrap up another winter. As usual, the Fest began with a high profile, mainstream movie for its opening night gala; this year, it was producer Robert Zemeckis’ latest mocap creation, Mars Needs Moms, courtesy of Disney. (A few notches up in the prestige dept. from 2001’s Recess: School’s Out, based on a Disney Saturday morning TV series.)

As dependable as the vernal equinox and the return of Daylight Savings Time, the New York International Children’s Film Festival is back in town to help wrap up another winter.

As usual, the Fest began with a high profile, mainstream movie for its opening night gala; this year, it was producer Robert Zemeckis’ latest mocap creation, Mars Needs Moms, courtesy of Disney. (A few notches up in the prestige dept. from 2001’s Recess: School’s Out, based on a Disney Saturday morning TV series.)

Perhaps I was a little harsh on Bob when I dismissed his mocap-fixated films as ‘Zombievision.’ Any form of CGI animation technology can’t help but improve as computers get faster and programming more sophisticated, and Moms’ human characters aren’t anywhere as jarring as the ones in Carrey’s Christmas Carol or God forbid The Polar Express’ living dead. (But still, in this age when middle school kids can green screen composite their friends into sci-fi settings, why does the Big Z still insist on mocapping people to play people in the first place?) Flesh textures still tend towards the rubbery and hands and feet look particularly doll-like in close-up, but eyes (ever so slightly larger than a real face would sport, a nice touch) shine with more life than they have in the past. Oh, and I’m not being nice towards the movie just because my niece is marrying one of its technical directors. (Hi, Mike!)

I did a double-take at the Mars Needs Moms picture book lucky opening night attendees were being handed. At first I thought it was a kids’ bookization of the movie, but this particular egg preceded the chicken: Disney’s Moms is based on Berekely (“Bloom County/Opus”) Breathed’s goofball book, replete with grinning clownish aliens dressed in Michelin Man spacesuits.  They’re gone, along with their reason for kidnapping earthly maternal units (to drive their kids to soccer practice). A few of the book’s narrative moments are retained, but Breathed’s story is re-imagined on a way more sentimental (ohh, that single tear trickling down Mom’s cheek!) and slickly-designed Star Wars ian level, complete with a more than slightly overcomplicated premise (no way I can run on sentence-encapsulate it here) for the mom-snatching.

In both the book and movie Milo (a hat-tip to Norman Juster and Chuck Jones’ Phantom Tollbooth?) follows his kidnapped mom to Mars, but in the movie (where he’s performed by Seth Green but voiced by an actual adolescent) he links up with “Gribble,” a human, fun-loving overgrown fanboy who lurks in the sub-subterranean Martian garbage dumps.  (And judging from the end credits production footage, Gribble’s voice/body performer Dan Fogler resembles his character closely enough to ask the question – once again – why bother creating a mocapped simulacrum when you’ve got the real thing right in front of you?)

Down in those dumps Milo comes across a band of shaggy ragamuffy scavengers who look as if their last gig was in a roadshow production of The Wiz. Ascending to the vast, just-beneath-the-surface Martian metropolis he has to contend with a militaristic gynocracy led by a screechy Martian who looks and sounds like Linda Hunt on a particularly bad day and crosses paths with a “Ki,” a Martian graffiti artist who’s been secretly tagging the city’s steel gray walls with explosions of color. (Anyone remember “Adventures in Wonderland,” a charming live-action Disney Channel series from twenty-odd years ago? Elisabeth Harnois, the show’s now all grown up Alice plays Ki.) Turns out Ki’s been thoroughly corrupted by broadcasts of an extremely colorful 1970’s Earth sitcom “Freaks on Our Street.” (The quickie vignette of this imaginary series – with two cops eagerly painting flowers on the freaks’ VW minibus – is one of the movie’s cleverest moments; props to writer/director Simon Wells and co-writer Wendy Wells for remembering most ‘hippies’ never referred to themselves as such.)

Much three-act character and story arc ensues, revealing Gribble’s backstory, suppressed Martian history and climaxing with protracted, multi-perilous rescue of Milo’s about to be disintegrated mom (as you might imagine, a plot point not part of Breathed’s original story) that leads to a revolutionary remaking of Martian society and a well-deserved golden shower for the bitchy Martian matriarch. (Bodily function check: onscreen urination is now up there with flatulence and the occasional on-camera defecation as an easy laff-getter.)

Even though it’s in 3D, Mars Needs Moms takes it easy on the in-your-face spatial effects, limiting them to the occasional vertiginous height perspective and the regular power dives the characters take zooming down pipes or falling from high places. There is a single POW—right atcha! moment when shards of a broken space helmet go flying at the camera that’s all the more powerful for being the only one in the movie.

They tell me Mars Needs Moms wraps up Zemeckis’ three-picture Disney deal, and the studio’s shuttered his ImageMovers Digital operation. (Good luck at DreamWorks, Mike.) There’s tons more good stuff at the Children’s Film Festival between now and March 27th, but wither Zemeckis? There’s no shortage of “In Development” and “In Production” projects listed for the fella on IMDB, plenty of which are credited to ImageMovers. Keep On Moccappin,’ Bob…)

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