The real conflict in this film isn't between the humans and Martians, but between the cliché and the generally humorous and touching. Weak pop culture jokes are pitted against heartwarming scenes between mothers and sons. Action out of the action device handbook pulls down some good character development. It's a battle till the very end.
Our players are as follows. Milo (Seth Green, AUSTIN POWERS) is the broccoli-hating hero who wishes that his Mom (Joan Cusack, WORKING GIRL) wasn't his mom after she bars him from watching his favorite zombie movie on TV as punishment for feeding the cat the aforementioned vegetable. As a result, the Martian Supervisor (Mindy Sterling, AUSTIN POWERS) rules her a perfect candidate to use as a brain donor for their Nanny Bots, the robots that raise all Martian female babies. The male Martians are too touchy feely so they are thrown into the garbage.
Milo witnesses his mother's abduction and ends up in the landing gear of the spaceship (action cliché #1). He gets to witness the rigid Martian society firsthand. When he ends up in the garbage dump, he meets Gribble (Dan Fogler, BALLS OF FURY), who like Milo had a mom who was abducted in the 1980s. Gribble, now a fat, 30-something man-boy, wants Milo to be his best friend so he can forget about not being able to save his mom from being incinerated by the alien's sun ray.
But Milo will not be deterred. In disguise he heads out to find his mom. Along the way, he will meet Ki (Elisabeth Harnois, TV's ONE TREE HILL), a rebel Martian who likes to tag the walls of her gray sterile society with vibrant colors she learned about on an Earthling TV show from the 1970s. She asks, "What is the power of flowers?"
Part of the epic struggle is between the minimal illustrated storybook from Berkeley Breathed on which the film is based and the length requirements of a feature length film. This is where the story is overpowered by those action handbook clichés. In addition to the one marked above, we also have escaping through a window onto a ledge of a tall building, shooting a hole in the floor for an escape, falling down a chute, swinging over an industrial sized fan, a ticking clock and more. They create no tension, because nothing is surprising about how they are used and there are too many of them. Milo's ticking watch is really pointless, because the simple fact that his mother will be dead by sunrise is enough. You don't need a clock to tell us it's getting close.
The extended time needed also stretches Breathed's influence. Where is the wit of the Pulitzer-winning BLOOM COUNTY cartoonist throughout the film? His bite comes out in a nice argument between mother and son over the aforementioned broccoli, but is lost in jokes that close with references to "Who Let the Dogs Out?" Will any kid under the age of 28 understand that reference? And enough with the botox jokes, please.
There is an interesting clash of pop culture in the stuck in the '80s Gribble and the '70s obsessed Ki. But Milo isn't of this age. He is of an era all his own. Eternally bland. His nicely written 'tude with his mom over that vegetable that looks like brains is lost the second argument is over. Once we arrive on Mars the force of Gribble's personality takes over. He might be annoying at times, but he is never boring. And the old adage that big eyes make a character attractive in animation doesn't work here. The digital, nearly photoreal junior Seth Green clone is distracting with its giant unnatural eyes. It's overcompensating for the "zombie eyes" critique of POLAR EXPRESS. The improvement in performance captures shines in Gribble who has normal sized eyes.
In the final run, the film gains steam and emotional punch, especially with how Gribble's story is woven into Milo's. I can only imagine how this would have played if the pointless action from the rest of the movie would have meant something to the story of Milo and his mom. I think back to Spike Jonze's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and how the action on the island mirrored the issues the boy had with his family. For MARS, all the action amounts to running around in order to fill time.
The final score sadly comes with clichés ahead… but humorous and touching put up a respectable fight, they were just overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Kids will enjoy the action and color and silliness. Parents will feel nostalgia for Gribble. Both will enjoy the genuine moments between parent and child. I can imagine the conversation on the way to the car.
Parent(s): What would you do if I were abducted by aliens?
Child(ren): Oh Dad and/or Mom.
At this point they all have forgotten they even took a trip to MARS. Yes, even a mildly enjoyable trip to Mars can be forgotten when it feels like it's a trip you've taken a thousand times before.