When the Robert Zemeckis-headed studio ImageMovers debuted its first animated feature, 2004’s The Polar Express, many rightly complained about its characters’ zombie-like appearance. Using motion-capture technology to convert human performances into animation, the film got a lot right, but failed to capture the spark of humanity. The results were going for winsome, but looked creepy instead. But ImageMovers’ subsequent films, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, got a little closer to avoiding the dead eyes that haunted its first effort. They varied in quality, but the people looked more like people each time out. With Mars Needs Moms, the studio finally gets an entertaining, accomplished movie that shows off what its signature technology can do—just in time for ImageMovers to close up shop, shuttered by its Disney partners as a cost-saving measure.
Zemeckis might employ the technology elsewhere, perhaps with a long-threatened remake of Yellow Submarine. But if not, at least it’s going out on a high note. Mars Needs Moms director Simon Wells (The Time Machine) delivers an eye-catching, sneakily moving adaptation of the 2007 Mars Needs Moms picture book (written and illustrated by Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed), about a high-spirited kid named Milo (performed by Seth Green, whose voice was replaced at the 11th hour by child actor Seth Robert Dusky) who tells his mom (Joan Cusack) he’d be better off without her, then watches in horror as Martians take her away. Turns out that—well, you read the title. Stowing away on a Martian craft, Milo discovers a grown-up lost boy (Dan Fogler) who’s been on Mars since the 1980s (and has the slang to match) after losing his mother to the cruel process that allows Martians to suck the brains from their captives. Together, they try to save Milo’s mom from the same fate.
But let’s back up: Why does Mars need moms? It needs them because it’s been overtaken by a dystopian matriarchy that’s consigned the race’s males to the planet’s surface, and in the process, forgotten how to parent. That sounds like a barbed setup, but any satirical points about contemporary gender roles get lost in a mad rush through the matriarchy’s beautifully realized, Death Star-like gray fortress. It’s a fun rush, though, and an intense one, too, with plenty of grim moments along the way that heighten the sense of danger as Mars Needs Moms moves toward an unexpectedly wrenching finale. Finished or not, ImageMovers goes out for now with a burst of humanity.