Movie Review: “Mars Needs Moms”

You’ll want to stay through the closing credits of the new motion capture animated adventure “Mars Needs Moms,” a film from the people who gave us “The Polar Express.” There are four minutes of clips of the real-live cast of the film, Seth Green, Joan Cusack and Dan Fogler among them, wearing the mo-cap suits, dots covering their faces so that the sensors can digitally mimic their movements, actions and facial reactions as they act out what’s going to be animated.

It’s fascinating and also the lightest and funniest part of this film, based on a book by “Bloom County” creator Berkeley Breathed. Though light enough in tone, packed with good messages and delivering a couple of lovely, touching moments, “Mars” still has that plastic look that made you wish you were seeing the REAL Tom Hanks in “Polar Express” or the REAL Jim Carrey in “A Christmas Carol.”

Cute characters and a “Star Wars” derived plot — rescuing a damsel from a heavily garrisoned “citadel” — drive this tale, a movie more interested in action beats than in big laughs. It’s not bad, and is considerably more kid-friendly than the trippy and more adult-oriented “Rango.” It’s just not as much fun as a live action version of the same story might have been.

Milo (voiced by Seth Dusky, acted by Green) hates taking out the trash and won’t eat his broccoli. And when mom (Joan Cusack) lays down the law — “No broccoli, no TV,” he revolts.

“My life would be so much better if I didn’t have a mom at all.”

Milo, who looks to be about 11, learns a big life lesson with that. Words can wound. He makes his mom cry.

Imagine his guilt when, a few hours later, she’s abducted by aliens. He scrambles after her and learns an awful secret — “Mars Needs Moms.”  And not just any moms, GOOD moms. Ones who lay down the law, teach their children respect, discipline, manners and values, maybe who teach their kids not to kick the seat in front of them at the the movie theater.

Martians spy on us, pick out a mom doing a good job, and grab her so that they can use her brain to encode their nanny robots, which they use to raise baby martians miles below the surface of the planet, far from the probing eye of the Mars Rover.

Milo is at a loss about how to rescue mom until he himself is saved by Gribble, a portly subterranean nerd played by Dan Fogler. Gribble stowed away to Mars just like Milo and has survived, built robots and filled his own junkyard lair with hi-tech gear. He is surrounded by hordes of goofy, dreadlocked outcasts from Mars society whom he can understand (he’s built a translator) but can’t communicate with.

Gribble is trapped in the ’80s, which is when he arrived. He’s fighting “the spread of interplanetary communism” for Ronald Reagan. “Why do you think they call it ‘The Red Planet?’”

Milo has mere hours to convince Gribble to help rescue his mother before her brain is cooked, hours to find and meet a Martian graffiti artist (Elisabeth Harnois) in  revolt against the regimented, colorless matriarchy of Mars.

Director Simon Wells worked on “Prince of Egypt” and “The Time Machine” and is right at home with the endless digital chases, shootouts and such. He and his animators also deliver a couple of those big emotional moments that gave “Up” and “Toy Story 3″ their pathos. But laughs? He doesn’t do well with the ones the script sets up.

There’s subtext here, too. Plainly, Breathed the author has some mommy issues he was working out — women running a planet are too busy to nurture their own babies.

It all makes for an intricate if slow and somewhat humor-starved early Mother’s Day present in which  a boy learns just how much his mom means to him on the Red Planet. “Mars Needs Moms,” but Milo needs Mom even more.

Cast: The voices of Seth Dusky, Joan Cusack, Dan Fogler and Elisabeth Harnois

Director: Simon Wells

Running time: 1:29

Rating: PG for sci-fi action and peril.

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