“Mars Needs Moms” is a peculiar moviegoing experience where its least effective element boils down to a single obnoxious performance. Lively, richly animated with intriguing motion capture fluidity, and pleasingly designed with special attention to sprawling Martian environments, the film is nearly sunk by the efforts of co-star Dan Fogler, who’s biologically incapable of delivering funny business, squirting his spastic funk all over this nifty CG-animated chase film.
A young boy tired of his domestic duties, Milo (performed by Seth Green, voiced by Seth Dusky) has grown to resent his mother (Joan Cusack). When Martians bent on finding human mothers to help raise their newborns come to Earth and kidnap his parent, Milo is accidentally whisked away on the ship, taken to a subterranean alien kingdom, where he meets Gribble (Dan Fogler), a daffy Earthling who found himself in the same predicament in the 1980s.
Eager to save his mother before the matriarchal Martian society steals her parental knowledge, Milo sets out to infiltrate this strange world, using Gribble’s technical knowhow and help from Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), a sympathetic Martian who’s learned broken English via a colorful 1970’s sitcom.
“Mars Needs Moms” is the latest production from ImageMovers Digital, the mo-cap animation squad (led by Robert Zemeckis) behind such films as “The Polar Express” and “A Christmas Carol.” Adapting the 2007 book by comic strip icon Berkeley Breathed, the producers bring a fresh fantasy world to life, staging a large-scale comic adventure with swooping camera moves, towering vistas, and some extra dimension with its 3D presentation.
Director Simon Wells (2002’s “The Time Machine,” “Prince of Egypt”) exploits the detailed animation splendidly, deploying performance movement thoughtfully, while arranging a merry visual scheme that finds Ki (a disgruntled Martian soldier) spreading color around the steely Martian landscape, creating a look that deploys bold hues carefully for a more substantial impact.
The design of the alien nation is also quite compelling, with the Martians boasting big eyes and wide hips, resembling an upside down tuning fork with hooves, supporting both imposing and endearing facial qualities. Technically speaking, I was consistently delighted by the picture and its graceful movement (the mo-cap aesthetic provides a unique dance to the animation), watching it joyfully erect its version of Mars and the playful community of oddballs within.
While “Mars Needs Moms” is a feast for the eyes, it’s a little rough on the ears, working from a script that contains a “Who Let the Dogs Out?” reference and generally prods Fogler to screech his way around the frame. There are dark shadings to the Martian parental kidnapping plan that are most welcome, and a few tender beats of personal loss are felt, but the jokes are moronic, with most gags playing up Gribble’s lost childhood — the doughy man-boy is trapped in the 1980s, dreaming of “Top Gun” and the comfort of Smurf-Berry Crunch cereal.
The cast is skilled enough to sell the wonder and suspense of the moment, with Fogler being the obvious cancer. He delivers a strident performance of adolescent excitement, shaping Gribble into a breathless monster with extreme mucus issues, destroying the engaging sense of discovery the film builds wonderfully. Gribble instantly annoys, which might’ve been the intention, but I could think of several other actors who could nail those same notes of destructive excitement with some sense of boundary while displaying effortless comedic skills.
It’s a bumpy ride for “Mars Needs Moms,” but the effort is appreciable, often thrilling when Milo is flung and dropped around the Martian city. A final summation of parental appreciation is also a splendid touch, helping to wash away the less savory elements of the production. Energetic and inspired (sans Fogler), the picture concludes on a high note, providing the intergalactic goods with spirit, only one critical miscasting away from true satisfaction.