Directed by Simon Wells
Written by Simon Wells and Wendy Wells
Starring Seth Green, Joan Cusack, Dan Fogler, Elisabeth Harnois
A fascinating trend has been cropping up in mainstream filmmaking over the last 20 years, specific to major male directors who are widely considered to be technological pioneers. From James Cameron to Steven Spielberg to Peter Jackson, a good number of cinematic titans have not only embraced new advances in filmmaking, but they’ve become obsessed with them. You could probably argue that any auteur gets that way thanks mostly to obsession, so this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Think of Cameron, who was, for a long time, utterly single-minded in his devoted relationship to the HMS Titanic, first making the massively successful 1997 epic with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Then he made IMAX movies about the Titanic, such as Ghosts of the Abyss. Finally, in 2009, he moved on, directing another full-length non-documentary feature, Avatar. And if we’re lucky, he may be finished with an intensely examined quadrilogy about the inhabitants of Pandora by the end of this decade. Certainly, seeing as Avatar is literally the most popular film of all time (at least, in terms of box office), so much so that it may get its own land at Walt Disney World, you can’t blame Cameron for sticking around in Pandora.
Nor can you blame Peter Jackson for revisiting Middle-Earth. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is beloved by most critics and audiences, and the final film garnered Jackson and the film plenty of Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. That he wants to make a film of Tolkien’s The Hobbit is understandable. That he wants to make three movies based on a 310-page novel is a mix of foolish indulgence and corporate greed. (I don’t, to be clear, think Jackson’s choosing to make three films from one book because he’s financially greedy. I think he’s unwilling to let Middle-Earth go, because he loves the world, not because of the cash.)
Jackson, like Cameron, is enamored with a fantasy world, one where the best and most expensive innovations can be employed. He’s gone even further than Cameron, not only extensively utilizing 3D but shooting footage at 48 frames per second, as opposed to the typical 24. There’s been a bit of controversy about this decision—48 frames per second is apparently akin to motion-smoothing technology on most new HDTVs, which is, in purely scientific terms, just the worst. (Refer to this excellent article by Scott Tobias of The AV Club in case you don’t yet know of the scourge of motion-smoothing.) But the basic response from Jackson has been that we’re only concerned about that which we do not currently understand. 48fps is actually technologically advanced! It’s the future! We just need to see it to find out for ourselves! And so on.
However it turns out, Jackson has earned his ability to make whatever movie he wants. Even after the non-huge response to King Kong and The Lovely Bones, Jackson’s got enough built-in cache thanks to Frodo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey. And again, we can mock Cameron (Lord knows I cannot resist), but Avatar made nearly 3 billion dollars worldwide. No other movie has come close to that number. He could make a film where the Na’Vi go to the bathroom for two hours while Sam Worthington does a giddy Irish jig in the background as dollar bills float from the sky, and no studio would stop him. (I might not watch that movie, of course, but still.) We can debate whether or not these filmmakers are wasting their time, and perhaps ours, by focusing more on technical whiz-bang concepts than on characters and stories that made us love them in the first place, but they’ve got enough money behind them so you can at least see why studios enable their obsessions.
This leaves us with Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis made his mark in the late 1980s and early 1990s as both a master technician and someone whose control of wild, high-concept stories were extremely accessible to mainstream audiences. The Back to the Future trilogy indulges in various storytelling tropes—jumping from the coming-of-age genre to the Western by the end of the series—but was massively entertaining even as the scripts twisted themselves into pretzels by sending Marty McFly to and fro in the space-time continuum.
In some ways, Zemeckis’ biggest success was Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the earliest example of how he could balance technology with entertainment. Say what you like, but Bob Hoskins was never given a tougher acting task than pretending he was having actual conversations with an outrageous cartoon rabbit. After that film was such a hit, Zemeckis seemingly became unable to separate the flash of technical impressiveness from making movies. Forrest Gump, Contact, Cast Away: all of these films have superlative elements, but none of them are as excellent as his earlier work. Somehow, the further you get into Robert Zemeckis’ filmography, the more it becomes clear that he can’t make a film without throwing in some kind of stylistic technical flourish. (To anyone who would mention, as a counterargument, the upcoming film Flight, his first live-action film in over a decade, I would only respond that the inciting plane crash appears to be a major centerpiece of the story. Zemeckis may have been attracted to the idea of staging something so outlandish.)
His self-induced spiral into cutting-edge technology led him into the world of motion-capture animation, as with Cameron, Jackson, and Spielberg. (Spielberg is still wading in the shallow end of this pool, as he directed The Adventures of Tintin, but is primarily a live-action director.) Whatever else Cameron and Jackson have done with the Na’Vi or with Gollum, it’s hard to disagree about Zemeckis’ standing as the would-be King of Motion-Capture. He’s gone all in on the format, which is meant to, at its best, present photorealistic worlds that can be filled with gonzo imagery, going further in what they show than what the real world provides. And just a few years ago, he opened up a subsidiary of his production company, ImageMovers, in collaboration with Walt Disney Pictures. As I think more about motion-capture animation and the format’s pitfalls and benefits, I’ve finally realized that it’s not motion-capture animation that’s the trouble. It’s Robert Zemeckis’ method of making motion-capture films.
When people champion motion-capture technology, they’re right to use Gollum from the Lord of the Rings films as the best possible example. They’d also be smart to invoke most of the characters in The Adventures of Tintin. Though I haven’t seen the film, I’ve also heard good things about the motion-capture work in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. There’s a common thread running through each of these movies, called Andy Serkis. Serkis is, for whatever reason, exceptionally attuned to the ins and outs motion-capture, making it work for him and vice versa. The other advantage is that the filmmakers working with Serkis haven’t done what Zemeckis has done consistently since The Polar Express opened in 2004: they haven’t made the characters Serkis plays look exactly like him.
In one case, Monster House, the animators at ImageMovers didn’t fall into this trap. But it’s worth pointing out that Zemeckis didn’t direct the film, he was just an executive producer. The closer he is to the film, the more it feels like the characters have to look like the people playing them. In The Polar Express, Tom Hanks portrayed multiple characters, but the one with the most screen time, The Conductor, looked exactly like him. Well…kind of. See, this is where I invoke “uncanny valley,” the infamous effect that appears in motion-capture animation. It’s where the characters go past looking photorealistic, into something off-putting and disquieting to look at. We talk about the eyes being the window to the soul, and yet when you watch most motion-capture films—I hesitate to say that it’s only in movies Zemeckis is involved in, but all of his do have this problem—you see no emotion in the characters’ eyes. Mo-cap, thy name is soulless.
The Polar Express, Beowulf, and Disney’s A Christmas Carol, the three motion-capture films Robert Zemeckis directed, are all bereft of life. Something I find truly fascinating is the answer to this question: what exactly does Robert Zemeckis see in motion-capture animation? Is he so unaware of how people reject his entries within this format? (The answer to that, of course, is probably “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.”) And make no mistake: people have not gotten fervently behind his films. I am aware that The Polar Express has endured—somewhat—over the last 8 years both in repeats on television and in IMAX theaters that re-release it every holiday season. But the fans of the film aren’t legion, and I imagine that if the movie wasn’t set at the most popular holiday in North America, we wouldn’t keep seeing it on TV. Yes, fine, maybe I’m being unfair, poking holes in a movie’s perceived popularity by throwing up a hypothetical scenario. That said, I don’t think The Polar Express is widely considered a positive example of motion-capture animation.
Neither are Beowulf or Disney’s A Christmas Carol. Oh, sure, these films aren’t huge financial flops, but for movies that cost anywhere from $150 million to $200 million, they aren’t making Lord of the Rings money. The highest-grossing of these films was Christmas Carol, which made around $325 million worldwide; over half of that take is from everywhere aside from North America.
I guess the question I had then—and on the podcast back in December when I covered and continued to not be a big fan of Disney’s A Christmas Carol—is what will it take? What will it take for Robert Zemeckis to lay down his motion-capture sword? Critical rejection isn’t enough. And getting middling box-office returns wasn’t destroying his fervor or studio interest. Even though he jumped from Warner Bros. to Paramount to Disney for each of these films, it wasn’t as if Hollywood rejected him entirely. And hey, look, Walt Disney Pictures was going to help produce his next big motion-capture spectacle: a remake of Yellow Submarine, the animated film starring the Beatles. Could Zemeckis be at a higher peak? Working with Disney and the Beatles? Maybe nothing would stop studios bankrolling his motion-capture obsession.
But then came Mars Needs Moms. Here we have a film that was so derided that it shut down ImageMovers Digital, that subsidiary of ImageMovers, which was intended to work solely on motion-capture films like Disney’s A Christmas Carol and…Mars Needs Moms. This movie was so reviled that Disney effectively ended its partnership with Zemeckis, kicking his Yellow Submarine adaptation to the curb. This movie was so ignored that it is currently the biggest box office flop in film history. You read that right. It’s not something like that silly Oogieloves movie, which is unquestionably a massive failure, though not as bad as Mars Needs Moms. If we adjust for inflation, Mars Needs Moms is only the fifth-biggest flop in film history. How is this possible? How is it possible that this was the film that represented an emphatic period on whether or not audiences would accept Robert Zemeckis’ brand of motion-capture animation? (Perhaps I should call it an ellipsis, by the way, as Mike informed me on the show that Zemeckis has another motion-capture project in the works at Sony.)
Well, as it turns out, Mars Needs Moms is not the worst movie ever made. It’s not even close to the worst movie ever made. Hell, I’ve seen worse movies for the podcast (not many, but a few). As I’ve mentioned on the show in the past, and likely in one of these columns, popularity does not equal quality and thus, neither does the lack of popularity. Cult films exist specifically because they were not widely seen and beloved upon their initial release (or the people who were the film’s fans from the beginning were ardent, but not many). However, there is no Mars Needs Moms cult, nor should there be. It’s not as if no one saw this film—I imagine some people hear the phrase “biggest box office bomb in film history” and assume that means the film made some laughably low amount of money, perhaps even under a few million dollars. That’s not true—what makes this film, which grossed just under $40 million worldwide, such a flop is that it made so little versus what it cost. Mars Needs Moms, in short, was a woeful failure on the whole, just not making any worst-ever records on a single day.
Believe it or not, though, it’s not as bad as you might think. Oh, Mars Needs Moms is not a good movie. Let’s not pretend here: this is a severely misguided film. It’s just not worst-ever material. I’m confident, though, that it’s the worst motion-capture film Robert Zemeckis has been involved in. The film, based on a children’s book by Berkeley Breathed, was produced by Zemeckis, and co-written and directed by Simon Wells. Wells is not only the great-grandson of H.G. Wells (yes, that one); he also directed or co-directed An American Tale: Fievel Goes West, Balto, The Prince of Egypt, and The Time Machine. Though Mike was a bit more forgiving, I wouldn’t say that any of these films are particularly memorable, especially the last one. But they’re all mainstream, big-budget releases. So I suppose it makes sense that you put him at the helm of a new Disney film based on a popular children’s book. Sadly, every single decision he and co-writer Wendy Wells (I assume that’s his wife, though I could be wrong) made in expanding the story is wrongheaded.
The basic concept is that Martians kidnap Earth mothers based on how tough they appear to be to their children, so the aliens can take these women and transfer their minds into nanny robots to take care of their own young. I can’t be the only one who finds this immensely sad, but it’s the kind of sadness at the core of some of Disney’s most beloved classics. Think, for example, of Dumbo, which is so shamelessly manipulative and obvious in its exploitative emotions. Watching Dumbo being cradled in his mother’s trunk as she toils away in a prison cell, it’s as if the filmmakers are daring you not to weep openly. But it works! (OK, maybe not for everyone.) Dumbo is a beloved film that’s inspired countless theme-park attractions that are almost equally well-liked. Sadness doesn’t have to equal an audience being turned off. So why does the inherently dark concept of Mars Needs Moms, which is somewhat similar to that of Dumbo (revolving around a boy potentially losing his mother), fail?
Leaving aside the motion-capture animation, the problem is that the lead character, 9-year old Milo, doesn’t engender much sympathy. He has a particularly rough verbal fight with his mom, culminating as he says he’d be better off without a mother at all. Milo wouldn’t be the first child to say something he immediately regrets to his parents, but the buildup to this fight is absolutely ridiculous. Milo is meant to see a new movie with his dad, who’s stuck in the airport after a business trip. Milo and his mom both sound legitimately disappointed at this news, so she offers to let him watch a zombie film on pay-per-view if he eats his dinner. I speak, of course, from my own childhood memories, but that sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Still, within a few minutes, Milo’s fed his broccoli to the cat and gotten his mom furious.
Obviously, each parent raises their children differently. Mine were more restrictive than most families in my neighborhood. I vividly remember rushing downstairs the Sunday before Jurassic Park opened in June of 1993, hoping that the poster for the film in the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times would include a PG rating. If the movie was PG-13, my parents wouldn’t let me see it, even though I’d been waiting to see it for months because DINOSAURS. And yet, despite being 9, they refused to allow me to see Steven Spielberg’s latest in theaters. Looking back on it, I’m fairly certain my parents made the right decision, in that the movie probably would’ve scared the bejeezus out of me had I seen it on the big screen. So when I see Milo bitch and moan to his mom about being required to eat broccoli, and then get sulky and pouty that he can’t watch a zombie movie despite breaking a very specific edict, I don’t have much sympathy for the kid.
What’s more, the movie doesn’t give us a solid foundation for the relationship between Milo and his mother. The script doesn’t help much here—after the first 10 minutes, Milo’s mom is out of commission until the climactic finale—but neither does the motion-capture. Joan Cusack, as Milo’s mom, is OK but unspectacular. It’s Seth Green, who plays Milo, but does not provide his voice, who’s the problem. Originally, Green was meant to both act out Milo’s movements and provide his voice, but I’m sure at some point, everyone realized that no matter how talented he may be, Seth Green pretending to sound like he’s 9 is just too strange. Unfortunately, the decision from Wells and the animators at ImageMovers Digital to make Milo still look mostly like Seth Green is unwise.
Green is a somewhat diminutive performer, and he’s enthusiastic and a bit childlike. None of these qualities remove this immutable fact: he’s an adult. And Milo looks awfully like Seth Green, just with a shrunken head and body. Say what you like about Green as an actor; that’s just unappealing. The effect of looking at Milo and his mother is akin to seeing what would happen if a person slapped some clay on their face to make themselves look squishy. (In short, it’s reminiscent of a truly freaky scene in the new documentary Samsara.) Or, better still, think of the sequence in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, where the title character drinks a potion to transform himself into someone else for a few minutes. As Harry stares at himself in the mirror, the changes in body mass, weight, and size happening in front of his very eyes, it’s as if large fleshy bubbles are forming on his face. That’s what this is like.
The Martians aren’t much better. Before I began watching Mars Needs Moms, I wondered in my notes if setting the film on a literally unreal plane—yes, we’ve seen photos of Mars, but the imaginative possibilities are boundless—would allow the motion-capture animation’s disquieting effect to be muted. Oh, what a naïve fool I was. Ah, to remember a time when I was so young and gullible. See, the Martians—and there are far more Martian characters than humans—are alien-like and human-like at the same time. They stand upright and have spindly arms and legs. Their faces, though, put me in mind of characters in two films. (As a note, I didn’t get a chance to mention both films on the podcast, as Mike and I spun off into another tangent after the first reference I mentioned.) The first is Katharine Helmond in Brazil, as Sam Lowry’s mother, who gets a form of plastic surgery where her face is stretched out far past the reaches of her head. The second is a female robot in the Flesh Farm from A.I. Artificial Intelligence, who is clearly meant to look slightly off—I only remember her face, which is all that may have been visible in the scene—but still has a elastic quality to her visage. Do you really want to spend 90 minutes with characters who look this creepy?
The unappealing motion-capture extends to the design of Mars, or the parts of Mars we see. The Martians don’t live on the surface primarily, but toil underground in a massive, bland-looking structure whose interiors are full of dark blues, silvers, and whites. In short, this looks a great deal like any futuristic and/or dystopian city or workplace as envisioned by Hollywood. It’s not this film’s fault that many others have mined the same look, as far back as Metropolis. However, as mentioned earlier, the imaginative possibilities of this movie should be limitless. At every turn, though, Wells and the animators seem more than happy to think squarely inside the box. In fact, Milo’s encounters with a fellow human and a friendly Martian seem to be based off a single-trait idea someone had and went with because it sounded kind of cool in the first draft of the script.
Gribble (voiced by Dan Fogler, who sounds and acts like the poor man’s Jack Black), the only other human on Mars, has one defining characteristic: he loves Top Gun. You love Top Gun? No, you don’t. You’re a mere poseur compared to this guy. He lives and breathes the film, relying on its dialogue (which was quite the cultural touchstone, I guess) to drive his manner of speaking. And that’s all there is to Gribble. It could be argued that his childishly selfish nature is further dimension, as is his meant-to-be-tragic backstory, but Gribble is simply a 9-year old kid in an adult’s body. That gag gets old very fast.
The basic idea of Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), the helpful Martian girl, is that she’s rebellious, man. She just wants to open up her fellow Martians’ minds with color, dude. See, she saw a few episodes of a stereotypical 70s sitcom with hippies this one time, and their flower-power van inspired her. You dig? Is that low-temperature enough for you? Who would these single-gag characters appeal to? Kids—well, most kids—probably haven’t seen Top Gun, and hippie jokes may be even further over their heads. Adults would get the references, but getting references and appreciating them are two different things.
Characters, story, design…they just don’t work in Mars Needs Moms. From what Mike mentioned on the show, the book by Berkeley Breathed (of whom I can’t say enough positive things, thanks to his witty and incisive comic strips Bloom County and Outland) is much different in its look and style. Why diverge so wildly from the source material? Well, another major problem with every motion-capture film Zemeckis has directed crops up in Mars Needs Moms: the stories demand to be expanded. The Polar Express, for example, is a sweet, poetic children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. It’s also 30 pages. And it’s not dialogue-heavy. So the film version had to build on the shoestring plot, thus giving us such classic movie moments as Tom Hanks singing and dancing about hot chocolate.
The same happened, to a point, with Disney’s A Christmas Carol, which was based on a novella that’s a full-length film adaptation waiting to be made. Zemeckis, though, had to fiddle with the story and pad the running time. As such, the movie featured an action sequence where Scrooge is shrunken to the size of a bug and has to run away from the Ghost of Christmas Future and my eyes are twitching even thinking about it.
The lesson here is that, sometimes, it’s best to leave well enough alone. Robert Zemeckis has made great films in his career as a director. Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit are lifetime-pass movies. It doesn’t matter what else he directs—he’s made two of the greatest mainstream pieces of entertainment in modern cinema. So he gets a pass, no matter what else he does. However, unlike many lifetime-pass filmmakers, Zemeckis is, for inexplicable reasons, trying very hard to get his lifetime pass revoked. I have hopes for Flight, if only because it returns him to the land of the living. Perhaps that’s the greatest issue with Mars Needs Moms—and even though Zemeckis didn’t direct it, his sensibilities are on display from the word go. The film aspires to be livelier than live-action, hand-drawn animation, and typical computer animation, but fails. Mars Needs Moms, like Pinocchio, desperately craves a soul, and Robert Zemeckis is obsessed with giving his little wooden boy life. Ironically, that obsession is merely sapping the life from his work.