For a technology intended to make animated humans look more real, motion-capture animation sure hasn't been used to tell stories that are more human. When Robert Zemeckis pioneered the idea for a feature-length motion-capture film in The Polar Express in 2004, plenty of critics picked on the creepy-looking characters. But even as Zemeckis fine-tuned the technology for Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, the narratives themselves remained remote and uninvolving.
For Mars Needs Moms, producer Zemeckis turns over the directing chair to Simon Wells (Prince of Egypt), but everything feels very much according to the Zemeckis game plan. Like Polar Express, it's a feature expanded from a simple, quirky picture book, this one by cartoonist Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County). In the film adaptation, a 9-year-old boy named Milo (voiced by Seth Robert Dusky) pushes his rebellion to the point where he tells his mother (Joan Cusack) that he wishes he didn't even have a mom.
Naturally, his wish nearly comes true: Mom is abducted by Martians, seeking a responsible Earth parent whose emotions will help program the robots that tend to Martian infants. He manages to stow away on the ship back to Mars, where he discovers another human, Gribble (Dan Fogler), who was marooned years earlier and may be Milo's only help in saving Mom.
The Mars that Milo discovers has a social structure with potentially fascinating details. Living entirely below the planet's surface, the Martians have become a matriarchy with a Brave New World-like approach to raising "hatchlings." The females are separated from the males by the society's female Supervisor (Mindy Sterling) in part because - dig this twist - the males are too huggy and emotional to allow the important functions of society to proceed efficiently.
Were things always this way? What events forced the Martians into such an arrangement? Wells, Zemeckis and company are only vaguely interested in the answers. This is a movie targeted at kids, after all, so it needs to keep moving, and keep centered on Milo's quest to save his mother.
Along the way Milo will naturally come to appreciate his mother, mostly thanks to his interaction with also-motherless Gribble. Gribble is a genuinely fun and well-conceived character - a ramped-up version of the stereotypical post-adolescent nerd. His relationship with Milo could have been something with a unique tension: a kid looking for a parent, dealing with an adult looking for a buddy.
But that's also a level of storytelling intricacy beyond anything Mars Needs Moms is prepared to explore. So instead we get plenty of elaborate designs: the massive junk heap that's home for Gribble and the discarded Martian males; primitive ruins decorated in fluorescent graffiti; sterile hallways giving way to massive chambers. It's all terribly cool in an "isn't this awesome in 3-D" sort of way, yet the film feels even less genuinely engaging than a now-conventional computer-animated story.
And that's the fundamental frustration with Mars Needs Moms: As much potential as it has to give its storytelling some depth, no one involved here seems willing to put in the time. Motion-capture technology may be advancing, but the movies won't take the next step until there's just as much creative energy devoted to the characters.