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Mars Needs Moms 3D: Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Review

Mars Needs Moms (2011) movie poster Mars Needs Moms

Theatrical Release: March 11, 2011 / Running Time: 88 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Simon Wells / Writers: Simon Wells, Wendy Wells (screenplay); Berkeley Breathed (book)

Cast: Seth Green (Milo), Dan Fogler (George "Gribble" Ribble), Joan Cusack (Mom), Elisabeth Harnois (Ki), Mindy Sterling (Supervisor), Kevin Cahoon (Wingnut), Tom Everett Scott (Dad), Seth Dusky (Milo's Voice)

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Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy • Blu-ray + DVD • DVD • Instant Video

Mars Needs Moms might be the biggest bomb in the history of movies. A product of Robert Zemeckis' ImageMovers Digital studio, which The Walt Disney Company bought in 2007 and closed in 2010, this $150 million film became the weakest link in Disney's ongoing tentpole-driven strategy. Taking in $21.4 million in North America and $17.6 M elsewhere, Mars put up numbers comparable to a Winnie the Pooh movie, but as effects-intensive motion capture, it cost about five times as much as one of those humble traditional cartoons.
And it needed the premium prices of 3D and IMAX to earn what it did, putting it among the lowest-performing movies ever treated to those formats. The disastrous reception looked like a pretty clear rejection of the techniques that have mesmerized Oscar-winning director Zemeckis for several years now, beginning with The Polar Express. But ImageMovers will reopen and live on, having recently signed a two-year deal to make live-action and mo-cap movies for Universal Pictures.

Unlike most of the movies that set records for box office futility, Mars did not get ice cold reviews, instead drawing a mixed bag critically, though most assessments spanned from unfavorable to muted approval. I will go further than that in endorsing this, although I can sympathize with moviegoer reservations. After all, it certainly looks big, dumb, spacy and noisy, and its human cast has a certain off-putting quality, common for motion capture that stays close to recorded behaviors and actual appearances (occupying a hypothetical space widely dubbed "uncanny valley"). Still, don't write off the enjoyment I derived from this movie as the result of low expectations; besides Polar Express, I haven't disliked any of Zemeckis' studio's mo-cap efforts (a group that includes Monster House, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol).

Milo (a mix of Seth Green's appearance with Seth Dusky's voice) finds himself aboard a Mars spacecraft following the alien abduction of his mother. Milo gets a warm welcome from George "Gribble" Ribble (Dan Fogler), an Earthling stowaway who seems culturally stuck in the 1980s.

Based on the 2007 children's book by Bloom County cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, Mars Needs Moms hedges on an alien abduction. Milo (performed by Seth Green, voiced by Seth Dusky) is a fairly ordinary young boy, who likes zombie movies, but not broccoli. His mom (both looking and sounding like Joan Cusack) tries to make up for his Dad's (Tom Everett Scott) movie-missing flight delay by promising him a pay-per-view movie if he eats his dinner. Milo does this and cleans his plate, except for the broccoli. He feeds that to the cat, who proceeds to throw it up shortly thereafter. The incident may sound like harmless childhood behavior, but it is enough to provoke maternal discipline and a regrettable but relatable response from Milo. Sad and guilty, he awakens to find Mom being pulled onto an alien spaceship. What's a good son to do but follow her onboard?

The title phrase is thus explained: Martians have been harvesting human mothers for the controlling powers they display over their kids. The aliens shoot a ray at sunrise and a mom's memories are reassigned to nanny-bots, who then keep order in the planet's unorthodox child-rearing arrangement. The specifics aren't too important, aside from the fact that the procedure extinguishes human mothers and Milo has around seven Earth hours to save his. Most of these details are relayed to him by Gribble (Dan Fogler), a rotund, easygoing Earthling who has been stowed away there since the 1980s, a fact he reflects when dated cultural references flow from his often busy mouth (somehow he's also absorbed some more current slang, like "the bomb").

Utilizing the extensive gadgetry at his disposal, Gribble hatches a longshot plan for Milo to recover his Mom before it's too late. Cold, efficient local authorities catch the man, but the boy rescues him, sparking the chase that runs throughout. Naturally, there is a device to translate the alien language for us, as subtitles never do. There is also the sympathetic alien Ki (pronounced "key" and played by Elisabeth Harnois, pronounced "Harnwah"), a conscientious graffiti artist who learned English through some old sitcom and thus speaks like a hippie. Beyond her, there is a race that alternately resembles monkeys and hobos. Cast off by their society, they are the good folks and include Gribble's faithful companion Wingnut (Kevin Cahoon).

Just one of the Martians... Milo tries blending in with the suited authorities. Discovering Earth culture in the form of an old hippie sitcom brings great joy to conscientious alien officer Ki (Elisabeth Harnois).

Mars Needs Moms mixes the heart of a 1980s sci-fi adventure with modern pacing and technology. It is far more endearing and accessible than the marketing glimpses led us to expect. There are those weird dreadlocked locals, some bearing resemblance to an unkempt Whoopi Goldberg. But it's actually a very lean movie, one which doesn't even hit the beats you believe inevitable. For example, the abduction scene runs only slightly longer in the film than it did in trailers. The '50s sci-fi overtone of the title goes unrealized. Even the earthbound opening, which provides the film's entire motivation, passes quickly and with little more than an unseen dinner and a witnessed argument. Perhaps this should have been fleshed out more to raise the stakes for what is to come, but the movie is eager to get to its main course, out-of-this-world adventure.

I think the film's setting, a grim, cluttered, largely unfriendly Mars, probably factored as much as anything into audience aversion. Families like their computer animation familiar with irreverent jokes and puns selling the parallels to our world. You know, something so contentedly middlebrow as Monsters vs. Aliens. Pixar gets away with some heady and daring stuff, but even they can hit resistance; for all the praise adults heaped on WALL•E, the movie had the weakest legs of all the studio's pre-Cars 2 output. Similar to WALL•E, Mars Needs Moms aims for a classical sci-fi feel and there's something nice about that considering that it is directed by Simon Wells.

Mars is a strange and fiery place for a 9-year-old Earth boy in the motion-capture sci-fi adventure "Mars Needs Moms."

That name may be unknown to you, but his great grandfather's likely is not: H.G. Wells. Simon, aged 50, steps back into the director's chair here for the first time since his unloved 2002 adaptation of Great Grandpa's The Time Machine. That live-action job appears to have been a brief diversion
from an animation career of increasingly less responsibility, having moved from co-directing early '90s Universal cartoon films and The Prince of Egypt to doing supporting story work on numerous recent DreamWorks CG comedies.

As director, Wells equips Mars with a good sense of timing and comfort in a grand space canvas. As co-writer with his wife Wendy, some of his ideas get muddled and lose meaning. The whole boy-girl-monkey-robot hierarchy will play as white noise for many viewers, undoubtedly a concept not present in Breathed's 40-page picture book. Still, the movie does more right than wrong, like salvaging what would have been an awkward man-child hero pairing by having an actual child (and not just a child-sized adult) voice Milo. Although the irony is unmistakable that Green, who in recent years has done more as a voice actor than a live actor (on "Family Guy" and his own creation "Robot Chicken"), goes unheard here and receives top billing for what amounts to not that much more than what reference actors essentially did sans credit in the olden days of animation.

Aside from Dusky's earnest voice work, Fogler is the real star of this movie and he fortunately proves to be a lot less annoying in cyber form than he was in the flesh in another of this year's '80s-fixated flops, Take Me Home Tonight. Cusack is good but sparse. As wrinkly villainess Supervisor, Mindy Sterling mostly just croaks lines in an alien language. Meanwhile, Harnois, who you might know as Alice of the Disney Channel's early 1990s "Adventures in Wonderland" series, does a great job with a fun part, but with an alien face and body, she sadly won't get any of the recognition boost she deserves for it.

Mars Needs Moms doesn't ever take an in-your-face approach with regards to 3D, using the more common path of letting you notice different depths. If you were to describe 3D in that way ("things seem to occupy different spaces"), I don't think anyone would have any interest in the format today. And while Mars does impress with its seemingly endless layers of designs, the effect isn't going to be all that different with your 3D glasses fully charged and colors slightly dulled.

Still, Blu-ray 3D is one of four different formats on which you can enjoy the movie in Disney's new Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack. The movie is also available as a single-disc DVD and as a two-disc Blu-ray + DVD combo, but we look at the heavy-duty 4-disc set here, with its hefty $50 list price.

Watch a clip from Mars Needs Moms - "Have you seen my mom?":

Mars Needs Moms: Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray & Blu-ray 3D only: 7.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Portuguese)
DVD only: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish), Dolby Surround (Descriptive Video Service) Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish; BD Only: English, Portuguese
DVD Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled and Captioned
Release Date: August 9, 2011
Four single-sided discs (2 BD-50s, 1 DVD-9 & 1 DVD-5 DVD-ROM)
Suggested Retail Price: $49.99
Thick Blue Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in Blu-ray + DVD ($39.99 SRP), standalone DVD ($29.99 SRP),
and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Mars Needs Moms looks expectedly excellent on Blu-ray. From the direct nature of their transfers, digital animation arrives on disc today with the assumption that everything is as exactly as it should be. There is no reason to doubt that is the case here, as the movie is both dark and vibrant, with its expansive sets delivering much detail. Major strides have been taken since ImageMovers' mo-cap debut, but the medium still has its detractors, particularly when the technique is used more like rotoscoping and less like Avatar's ability to make the imaginary real.

I'm two speakers short of enjoying the disc's 7.1 DTS-HD master audio to its full extent, but even so, the soundtrack proved to be an agreeable powerhouse, loaded with creative sound design and inspired directionality. Offering a good blend of dialogue, music, and effects, the mix ensures no one element drowns out another, remaining dynamic and highly satisfying. Though a decent amount of alien dialogue goes untranslated onscreen, Disney adds Portuguese to its three standard language offerings for subtitles and dubs of everything else.

The DVD here offers its own form of perfection, with less detail and impact than the Blu-ray, but no specific concerns pertaining its 16:9-enhanced 2.40:1 transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound.

This brief, frightening alternate abduction of Milo's Mom represents the only exclusive Blu-ray 3D bonus feature. Seth Green, director Simon Wells, and Dan Fogler provide a loopy introduction to their audio commentary over the Full Motion-Capture Experience.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Always wanting to save a little value for/withhold a little value from higher-paying/lower-paying customers, Disney keeps something exclusive to the Blu-ray 3D disc, although it is less than the "Alternate & Deleted Scenes" the packaging promises.
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In 3D, we get a fully-animated alternate abduction scene (0:37), which probably was considered too frightening for children.

The remaining bonus features can be found on Disc 2, the standard Blu-ray.

The biggest one isn't listed with the others but turns up when you go to play the movie. It is "Life on Mars: The Full Motion-Capture Experience", which allows you to watch the movie while the actors' suited performance plays via a picture-in-picture window. That window is frustratingly tiny, occupying about 1/16th of your television and often getting letterboxed within that. It's as if they want you to see the process, but not at the expense of not seeing the final movie too. And while the largely black on white filmed material doesn't lend itself to extended viewing, you do want a larger, clear view than afforded here (especially since the movie favors medium and long shots). Not all of the actors donned the ridiculous bodysuits; Joan Cusack's parts just play with a canvas over her face atop her character's.

This playback mode can be enjoyed with the actors' original audio (letting us hear Seth Green, as the movie does not), but you'd probably prefer to see it with audio commentary overlaid (this is the only way to get commentary). It is recorded by director/co-writer Simon Wells and actors Seth Green and Dan Fogler, who also provide a goofy 1-minute introduction. That lineup makes for a lively and spirited talk that thankfully doesn't get bogged down in bland technicalities. We get stories about the grueling filming experience, acknowledgement of actors and their other work, and Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions. Green also reveals how well-versed he is in films and their productions. It's a fun listen.

Actress Elisabeth Harnois teaches us an alien language phrase in "Martian 101." Dan Fogler's display of dramatic range here was deleted before even entering the animation stage.

Video extras, all in HD, start with two shorts. "Fun with Seth" (2:28) takes us behind the scenes of the mo-cap filming for some jocularity, mostly from Seth Green. "Martian 101" (2:51) explains to us the development of the alien language through actor collaboration, while dialogue coach Stephen Kearin elaborates on what was established.

The Blu-ray extras conclude with a substantial deleted scenes section, that runs 28½ minutes with introductions by director Simon Wells. The seven cuts are presented either in different stages of animation (sometimes just with actors' faces pasted on characters) or in performance capture, each enough to appreciate as it would have played in the film. Most of these offer variations and extensions to existing bits (including Gribble's emotional revelation), and there's also a good amount of heretofore unseen strenuous (and tedious) action scenes.

Clips from the silly hippie and cop sitcom "Freaks on Our Street" that changes Ki's life are included as a Blu-ray Easter egg. On DVD (seen here), Blu-ray, and Blu-ray 3D, the main menu screen is set at Gribble's high-tech computing station.

Finally, an appropriate Easter egg is found fairly easily. It is the complete, full-sized clips (0:51) of "Freaks on Our Street", the invented 1960s American TV show that serves as Ki's introduction to Earth culture.

As far as things listed as bonus features but certain not to be considered such by the general public,
we get Disney's standard promos for Blu-ray 3D (4:23; starring The Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa) and digital copies (1:04), plus the always useless legal disclaimers identified as "Info."

The DVD found here and sold on its own contains just those measly two shorts, "Fun with Seth" and "Martian 101", plus the Blu-ray 3D and digital copy promos. It's appalling for the deleted scenes, audio commentary, and Easter egg to be left off, when none of those should have posed compression concerns. Before Blu-ray, such items were standard inclusions and their suppression from the majority of consumers seems rash.

Disc 4 offers nothing more than digital copies, two in Windows Media format and one in iTunes. A movie like this will lose so much in small screen viewing, but if you're okay with that, knock yourself out here. It is sort of odd that if you want this feature you'll have to spring for the $50 SRP superset (or skip the discs and rely on a more affordable iTunes or Amazon download).

Four discs are enough to merit a wider Blu-ray case, which holds the Blu-rays on a swinging tray and places the DVDs on opposite covers. Two booklets promote Blu-ray 3D, combo packs, and Disney Movie Rewards, the latter with the code for unlocking the digital copy. Naturally, the set is a topped by an embossed cardboard slipcover, which repeats the artwork below it.

Both the Blu-ray and FastPlay-enhanced DVD open with trailers for Prom, The Lion King: Diamond Edition, and Winnie the Pooh. The menu's "Sneak Peeks" listing repeats those, then plays ads for Disney Movie Rewards, Broadway's The Lion King musical (random...), "Phineas and Ferb" on Disney XD, Spooky Buddies: The Curse of the Howlloween Hound, African Cats, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Mars Needs Moms' own trailer is glaringly absent and a missed opportunity to celebrate ineffective marketing. The Blu-ray 3D's only promotion is a 3D-enhanced Cars 2 trailer.

The menu takes us inside the film's central locale, settling on a montage-displaying computer screen resembling Grimble's comfy setup. The disc does not support adding bookmarks, and though it remembers where you left off playing the movie, you'll still annoyingly have to skip all the pre-menu stuff if you stop in the middle.

Gribble (Dan Fogler) and Milo (Seth Green/Dusky) are caught in a moment of friendship in a sparkly emerald cave of Mars.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

You expect a movie as disastrously under-attended as Mars Needs Moms to be wretched, so it's genuinely surprising to discover that not only is it not so bad, it even has more going for it than most of the year's highest-grossing animated films. This fast-moving space adventure is much better than it looks and even if you're not crazy about it visually, chances are you'll enjoy the way it tells its story.

On Blu-ray and DVD, picture and sound are as flawless as they can be in 2011. The DVD's pitiful two bonus features will leave much to be desired for that format's audience, while the Blu-ray's picture-in-picture commentary, deleted scenes, and Easter egg go a ways to meet expectations on that format. The replay value here seems comparable to other ImageMovers mo-cap films and that is enough to consider a purchase, but reactions to this are so varied that you'd be wise to start with a rental and wait for a price drop.

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Related Reviews:
New: The Fox and the Hound & The Fox and the Hound 2 (Blu-ray + DVD) • The Incredibles (Blu-ray + DVD)
ImageMovers Digital: A Christmas Carol • Beowulf | Motion Capture Animation: Avatar
Animated Sci-Fi: Planet 51 • WALL•E • Treasure Planet • Meet the Robinsons • Lilo & Stitch
2011 Animated Movies: Rio • Rango • Gnomeo & Juliet • Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil
2011 Bombs: Dylan Dog: Dead of Night • Take Me Home Tonight • Season of the Witch
Mars & Aliens: Roving Mars • Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrowland • District 9 • Galaxy Quest • Flight of the Navigator
Elisabeth Harnois: One Magic Christmas | Dan Fogler: Balls of Fury | Joan Cusack: Toy Story 2 | Seth Green: Old Dogs

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Reviewed August 13, 2011.



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