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MOVIE REVIEW

Mars Needs Moms

‘Mars’ needs more of Mom

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By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / March 11, 2011

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In Berkeley Breathed’s kitschily titled 2007 children’s book “Mars Needs Moms!,’’ a mother’s absence-via-alien-abduction makes her attitudinal little boy’s heart grow fonder, all right — to pretty touching effect. The 3-D animated feature version from director Simon Wells and producer Robert Zemeckis loses the exclamation mark and conveys the same feeling at points, but more often just frenetically roves the Red Planet, much like Zemeckis filling out “The Polar Express.’’

Seth Green (“Austin Powers,’’ “Family Guy’’) does the CG performance-capture thing as Milo, a likably smart-alecky 9-year-old who gives his continually tested mom (Joan Cusack) as much grief as he gets — over chores, broccoli, and the age-appropriateness of zombie flicks. (You’ll wonder, naturally, what sort of techno-deviltry the filmmakers worked on Green’s voice to transform him from professional man-boy to just plain boy; according to production notes, they enlisted kid actor Seth Dusky to imitate Green’s delivery line for line.) After Milo ends one of their arguments with words he immediately, guiltily, regrets, he creeps down the hall to apologize, only to see his zonked-out mother being whisked away by — ack! — aliens.

The audience knows that these E.T.-Mr. Tumnus mashups have been remotely surveilling mother and son all along, but why? The answers come once Milo stows away for the quick wormhole hop back to Mars, and promptly lands in the company of Gribble (Dan Fogler, “Balls of Fury’’), a porky, slacker-age earthdude lying low amid the Martians’ mountainous trash heaps. It’s no big spoiler to note that Gribble long ago stumbled down the same abductee path as Milo — Fogler’s show-stealing, trapped-in-the-’80s ramblings about “Top Gun’’ and Cabbage Patch dolls kind of give it away. Suffice it to say he’s had plenty of time to learn how the nurture-challenged aliens periodically glom the psyche of a maternally gifted human to program their fleet of nannybots.

Cue Milo’s visually busy scramble to stop his mom’s impending brain drain, with help from Gribble and Ki (Elisabeth Harnois), a Martian on a permanent flower-power high, thanks to vintage-TV broadcasts. Some of the 3-D imagery is dazzling, like a pivotal scene in which a character’s oxygen helmet shatters, in slow motion, into countless glittery crystalline droplets. But mostly we get pleasantly routine aesthetics from Wells, whose resume includes second-tier animation like “Prince of Egypt’’ and a live-action 2002 adaptation of his great-grandfather H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine.’’ (You wonder what gramps would have made of the animators burying their Martian society underground — well reasoned or uninspired? — although this does set up an amusing early gag about what the Rover program might be overlooking.)

Meanwhile, the Zemeckis crew’s character design sensibility continues to be an iffy creative proposition. Watching “Mars,’’ you’ll likely get a kick out of how clearly the aliens’ bitchily Orwellian leader captures the mannerisms of actress Mindy Sterling, best known as the iron matron from “Austin Powers.’’ But several years and a few movies on from “Polar Express,’’ that infamous dead-eyed creepiness remains an issue for regular-folk characters. Maybe it’s time to rethink the house style.

Of course, we’d probably focus less on any of this if Wells and company more fully embraced what’s best about their movie: that emotionally vital, if sometimes snippy, mother-kid bond. It doesn’t matter much how naturalistic Milo’s mom looks when you’re already feeling genuinely moved by the tears welling up in her eyes. But the whole time Green’s character is running around, Cusack’s is hardly around at all. “Mars’’ needs Mom more than the filmmakers seem to realize.

Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.

MARS NEEDS MOMS

Directed by: Simon Wells

Written by: Wells and Wendy Wells, based on the book

by Berkeley Breathed

Starring: Seth Green, Dan Fogler, Joan Cusack,

Elisabeth Harnois,

and Mindy Sterling

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX in Reading and Natick

Running time: 88 minutes

Rated: PG (sci-fi action

and peril)

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