Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part XVII: Why couldn't we have just done a feature-length Bloom County cartoon instead?


How can so many people go so mad all at one time, and decide to make something like this?

Directed by Simon Wells
Written by Wendy Wells and Simon Wells (based on the book by Berkeley Breathed)
With Seth Green/Seth Dusky (Milo), Joan Cusack (Mom), Dan Fogler (Gribble), Elisabeth Harnois (Ki), and Mindy Sterling (The Supervisor)

Spoiler alert: moderate

If one ignores the infamy, it is still possible to enter Mars Needs Moms with a sense of cautious optimism.  First, it was only produced, and not directed, by Robert Zemeckis, who had spent the past seven years demonstrating his clumsy touch with full-animated features; instead it was directed by Simon Wells, who had collaborated with Zemeckis before, and had amazed in his own right thirteen years previously, with The Prince of Egypt.  (Perhaps I should have recalled that Wells was only one of three directors on that film.  But the point is, he helped direct Prince of Egypt, and I'm not entirely willing to throw him under the bus and assert that he's the one who came up with all the bad ideas, just because his subsequent career has not exactly paid off on that film's promise.)  Anyway, and even more tantalizingly, it was based on a book by Berkeley Breathed, whose status as the greatest comic strip writer-artist of all time is only in dispute because Bill Waterson also exists.  (And maybe I had no right to be excited about this, either, given that I've never actually read Breathed's version.)

But I did ignore the infamy, and I focused on the positive.  And guess what?  Going into Mars Needs Moms with a sense of cautious optimism wasn't remotely warranted.  It honestly is just about as bad as everyone says.

Shall I count the ways?  It is replete with character design so terrible that it seems impossible that it ever made its way into production in the first place, considering the number of sign-offs any animated film needs before the first frame is even rendered.  It's like the watchword was "thigh gap such as God has never seen," and so we wind up with a Martian race that crosses a standard alien gray with a horse—not to mention some noticeable seasoning from The Phantom freaking Menace.   Meanwhile, it is replete with background design that, while never exactly bad, only ever manages to be good by plagiarizing everything from WALL-E to The Empire Strikes Back to Avatar to 1984—although in the latter case, only indirectly, because what it's directly plagiarizing is Ridley Scott's Apple commercial, which ripped off 1984.  (Oddly, it barely even gestures in the direction of any of the mid-century science fiction from which it draws its nominal inspiration.)  Furthermore, it's saddled with a pretty ineffective lead performance, bifurcated between Seth Green, as the mo-cap actor, and Seth Dusky, as the voice performer, which results in the exact kind of cobbled-together acting that mo-cap notionally exists to prevent.  On top of this, it features all of the problems that pundits insist are inherent to any kind of mo-cap animation, being in some ways the most uncanny-looking cartoon that Robert Zemeckis ever put his name on; that is, it's arguably a step backwards from The Polar Express, and you can take that as you will.

Finally, Mars Needs Moms is very nearly radioactive in its insistence upon being a brazenly-retrograde love letter to the nuclear family—which perhaps doesn't sound too bad, until you watch the damned thing, and discover that its definition of a healthy nuclear family is at once so psychotically narrow that it ought to offend virtually every human being born after 1959, yet is also so sloppily-applied within its allegorical sci-fi context that it winds up being frustrating, irrespective of its dubious message, even on its most basic plot-mechanical terms.

Before going further, let me answer the question you may or may not be asking: if Zemeckis didn't direct this film, what is it doing here, in a Zemeckis retrospective?  Well, that's easy, my friend: Mars Needs Moms was the second film produced by Zemeckis' ImageMovers Digital animation studio—and the last.  Indeed, it flopped so hard upon release that it didn't just destroy ImageMovers Digital; it also represented the final end of Zemeckis' crusade to remake American filmmaking in his own motion-captured image.  Once upon a time, Zemeckis had sworn that he would never make another live-action film.  In 2011, he was working with Disney to do a mo-cap remake of Yellow Submarine.  (Truly, it looked like there really was no end to Zemeckis' hubris.)

And, by late 2012, he'd released Flight, the first live-action film he'd directed in twelve long years.  And a good one, at that.

So, whatever the influence the head of the studio had upon the final form of Simon Wells' film—though I do indeed suspect his influence was pretty substantial—Mars Needs Moms is still one of the most important films in Zemeckis' career.  Now, on one hand, I really am a little sad that Zemeckis' mo-cap revolution failed to produce so much as a single very good movie (let alone a movie up to Zemeckis' usual standards); hell, maybe I'd have even liked to have seen just what kind of outrageous nightmare he might have made out of Yellow Submarine.  But on the other hand, it's not like he didn't have his chance—and perhaps we even owe Wells a solid, for serving as the hammer that finally smashed Zemeckis' dreams, and sent him back to reality.

But there is a movie here, beneath all the invective, so let's meet Milo, a tween bastard whose relationship with his mom has lately grown strained, thanks to his reluctance to do his chores, eat his vegetables, or be the slightest bit well-behaved.  He's a pretty average kid, when you think about it, which is why it's all the stranger that his mother's average childrearing earns her the attention of Martian kidnappers, who steal the woman in order to use her maternal instincts to program the nanny-bots they use to raise their children in lieu of parents.  This process will kill her, of course.  The film treats this fact as a reveal, yet I can't imagine even the smallest child not getting ahead of this "twist"—in much the same way that I doubt that any kid above the age of breathing could fail to predict that Milo's ally on Mars, a human cast away named Gribble, is an orphan of the exact same process.

I'm jumping ahead a bit there, but of course Milo manages to steal a ride on the Martian vessel as it spirits his mom away.  I mean, otherwise there's no movie.  Maybe that would be preferable, but here we are.

Milo's quest is simple enough: it's like the filial Labyrinth for morons.  But the shortest distance between two points in Mars Needs Moms is apparently a zig-zagging mess, since it is well over an hour before the kid manages to develop a workable plan to even get close to rescuing his mom.  In the meantime, he has adventures with Gribble, and makes the acquaintance of Ki, a member of the Martian elite who doubles as a anti-establishment propagandist on the side.  (And, naturally, Ki arrived at her anti-authoritarian streak not from first principles, but from her perusal of human television broadcasts—because this is a lazy science fiction film and that trope, as tired as it might be, certainly wasn't about to go unused.  Obviously, it would have been a lot better if it had—since despite a familiarity with Earth culture deep enough that she can speak English, she has to ask Milo what a fucking mother is, since apparently the rare concept of "parentage" never came up in her research.)

It is through Ki that the film builds exactly as much of its world as it needs to in order to get across its basic ideological point, and no more.  So, adding yet another item to the list of things the film rips off, we have the famously bad Star Trek episode "Spock's Brain," which (amongst other things, like the theft of Spock's brain) posited an alien society where males and females had stopped talking to each other, and each gender regressed into idiocy.  Somehow, "Spock's Brain" actually makes the more even-handed argument.  But Mars, it turns out, is much like the planet of the Morg and Eymorg: the technocratic top echelon of society is run by the wizened old matriarch, the Supervisor, and populated solely by her fellow women; and the males were long ago cast into the garbage heaps of Mars' lowest (yet surprisingly well-lit) subterranean levels.  This is the case even though they do still conceive children—children who pop right out of the ground, but children all the same, the products of sexual reproduction.  Beyond obviously, the mechanics of all this shall remain totally unexplored in this kid's cartoon; and yet the film outright demands you start asking a lot of incredibly gross questions about extraterrestrial biology that it's clearly never going to answer.

So do the women lay eggs?  Do the men come around and jerk off on them?  And why does this movie insist on making me think about these creatures' disgusting sprays of milt?

Even leaving the logistics aside, it is the kind of speculative premise that demands much more detail than a 90 minute animated feature is likely to provide, and especially this 90 minute animated feature, which never goes further than ham-handedly revealing the historical fact that the men and women of Mars used to live together—presumably, before the women became career-oriented bitch queens—and things were good.

Citations are needed all over the place here, and things wind up even more muddled when it turns out that the males actually are genetically predisposed toward stupidity and sloth.  So what in the world are we supposed to get out of this?  And why should an egg-laying species map at all upon a society of placental mammals like us?  I know that these are questions that only an idiot could ask aloud.  But they come to you while you're watching this movie, and (after all) this film does a very fine job at making an idiot out of its viewer.

I will concede that the general tenor of Milo's adventuring is not abjectly terrible in itself; Wells avoids Zemeckian excess.  Mars Needs Moms even has a few faintly redeeming factors, notably Dan Fogler's performance as Gribble, which is solid in a way that not another soul manages throughout the whole film, maybe because his character is the best animated of the bunch, or perhaps simply because his unfortunate manchild has a pretty good excuse for his annoying demeanor.  (Of course, even Fogler gets undercut at every opportunity, blithely failing to misunderstand any of Milo's awful pop culture gags, even when he couldn't possibly comprehend the stupid references we occasionally find the kid making.  Meanwhile, the romance that blossoms in the film's third act is something we all could've lived without.)  Anyway, I should probably mention John Powell's score, which pleads with you to be excited and mystified, riffing on everything from theremin music to the theme to Unsolved Mysteries.  But I did enjoy it, even if it's hardly on the same level as his masterpiece, the score for How to Train Your Dragon.

Mars Needs Moms is just so weird and off-putting—it is, I'd say, almost deliberately off-putting—that it is insane to consider that it was funded to the tune of a hundred fifty million dollars.  That money is not visible on the screen, I assure you, and it's the kind of movie where to look at it for any length of time is to be baffled and saddened and perhaps even kind of frightened by the people who run Hollywood, who sometimes seem to have no idea what "entertainment" even is.  So, despite my natural inclination to sympathize with a man whom I still consider to be one of the great filmmakers of any age, I just can't feel too bad for him—not if this was the kind of thing that Robert Zemeckis thought would keep his dream alive.

Score:  3/10

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