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Mars Needs Moms

Most kids have said it. It's a child's atom bomb, dropped without any thought of the consequences because… well, he's a kid and will forget about it in the morning. It's that dreaded phrase: "I wish I didn't have a mom."

Nobody really means it, and when young Milo (Seth Green) says it to his mother (Joan Cusack), he's just old enough to feel guilty about it. But when he gets out of bed to go and apologize, he discovers that aliens are dragging her through the air and into their spaceship. Why? Because Mars Needs Moms.

Based on the children's book by Berkeley Breathed, this latest effort from Robert Zemeckis' Image Movers continues the legacy of motion-capture being fun, but a little bit creepy. Part of that is from telling a story that combines cheesy 50's sci fi paranoia with a surprising bit of logic. Mars Needs Moms is an alien invasion story made personal and immediate, on a level that might hit the younger ones a little too close to home.

Why does Mars need to kidnap Milo's mother so urgently? Because they reproduce on a twenty-five year cycle, in which the babies hatch out of the ground. The male babies are unceremoniously dumped – literally into a dump – because they're too touchy feely for this sterile matriarchy. The females need discipline, and the Martians need to program their Nannybots with the mothering skills that have died out among their race.

If you detect a strange skewing of gender politics and a sly commentary on how many bad parents are out there, don't let that get in the way of a good story. And Mars Needs Moms does tell a good story, going where it needs to go, even when it's a little dark.

Human mothers, you see, don't survive the skill transference. So Milo, having stowed away on the ship that kidnapped his mother, has less than eight hours to free her from the Martian device before solar winds obliterate her.

He's not without allies. First he gets freed from the Martians by the portly Gribble (Dan Fogler), a boisterous human who has conveniently cracked a lot of the Martian technology and provides Milo with most of the exposition. Of course, there's a reason Gribble knows so much, and it's a testament to the movie's effectiveness that even though you know it's coming, the revelation still has tremendous power.

Gribble has cobbled together a robot pet named Two-Kat, perfect for selling in toy stores. He's also tried to befriend one of the Martian males, nicknaming him Wingnut (Kevin Cahoon) but not making much headway in civilizing him. Not that Gribble's idea of civilization would gibe with anyone else's; it's pretty much what you would expect if a kid from the 80s had been left on his own with cool technology for a while.

Within the Martian society is one other rebel. Someone keeps painting bright explosions of color over the relatively monochrome architecture, and thus Milo will find he has a woman on the inside in his quest. Ki (Eizabeth Harnois) has only one real flaw – poor taste in sitcoms. Otherwise, she's bright, bubbly and brave, everything a kid needs to keep things moving.

Directed by Simon Wells (whose great-grandfather understood a thing or two about Martian invasions), Mars Needs Moms does keep things moving. Wells isn't bad at reining in Fogler, a funny actor specializing in manchildren, and this time his character even has a reason for being so. Most effectively, Wells knows how to vary the pace so that the movie isn't exhausting. It stops for reflection from time to time, but never for too long.

The movie does step into the so-called Uncanny Valley, where characters look just real enough to be disturbing. Gribble looks just like Fogler, and in hindsight, Milo does look like a young Green. But no child actor could have captured the right physicality required to do it live-action, and shifting to the humanoid but still very alien Martians would have been more jarring to do a combination with CG.

But that's not as important as the real heart behind it. Mars Needs Moms is a true quality family film, and one that as a family you'll want to have conversations about, more than letting it remind you that your son needs to take out the trash.

Derek McCaw

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