Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mars Needs Moms

MPAA (PG) CNS/USCCB (A-I) Michael Phillips (1 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb Listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Michael Philips' review -

Continuing in the emerging tradition in the genre of feature-length modern animated films, Mars Needs Moms, is a surprising picture geared at least as much (or more) to adults as to young children. Indeed leaving the theater, I asked a mom with two small kids if her children even understood the movie. She answered that, yes, they appeared to enjoy the goofy antics of some of the characters. But she agreed that this movie was directed more to adults than to kids. Other recent animated pictures that I’d put this in this category include Up, Wall-E and Toy Story 3, not surprisingly all three of which were alluded to in the current movie.

All well and good, but what does Mars Needs Moms try to say? Here it gets interesting. It comes across as a surprising anti-feminist parable that would compare actually quite well to George Orwell’s  famous anti-Communist barnyard fable Animal Farm only arguably smoother / less stilted in its presentation than even Orwell was.

Mars Needs Moms is inspired by a picture book by the same name by Berkeley Breathed (creator of the famed Bloom County cartoon comic strip). The movie was produced by Robert Zemeckis and directed/co-written by Simon Wells (grandson of H.G. Wells), co-written also by Simon Wells’ wife Wendy Wells. Both Robert Zemeckis and Simon Wells have been involved in critical and box office hits as well as relative flops. Among their successes have been Back to the Future (directed by Zemeckis), Back to the Future II/III (directed by Zemeckis, contributed to by Simon Wells), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (directed by Zemeckis, animation supervised by Simon Wells), Forrest Gump (directed by Zemeckis for which he won an Oscar), Polar Express (directed by Zemeckis, digital visual work contributed to by Simon Wells), An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (directed by Simon Wells) and Kung Fu Panda (sequence supervision by Simon Wells). I list all these credits because it is difficult to discern from them an ideological bent at all for any of the three of these men (Breathed, Zemeckis or Simon Wells) much less a clearly right-wing one. So I do believe that their parable here was sincere, made without an axe to grind. And besides, Joan Cusack, a well-respected and dare one say, beloved, comic actress played the mom in this story and plays her role in a clearly sympathetic way.

Then there have been animated films such as Happy Feet that had some "heavy handed messaging" oriented "toward the left" regarding diversity and the environment that did not produce great public outcry. I find _nothing wrong_ with Happy Feet's messaging, especially since I agree with it.  But if anything, the messaging is smoother (and frankly funnier ;-) in Mars Needs Moms than in Happy Feet, et al. Yet, one gets the sense that Mars Needs Moms is getting somewhat black-balled. Why?

Well, let’s then get into the plot. Milo (Seth Green) a kid gets annoyed by his mom’s (Joan Cusack) nagging about taking out the garbage, eating his broccoli, not going to bed when he’s supposed to and finally tells her "My life would be better without you." She tears up and he goes to sleep. Milo wakes up a few hours later to see a spaceship in the back yard and his mother being abducted by aliens (Martians it turns out). Boy does he feel guilty! He tries to catch-up to his mom, but it is too late. He grabs onto the landing gear just as the rocket takes off. The landing-gear retracts bringing him inside (into the landing-gear bay).

The rocket flies through a worm hole and a few seconds later, there he is, on Mars. The Martians, dressed in stainless steel but looking a lot like Star Wars’ storm troopers take mom way to presumably to some lab and arrest Milo throwing him into jail. Milo manages to get himself out his cell. Suddenly there’s a voice of someone telling him to escape by jumping through a chute (a la Star Wars IV again) and he finds himself on top of a vast pile of garbage (like in Wall-E). He encounters strange hairy beings there but the voice again directs him elsewhere. He finally comes to a cabin where a "lost" late 20-30 something "boy" named Gribble (Dan Fogler) lives. He too had watched his mother abducted 20 some years back and managed to get himself on the ship only to see what the Martians did to his mother. And since then he’s been living in the garbage dump along with the strange hairy beings playing video games and ‘making do.’).

What happened to Gribble’s mom and threatens to happen to Milo's? Well Mars had been taken over by the female Martians who proved much more responsible and industrious than their male counterparts. So male and female martians would be separated at birth (they actually hatch). The boys would be thrown away into the garbage dump (who grew up to be those strange hairy but also strangely happy "tribal" creatures that Milo met in the garbage dump, while the girls would be raised by "nanny-bots." The adult female Martians were too busy being "responsible" (keeping everything spotless, clean and perfect) to bother with either child birth or child care. Indeed, the inside of the female Martian compound looked a lot like the inside of the Star Wars IV "Death Star" – vast, largely empty and seemingly made entirely of shiny stainless steel.  The task of raising the female children was left to the "nanny-bots."

Now how were the "nanny-bots" programmed? Well, the female Martians would periodically send spaceships to Earth to abduct Earth moms who the female Martians noted were particularly good at disciplining their kids. After bringing the Earth moms to mars, their disciplinary skills would then "downloaded" from the their minds to the nanny-bots so that the nanny-bots would keep the martian girls disciplined and in order. And most were.

But there was apparently a "tagger" who Milo and Gribble meet as they try to rescue Milo’s mom. The "tagger’s" name is Ki (Elizabeth Harnios) a relatively young female Martian who had worked in the Mars’ information control (censorship) bureau, who had gotten hold of a captured transmission of a 1960s "Laugh-in" like show from Earth and was fascinated by the color of the "flower children" there. So ever since, she had been spray painting "color" all over the walls of the female "deathstar" compound to the consternation of the older/stern "queen bees." Ki becomes a kindred spirit to Milo and Gribble and helps save Milo’s mother. In the process, Ki finds a _cave painting_ showing a grown Martian male and female holding a Martian child. She realizes that Martians too used to be raised in families and that Mars used to have much more color.

The story ends with Milo and Gribble saving Milo’s mother. Ki in the mean time brings the cave/garbage dump dwelling Martian males up to the surface and along with the younger female Martians stages a coup. The "supervisor" (Mindy Sterling) even looking like a "queen bee" in this animated picture gets upset saying to the ungrateful younger females "I did all this for you!" But to no avail. The males, as dumpy and impractical as they are add color to the females' lives and all "live happily ever after."

Wow. No wonder many people would be appalled and one gets a sense that this movie’s getting chloroformed, even though the stunningly expensive $150 million production price-tag (the movie was using the "performance capture" technique that Zemeckis had made famous with Polar Express and Beowulf) doesn’t help.  The performance capture technique is actually quite cool to watch and during the closing credits, the film-makers show how they made some of the key scenes in the picture.  It is quite amazing, though clearly expensive!
But like a Court Jester in Medieval European courts of old (or at least in _storybook_ Medieval European courts of old) the movie raises an uncomfortable question concerning gender relations today: While it is acknowledged almost everywhere that women are probably more efficient and more responsible than men (in Bangladesh, women tend to get "microloans" while men do not, and _all of us_ see this in the Catholic Church where the girl altar servers are almost always so much more responsible than the boys), maybe that male "goofiness" as opposed to female "hyper-responsibility" is _not_ such a bad thing. It can add color and humor to a world that could otherwise end-up being cold, efficient and steel.

I know that a good number of women could throw-up their hands and respond: "The _reason_ why we tend to be ‘hyper-responsible’ is because we have be _perfect_ to be considered _reasonably good_ in a male dominated world."

I get that. But I also know that women often compare themselves to a relatively small set of "alpha-males" as opposed to a much larger set of "less-than alpha males" who are a lot like those "hairy males in the trash" who actually have made a life of it not needing to be "number one" but enjoying "drinking beer," "going fishing," and "playing video games." They may have more to offer, be more human, and be more fun than the "iron fisted men" who still dominate ALL OF US from their perches at "Goldman Sachs," etc. Did that point need to be made for $150 million? I don’t know, but I’m kinda glad that the point was raised.

Finally, I'd find it interesting to find out what John Grey, PhD (author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) and famed Franciscan male spirituality guru Fr.Richard Rohr, OFM would think of this surprising, highly provocative film ;-).

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