Mars Needs Moms is the final film made by ImageMovers, the animation studio founded by Robert Zemeckis in 1997. The company aimed to revolutionize motion-capture filmmaking, and they did break some ground. But thanks to many of their creations — the ghoulish elves of The Polar Express, the rubbery Angelina Jolie of Beowulf, Jim Carrey’s horrific moving mannequin of a Scrooge in A Christmas Carol — they will be best remembered for hosting the creepiest trip through the valley of not-quite-human CGI.
Up until now, the animation of ImageMovers has been used in remakes of classics, so there was a small hope that Mars Needs Moms — a relatively original script based on a Berkeley Breathed book — would deliver a fresher story and more refined animation. And the basic story sounds fun enough: Mars is ruled by an evil despot who believes Martian kids are best raised by robots trained with human parenting skills. So Martians decide to abduct a real human mother. The mother’s son, Milo (voiced by Seth Green), hitchhikes a ride on the alien rocket ship, makes a wild-and-crazy friend, Gribble (Dan Fogler), and attempts to rescue his mom.
But the execution — the writing, the graphics, the aliens (taller versions of E.T). — is deeply predictable, as is the performance-capture animation. It’s clearly executed with a higher pixel count than, say, The Polar Express, with Milo and Gribble getting the most care. But the mother (voiced by Joan Cusack) is terrifying — a stiff, rubbery creature who walks as if she has steel rods embedded in each limb. (Toy Story’s Barbie looks more real.) ImageMovers never learned from its best and most stylized film, Monster House, which succeeded largely because it didn’t chase after impossible levels of human realism. And since this is the company’s swan song, it looks like it never will. The humans of Mars Needs Moms are just recognizable enough to freak you out: With a mother like that, who needs aliens?