Mars Needs Moms is an awesome display of computer animation molded to a standard Disney story template. The soppy moralizing about families and the sanctity of the mother-son bond would be far more difficult to take were it not in the service of some awe-inspiring 3-D work that offers a richly textured, luxuriously detailed vision of life on Mars.

I’m no great fan of the artificial incorporation of the third dimension, but Disney’s animators have used here it to produce a veritable theme park ride rendition of a Mars featuring enormous ships, complex technological apparatuses and cavernous loading docks given a sleek, space-age sheen. Director Simon Wells’ stylistic vision might best be described as steam-punk mixed with Kubrick, far more complex and immersive than anything this side of Pixar.

It keeps you engaged in the picture even as the slight narrative, which Wells (an accomplished director of animated fare and the great-grandson of H.G.) crafted with his wife Wendy, based on the book by Berkeley Breathed, falls apart. The motion-capture filmed story is rife with awkward sentimentality as adolescent Milo (Seth Green; yes, the Seth Green) learns to love and appreciate mom (Joan Cusack) after she’s abducted by Martians.

Milo hitches a ride on the spaceship carrying his mother to the Red Planet. There, he stumbles upon lone human colonist Gribble (Dan Fogler) and daring Martian graffiti artist Ki (Elisabeth Harnois). The unconventional pair aids our young hero in his improbable quest to pry mommy from the hands of the eager aliens, who have sought her out because they face the ultimate of crises: A mother shortage of their own.

Expect little thematic nuance and lots of pat preaching about the sanctity of the family unit. The film even imparts a not-so-subtle plea for healthy dining: Milo’s extraterrestrial ordeal is preceded by a fight over consuming dreaded broccoli. It’s a scary prospect: Feed the veggies to the cat, spout off to mom and spend the evening fighting aliens on Mars. Only a reunion tempered with son’s renewed appreciation for all things motherly spurs a resolution to the monumental crisis.

Yet, the safe and conservative heart of Mars Needs Moms belies the enormity of its science-fiction vision and the sheer, almost-hallucinogenic scope of the visual world Wells and his team have created. That schema dwarfs the milquetoast narrative, renders the characters all-but obsolete (save for Fogler’s overweight slapstick shtick-imbued nerd Gribble, who registers) and transforms the picture into what’s effectively a full length, animated version of one of those science museum sound-and-light shows, with suspenseful chase scenes thrown in.

The best way to approach Mars Needs Moms, then, is to abide by the ancient cliché: Turn off your brain, open your eyes, sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

The Upside: The computer animation is terrific; the film’s vision of Mars awe-inspiring.

The Downside: The story, as reflected in the sloppy title, is full of sloppy sentimentality.

On the Side: 3-D prices are obscene, IMAX 3D prices even more so, but if there’s any recent film that’s maybe, conceivably been worth the investment, this is it.

Grade: B


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