In some other world, 'Mars Needs Moms' would have settled for being just a family-friendly intergalactic adventure, a sprightly adaptation of Berkeley Breathed's 40-page children's book rendered well in 3D. Instead, Simon Wells' take on the material is an odd duck: part anti-feminist, anti-authoritarian screed, part insufferable culture-clash comedy, and part suitable space shenanigans that are nonetheless stranded in the uncanny valley thanks to producer Robert Zemeckis' insistence on employing motion-capture animation for his every post-'Polar Express' project.
Milo ("played" by Seth Green, voiced by Seth Dursky) is fed up with his mother (Joan Cusack) and her pleas for him to eat his broccoli and take out the trash and go right to bed after forcing the cat to eat said broccoli behind her back. But once aliens abduct Mom, Milo stows away and finds himself exploring a subterranean Martian base, assisted by Earth ex-pat Gribble (Dan Fogler) and alien rebel Ki (Elisabeth Harnois) in his mission to save Mom from a fairly convoluted scheme to extract her disciplinary characteristics.
As a purely technical exercise, 'Moms' boasts remarkably immersive environments and well-rendered textures, par for the course from the ImageMovers crew. Alas, all these pixels are in service of eerie character design for the humans and Martians alike. The motion-capture technology best employed in something like 'Avatar' remains cold and dead-eyed in service of 'The Polar Express,' 'A Christmas Carol' and this. Worse yet, many of the alien creations seem modeled on uncomfortable stereotypes of race -- the villain, known as the Supervisor (Mindy Sterling), looks like Joan Rivers without make-up and sounds like an older Asian woman, while the cast-away dads of their species wear dreadlocks and dance in a tribal fashion.
And then there's the matter of Gribble. The effortlessly obnoxious Fogler is certainly not asked to scale things back here, playing his second child of the '80s in as many weeks (after 'Take Me Home Tonight'). He plays a character who can seemingly hack an entire compound, and yet can't manage to get himself back home to Earth over the course of two decades, and his banter consists of exchanging era-appropriate slang with the '70s-steeped Ki, who herself has an aggravating fixation on Flower Power and the like.
Of course, that's not even to mention the nigh-traumatizing flashback in which we discover precisely what fate Gribble's mom faced and Milo's mom faces. It's only one of many wrong-headed calls in a cartoon that treats firing squads and hugging parties with equally low gravity. 'Mars Needs Moms' may look good, and it does, but its definition of fun (and funny) is -- in the worst sense -- out of this world.