By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com
The Real Problem with Mars Needs Moms
And as is often the case, David has some interesting and astute points to make about the journalism (or lack thereof) in this piece of writing for The Paper of Record and the business side of who did what to whom and who’s taking the heat for the failure of this film. And there’s lots to pick apart there, lots of business angles to analyze and quotes to dissect, and if you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of the business analysis of Mars Needs Moms, you should go read it.
From the viewpoint of someone who’s both a critic and a mom of a pack of kids in the target demographic, though, I’m more interested in taking another look at why Mars Needs Mom failed (and it clearly has failed most epically) to connect with kids — and the parents they have to cajole, harass or otherwise convince to take them to see a movie at the theater. Because Mars Needs Moms, for all that it no doubt feels terribly personal to Robert Zemeckis in particular and Disney more generally, is, for me as a parent, just another in a sting of mediocre-to-lousy family films that studios churn out year after year.
As parents, my husband and I are just not inclined, ever, to pay the 3-D upcharge to take out kids to a movie, unless there is a very compelling reason to do so. Honestly, we’re not even very likely to go see a family film opening weekend at all, unless it’s something we’ve been eagerly awaiting for months and we feel genuinely excited about seeing it FIRST! And it’s my completely unscientific opinion based solely on anecdotal data (read: talking to people who have kids, and reading emails I get from other parents) and not on exit surveys or preview screenings or any of that crap, that my husband and I are not alone in this.
The economy still sucks, y’all. I know it’s challenging for studio heads living in big mansions in Hollywood to wrap their minds around the budget of the average American family in the heartland, so let this Oklahoma girl transplanted to Seattle lay it out real straight for you folks: For most of us who live in the real world, taking our kids out to see a movie is not something we do lightly just because Hollywood has decided to release yet another kiddie flick that may or may not be any good, regardless of how many millions you throw into marketing it at our kids.
For instance, this past weekend, we finally got around to seeing Tangled, which I thought was okay but not great. We waited until now to see it because it’s finally playing at the $3 per ticket discount theater, which happens to be part of the Landmark Theater chain. So instead of paying $8.50-10 a ticket to see it earlier, we paid a fraction of that cost and then splurged on a large popcorn and large drink for two kids to share, when we hardly ever buy snacks if we’re paying full cost for the tickets. We did not, however, even consider shelling out even $3 a ticket to take them to see Yogi Bear, which thankfully they never expressed much interest in seeing anyhow.
More often, we hold off until the films the kids are interested in seeing are out on PPV, when we can shell out $4.99 once for our whole pack of kids and whatever friends are sleeping over to see it at home on our big screen. We lower the cost-per-kid to a reasonable fifty cents per kid or so doing it that way, and I can pop as much popcorn as they can eat. If they’re real lucky and the budget is looking particularly robust, AND our favorite pizza chain has some good coupons, we might order pizza in, too, and really make a big night of it.
I don’t think our family is alone in having to cut corners these days — even date nights out on the town are rare right now for us. I bet your family has cut corners too, and further, I bet that, like us, many of you are more inclined to spend your “let’s go see a movie in the theater for a change” money on a date night without the kids than on the latest bit of kiddie fluff. And I’d bet also that a good many of you who did not take the kids to see Mars Needs Moms last weekend were influenced, at least in part, by the flood of negative reviews about it.
Because while it’s true that there are certain properties like the Twilight films that tend to be unaffected by what critics think, a good many of the parents in my fairly large social circle actually do wait to hear what critics and other parents are saying before deciding whether their kids “need” to see a particular kiddie flick in theaters. I would posit that Rango has been boosted, in part, as much by positive critical response and strong word-of-mouth off opening weekend as it was by Johnny Depp’s attachment to the film.
On the other hand, I would also posit that negative critical response to Mars Needs Moms contributed to the drubbing it took opening weekend. Out in the real world, eople really do check Rotten Tomatoes to see “what they’re saying” about this or that film in making decisions around how to spend the limited family entertainment budget. When the wallet’s a bit looser, people maybe will take a chance on what looks to be a dicey kid flick, but when budgets are stretched thin, I think a lot of families, like ours, tend to be a lot more discerning. We are far from the only family making those choices
Which brings us to the dual problems (from my very-much-outside-Hollywood perspective) at the center of Mars Needs Moms: A $175 million budget (!) and a focus on nifty technology at the expense of story.
Let’s start with that budget again. Let me just write that out for you: $175. Million. Dollars. That number includes the cost of marketing, but still — yikes. I think Roger Corman, master of cheap movie making, would concur with me when I say that is just an obscene amount of money to spend on a movie. Any movie. But for sure it’s a ton of money to spend on a family movie unless it’s the latest Harry Potter film and you’re pretty damn sure that gamble is going to pay off for you hugely.
I think it’s hard for the average person to wrap their head around a number like $175 million and understand why or how a studio would green-light spending that much money on a film like Mars Needs Moms.
Was Mars Needs Moms a better movie because so much money was poured into the motion-capture technology? I would argue that not only is it not a better movie, it’s a worse movie because so much energy went into the HOW instead of the “Why do we care about this story and these characters” bit.
As I wrote in my review of this film, there are some serious issues with the storytelling. It feels like way too many people were throwing ideas into the pot. There are at least four separate story threads competing for audience attention here, and none of them are developed well enough to be particularly compelling.
The Berkeley Breathed book on which the script is (loosely) based is about a kid who doesn’t appreciate his mom, and then she’s taken by Martians. Bummer storyline to begin with, right? More of an adult idea, really — as is the case with most of Breathed’s work. But if you’re going to adapt a book like this, which is more purely conceptual and visual in nature, you need to flesh out the characters a lot more to make your audience of kids care about them. In Mars Needs Moms, that never happens.
Milo’s mom is voiced by the talented Joan Cusack, who of course has made Toy Story‘s Jessie one of the most memorable characters in one of the most successful properties in history. In Mars Needs Moms, her character spends most of the movie unconscious — which you have to think maybe made it a little more challenging for Cusack to lend her expertise to the developement of the character. The kid, Milo, just isn’t that interesting — he’s kind of a mouthy brat, actually — and he has to basically carry the film. They other characters tossed into the mix, particularly Gribble and Ki and this whole side story about Mars as a femme-dominated dictatorship — yaaaaaaawn –what kid is going to find that whole bit really interesting?
The difference between the Toy Story movies and Mars Needs Moms is that the Toy Story franchise started with compelling characters and built a story for them around universal themes that both kids and adults could relate to. Miraculously, the franchise sustained this not just for one but TWO sequels, with the third, arguably, being the best of the bunch. Its an astonishing success story, really, that every studio churning out kiddie flicks should pay close attention to.
Mars Needs Moms, on the other hand, feels like it started with “Let’s do a motion-capture film! Because that’s cool, right?” and then looked for a story to adapt to the technology, and then compounded that basic mistake by attempting to just keep throwing crap into the mix in the hopes that something, anything, would stick. And it didn’t. It just doesn’t work, on any level.
Mars Needs Moms will, I suspect, be held up for years to come as a blisteringly painful example of how NOT to make a film targeted at kids. I don’t enjoy slamming a film just for the fun of it, or because it’s enjoyable to see how many different ways you can say, “Wow, this movie sucked.” I feel bad for everyone involved with this film who’s now having to sit back and take heat over dissecting how and why it failed.
And maybe it’s easier to see in retrospect the whys and wherefores of Mars Needs Mom failing so spectacularly, but you have to think that there are enough smart people working at Disney that someone with the power to put the brakes on could have stopped it — or at least fixed it — before it imploded in a $175 million ball of failure.
Quesion is, will “they” learn from the mistakes made here and not make them again? Survey says … probably not.