It appears that Earth doesn't need Mars Needs Moms, the Disney movie that (barely) opened last week. The $175-million, 3-D animated film, about a nine-year-old boy (Seth Green) who must rescue his mom (Joan Cusack) from the Martians, earned just $6.5-million at the domestic box office last weekend. Earning only a couple of million more in limited foreign release, it may be on its way to becoming one of the biggest flops in movie history. Certainly, it's the first big-budget animated film to seriously flop. Who even heard that much about Mars Needs Moms before this news broke?
That may have been part of the problem. All indications are that the current Disney regime didn't exactly have its heart in this project. A year ago, after seeing footage of the film, the studios' recently appointed head, Rich Ross, closed down ImageMovers Digital, the Disney motion-capture animation division run by Robert Zemeckis, one of the producers of Mars Needs Moms. Two months ago, Disney shut down Zemeckis's next film, Yellow Submarine, a 3-D remake of the Beatles 1968 film of the same name.
The implications may be large, not only as a first crack in the mighty 3-D animation series of hits, but also about which direction the medium will go. Is Mars Needs Moms really that awful? I haven't seen it, but reviews have been mostly middling though nowhere as bad as, say, last year's big flop, The Last Airbender. There are enough positives to decorate any ad: Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum giving it a rave, calling it "visually magnificent" and Boxoffice Magazine called it "the perfect family film in every way."
Perhaps more telling are the phrases like "subversive" and "potentially unsettling." The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips, in a negative review, said it "wasn't quite human and it wasn't quite animated." In other words, it feels kind of creepy, which in Disney's current wholesome-again regime, doesn't fit the aesthetic.
This is sad for Zemeckis, who has been a pioneering missionary in the field of digital film development, with such films as Back to the Future, Forrest Gump and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. He believes that actors are still essential to the 3-D animation process and in interviews has insisted that Mars Needs Moms is current state-of-the-art, ahead of what Avatar achieved. He may well be right but the problem is, how much verisimilitude do people want?
There's a theory in robotics called the Uncanny Valley, a term invented by the roboticist Masahiro Mori. The hypothesis is that, when images are more human-like we find them more appealing until we reach a certain almost-human threshold: At that point, they creep us out. Dolls and stuffed bears are cute; prosthetic limbs and animatronic characters like Jar-Jar Binks, not so much. There are several theories why this may be so, including our mating instincts or warning systems of possible disease. A difference between a familiar appearance and an unexpected movement is also particularly disturbing: Think Regan's head doing a 360-degree spin in The Exorcist, or the not-quite-right shambolic shuffle of zombie armies.
Movie artists such as James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton dance quite nimbly on the edge of the Uncanny Valley, slipping back and forth between the endearing and the hair-raising. Spielberg will use motion-capture technology on his next big film, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, due out in December. And, of course, Cameron will continue the process on the next two Avatar films.
The key here seems to be "age-appropriateness." When we're old enough, we enjoy the tension of both wanting to believe and refusing to believe. For younger kids, who may still be holding play dates with imaginary friends, the ambiguity may be too threatening. From a movie-marketing point of view, the lesson should be obvious: Aim a creepy movie at an audience that's too young and you will end up like Mars Needs Moms, throwing millions of dollars away into that uncanny valley.