Disney is known for its blockbuster hits, but not every movie can be a success. In 2011, the studio released Mars Needs Moms, a motion-capture animated film that cost $150 million to produce but earned only $6.9 million in its debut at the domestic box office.
The film was one of the worst box office flops in history and could result in a huge write-off for Disney. It was also the final nail in the coffin for Robert Zemeckis’ ImageMovers Digital, the company behind other motion-capture films such as The Polar Express and Beowulf.
So what went wrong with Mars Needs Moms? The film faced several challenges, such as the unappealing motion-capture technology, the problematic title that alienated boys, and the scary premise of a mom being kidnapped by aliens.
The film was based on a children’s book by Berkeley Breathed, who also wrote Bloom County and Opus. It tells the story of Milo, a boy who has to rescue his mother from Martians who want to use her parenting skills to raise their own offspring.
The film was directed by Simon Wells, the great-grandson of H.G. Wells, and starred Seth Green as Milo and Joan Cusack as his mom. Zemeckis produced the film using his signature motion-capture technique, which involves actors wearing suits with sensors that capture their movements and expressions.
However, many critics and audiences found the motion-capture animation to be creepy and unnatural. A box office observer said: “The movie [Mars] looked downright creepy.” The film also failed to impress with its 3D effects, which were supposed to enhance the visual spectacle.
Another problem was the title of the film, which suggested that it was aimed at girls rather than boys. A studio executive joked: “The title shouldn’t have been Mars Needs Moms, but Boys Need Not Come.” The film also had to compete with other family-friendly movies such as Rango and Gnomeo & Juliet.
Finally, the film had a dark and disturbing plot that involved a mother being abducted by aliens and nearly killed. The film also showed Martians harvesting brains from their elders and disposing of their males. Some parents felt that the film was too scary and violent for young children.
Chuck Viane, Disney president of worldwide distribution, said: “The right audience came, but not in the numbers we needed.” He added: “I’m disappointed for the filmmakers. They spent at least two years of their lives making a terrific movie that people won’t see.”
A veteran studio distribution chief said: “How do you throw a party and no one comes? This is outright rejection.”
Zemeckis, however, defended his film and said: “I’m proud of the movie. It didn’t find its audience. That happens sometimes. No one’s to blame.”
Mars Needs Moms is not the only motion-capture film that has bombed at the box office. Other examples include The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, and The Adventures of Tintin. Some analysts have suggested that motion-capture is a niche genre that does not appeal to mainstream audiences.
However, some motion-capture films have been successful, such as Avatar, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Planet of the Apes series. These films have used motion-capture to create realistic and immersive worlds and characters that resonate with viewers.
Mars Needs Moms may have been a disaster for Disney and Zemeckis, but it also serves as a cautionary tale for Hollywood. It shows that even with a big budget, a star-studded cast, and a cutting-edge technology, a movie can still fail if it does not connect with its audience.