Mars Needs Moms Composed by John Powell
Disney Records (2011)
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“MARS NEEDS MOMS may
be a victim of POWELL's own success. It faced inordinately high
expectations AND a challenge to combine dark and quirky content that
maybe only DANNY ELFMAN could have pulled off, on a good day.
Mars Needs Happy Music
Review by Helen San
Inspired by a 40-paged children's book by Pulitzer-winning Berkeley Breathed
(Bloom County), the title, "Mars Needs Moms" is a twist on a 60's, B-sci-fi,
made-for-TV, if-it-had-more-cheese-it'd-be-a-cow-of-a movie called "Mars Needs
Women." Breathed wrote the book after his 4 year old son Milo proclaimed, "I
wish I never had a mother!" Of course, as soon as he said that, he should have
known he'd be taught a lesson on how valuable mothers are. The kicker is that
lesson comes with a giant, humongous Kleenex box. Breathed summarized the
emotional core of his story thus: "There'll be one woman in your life that will
unhesitatingly die for you. Love her. And it's not your %$#@ girlfriend."
After the nine year old protagonist, named uh, Milo, hurts his mother's
feelings, he finds that Martians have abducted her to steal her "momness" for
programming their nannybots. He hitches a ride on a Martian spaceship to save
her from certain death in an elaborate, eye-candy of an adventure. In the end,
he learns his tearful lesson on how much his mom loves him, and how much he
loves her back. One movie reviewer used the term "tear whoring,"
2 which conveys just how many tears are involved.
Directed by animation veteran Simon Wells (BALTO, PRINCE OF EGYPT) and produced
by Robert Zemeckis' digital studio ImageMovers (THE POLAR EXPRESS, MONSTER
HOUSE, A CHRISTMAS CAROL), MARS NEEDS MOMS had a $150 million budget and
involved some of the top names in animated features. It is no wonder, then, they
got JOHN POWELL (BOLT, ICE AGE 2 & 3, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON), Go-To-Composer
of Animation Goodness, onboard.
His first score after HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (HTTYD), MARS NEEDS MOMS was
greeted eagerly by fans such as myself. It's hard to follow up on a 10/10
though. He'd raised the bar for himself now, and "proficiently crafted" isn't
going to cut it anymore. We got high on the Dragon, and we want to fly again. It
really is unfair to the composer, if you think about it. We're spoiled.
MARS NEEDS MOMS is a very proficiently crafted score. It has a well-defined main
theme, rich orchestration, impeccable timing, recognizable flavors. We should
love it, but something is missing. It doesn't connect to the heart like HTTYD.
It feels like a DEBNEY comedy or KENT romance or RABIN action. It's good, solid.
It's exactly what we would expect from the genre. But it's not particularly
inspired. There are too few surprises and glimpses of POWELL'S brilliance. I
remember a composer once told me in an interview that if he only knew what made
one score a hit, and the other score not, he would score a hit every single
time. We listeners don't even know what that x-factor is. We just know our
hearts leap when we hear it--and when something competently manufactured doesn't
Another factor at play here may be the subject matter. First, to depict the
outer-worldly nature of the story, there is more dissonance and unusual
electronica than is usually found in an animation score. This dissonance,
however brief, lends a dark and quirky tone to the music. On top of that,
POWELL, truth be told, seems to be somewhat susceptible to the weight of grief.
Cartoon sadness is one thing. But real trauma, the tragic kind found in adult
action films such as FACE OFF, the BOURNE series, or the trauma of a child
losing (or almost losing) his mother, brings out a stressful, mournful side that
seeps into even very beautiful melodies. So what you have here is a lively,
animated action score subtly infused with tension and genuine unease. Perhaps
this discomfort simply mirrors the ambivalence in the movie itself, but it
detracts from total "listenability" of the score.
The main theme is a dramatic, heroic cue heard anywhere from full fanfare at the
beginning of Enjoy the Ride (3) to solo piano in Gribble's Loss (7). POWELL does
a good job of threading the theme throughout the entire score, but in most
places, it is not especially noteworthy. Mars Needs Moms (Credits Suite) (13)
probably has the best full orchestral version.
Most of the tracks are quite appropriate for the plot. You can hear the sneaking
or escaping or planning or spaceship riding. But they rest only a notch above
highly skillful background music. Exceptions are Mars Needs Moms (3) and Firing
Squad (8). Mars Needs Moms (3) nails the essence of both the eeriness of
Martians and the romance of Moms (okay, I got a soft spot for POWELL's
glockenspiels). Firing Squad (8), which, despite everything I said about
dissonance and darkness, pulls itself together very nicely in a way that fails
I am also going to contradict what I just said about POWELL being weighed by
grief. Gribble's Loss (7) is a supremely beautiful piano cue communicating grief
exquisitely. Whatever Gribble lost, you really hurt for him. In fact, my two
favorite tracks on this album are dramatic and heartbreaking: Gribble's Loss (7)
and The Sacrifice (10). In these cues, the cartoon is gone, the action is gone;
it is all heart. POWELL takes you out of the medium and immerses you in the
story and characters. All you hear is the universal sound of love and sacrifice.
So what's the difference? Why are these two openly sad cues not too depressing
or uneasy to listen to? I think because they are uncluttered, in large part, by
"plot music," there is no awkwardness between melancholy and commotion. The full
focus is on feeling what the character feels. And because it is a movie for kids
after all, there is an undercurrent of hope that makes the emotion, however
sorrowful at the time, more powerful than despairing.
The album ends with Martian Mambo (14), which is a animal-and-monkey-noise
chorus similar to Sid's Sing-a-long in ICE AGE 2: THE MELTDOWN, except less
melodic. It was a good decision to place it at the end.
In summary, MARS NEEDS MOMS may be a victim of POWELL's own success. It faced
inordinately high expectations AND a challenge to combine dark and quirky
content that maybe only DANNY ELFMAN could have pulled off, on a good day. That
POWELL was able to accomplish a technically adept score with these challenges is
impressive in its own right.