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Mars Needs Moms by John Powell

Mars Needs Moms

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Mars Needs Moms (Soundtrack) by John Powell
Mars Needs Moms (Poster and Memorabilia)

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Mars Needs Moms (Soundtrack) by John Powell

Mars Needs Moms
Composed by John Powell
Disney Records (2011)

Rating: 7/10

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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." 1

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 have it.

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 all analysis.

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.

Rating: 7/10


1 - The Washington Post
2 - Screen Junkies


Track Title Track Time  Rating
1 Mars Observers 3:28  ***
2 Abduction and Trashworld 4:50  ***
3 Enjoy the Ride 1:36  ***
4 Mars Needs Moms 2:11  ****
5 Gribble's Plan 1:23  ***
6 Milo Escapes 3:49  ***
7 Gribble's Loss 3:18  *****
8 Firing Squad 5:06  ****
9 To the Surface 6:38  ***
10 The Sacrifice 3:25  *****
11 Transformation 3:48  ***
12 Family Reunion 2:59  ***
13 Mars Needs Moms (Credits Suite) 3:46  ****
14 Martian Mambo 3:09  **
  Total Running Time (approx) 49 minutes  


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