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'Mars Needs' help

By Matthew Carey, CNN
The animated film "Mars Needs Moms" did not do nearly as well at the box office as was expected.
The animated film "Mars Needs Moms" did not do nearly as well at the box office as was expected.
  • "Mars Needs Moms" netted less than $20 million after three weekends
  • Analyst says he was shocked because traditionally family films do well at the box office
  • Film features a style of animation known as motion capture
  • Author on whose book the film was based said his offer of input was declined

(CNN) -- "Where did it all go wrong?"

That question may be echoing through the executive suites at Disney -- and through the mind of one of Hollywood's most successful filmmakers -- after the surprising failure of "Mars Needs Moms."

The animated film produced by Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis and released by Walt Disney Pictures cost a reported $175 million to make and market. After three weekends in very wide release the film collected less than $20 million at the box office.

"It has not done well," The Hollywood Reporter's senior film writer Borys Kit said with considerable understatement. "There's a lot of soul searching in Hollywood after 'Mars Needs Moms.'"

The poor reception for the film is "a head-scratcher," according to veteran box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of "I was shocked by that," he said. "Traditionally the family film market is very consistent and family films always seem to find an audience."

Hollywood studios have a strong incentive to figure out where "Mars Needs Moms" went awry, with so much money invested in upcoming animated features including the sequels to "Kung Fu Panda" and "Cars."

Alonso Duralde of points the blame at the style of animation featured in "Mars Needs Moms." It's known as motion capture or "mo cap," a process that involves attaching sensors to actors to capture their movements. Computers transform the data into realistic-looking animation. ("Kung Fu Panda 2" and "Cars 2", by contrast, are completely computer-generated).

Zemeckis has championed motion capture, achieving mixed success with "Polar Express," "Beowulf" and "A Christmas Carol" with Jim Carrey.

"I think Zemeckis' mo cap thing, it's just not there yet," Duralde told CNN. "It's a potentially exciting technology, but he hasn't really licked it yet."

"This could be the death knell for mo cap," said Kit.

Even before the release of "Mars," Disney shut down Zemeckis' motion capture company ImageMovers, reportedly out of concern that the movie going public was not as taken with the technology as Zemeckis.

And Disney scuttled Zemeckis' cherished motion capture project, his planned remake of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine." The filmmaker is now free to shop that project to other studios.

But the style of animation alone may not explain the failure of "Mars Needs Moms." Hollywood studios run the risk of over-saturating the marketplace, Kit said.

"There's a concern of an animation glut," Kit told CNN.

"Mars Needs Moms" was also hurt by stiff competition from two other animated films -- the surprise hits "Gnomeo & Juliet" and "Rango."

"It's not like they had the game all to themselves," Dergarabedian said.

And "Mars" may have stumbled on something that can derail any film: poor storytelling.

"It really does come down to story. Generally that's the most important thing," Dergarabedian said.

"Mars Needs Moms" was based on the well-regarded children's book by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Berkeley Breathed. In an e-mail to CNN, Breathed wrote that he made overtures to the filmmakers during the development phase of the movie.

"Three years ago, I offered to contribute ideas, story and production design to the project," Breathed wrote. "They declined all creative participation at any level, so I wished them well. I feel badly for the filmmakers -- many are friends."

Disney declined comment to CNN for this story, but Chuck Viane, president of distribution for the studio, told the New York Times: "There are a lot of excuses being floated" at Disney for what happened with "Mars."

"Was it the idea? The execution? The timing?" Viane told the Times in quotes a publicist confirmed to CNN were accurate.

But Kit warns of drawing too dramatic a conclusion from the failure of "Mars."

"Animation is still incredibly healthy," he said.

"If you have a live action bomb, does that mean (you make) no more live action movies? Of course not."

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