Mars Needs Moms, Simon Wells, 88 min (PG)
Rio, Carlos Saldanha, 92 mins (U)
Tomorrow, When the War Began, Stuart Beattie, 104 mins (12A)

Well done, Disney: you scared the kids

One of the two 3D cartoons released this week, Mars Needs Moms, employs the performance-capture technology pioneered by its producer, Robert Zemeckis, on The Polar Express and Beowulf.

In the United States, the film has been such a flop that Disney has pulled the plug on any further projects using the same technique, but that's a classic example of Hollywood missing the point. If Mars Needs Moms bombed, it's not because of the performance capture, but because the film is upsetting enough to have small viewers begging to go home.

Its hero is a nine-year-old boy whose mother is kidnapped by aliens, the leader of whom looks like ET in a dress. The boy, Milo, makes it to Mars to rescue her, but while he's there he risks disintegration and asphyxiation, with no one to help him but a babbling, deceitful, corpulent weirdo named Gribble. If that sounds dark, the story's metaphorical darkness is matched by the real thing. Mars Needs Moms may be set on the Red Planet, but the baddies' headquarters is glacially grey, and Gribble's hideout is a rusty brown. Children used to the kaleidoscopic cartoons of Pixar and Sony won't be happy.

As a grown-up, I enjoyed Mars Needs Moms, at least until its over-plotted final stretch. At times, there's a Spielbergish air of spine-tingling awe, and at times it's like Star Wars remade by Terry Gilliam. But, like the recent Rango, it's probably not for children. And if the film has hit Disney's bank balance, the company deserves everything it gets for the egregious scene in which Milo realises how important his mother is to him. "My mom is kind," he mewls. "She takes me to Disneyland."

Rio – a harmless, vibrantly colourful cartoon – is a safer bet for families. Jesse Eisenberg voices a nerdy macaw who lives in comfortable captivity in Minnesota. An ornithologist persuades his owner to bring him to Brazil, where he can mate with the only other surviving bird of his species (voiced by Anne Hathaway). But a run-in with smugglers leaves the parrots with their claws chained together, out in the streets of Rio de Janeiro during (of course) the carnival.

There's nothing in Rio that will upset young viewers, and plenty that will entertain them, but the script isn't great: for much of the film the heroes and their numerous sidekicks are, effectively, on a sightseeing tour of the city. It's a shame that the seven screenwriters couldn't have cleared out some of the extraneous characters to make room for the underused villain, a sadistic cockatoo voiced by Jemaine Clement. If he'd had more screen time, audiences would have flocked.

In Tomorrow, When the War Began, eight Australian teenagers resort to guerrilla warfare when their home town is invaded by an unspecified, South-east Asian army. Some critics, naturally, have cried racism, but that's unfair to Stuart Beattie's film, which is adapted from a young-adult novel by John Marsden. The teens themselves are scrupulously multiracial, and there's little of the air-punching triumphalism you might expect. Instead, the nuanced characters do lots of sitting down and debating whether they have the right to kill the enemy infantry.

It's unusually intelligent for an action movie – which is not to say that it lacks the requisite car chases and massive explosions. Its only problem is that, like so many films based on the first in a series of books, it's obviously intended as the first in a series of movies, so there's no attempt at a satisfying ending. Still, in this case a sequel would be welcome.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber goes on holiday with Marion Cotillard and friends in Little White Lies, from the director of Tell No One

Also Showing: 10/04/2011

The Roommate (91 mins, 15)

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the writer of Single White Female should be tickled pink by this vacuous remake, but everyone else will be bored to tears. It establishes the creepiness of the heroine's new roommate in the opening minutes...and then it keeps re-establishing that creepiness for an hour before she poses any kind of threat.

The Silent House (86 mins, 15)

A young woman stays in a boarded-up country cottage with her father, and soon starts hearing things that go bump in the night. This Uruguayan chiller was apparently shot in a single, unbroken take, so it earns points for originality. But I spent a lot more time admiring the technical achievement than I did being frightened.

Rubber (78 mins, 15)

Postmodern horror comedy about a sentient car tyre rolling through the desert making people explode with its psychic powers. It might have worked as a 15-minute short film.

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