Saccharine planet

Bring your mom to ‘Martian Child,’ she’ll love it.

by Kara Nesvig

Ah, the hokey, heartstring-tugging family drama … a mainstay of holiday-season releases, one that raises the stock of the Kleenex brand and aims to be the proverbial chicken soup for your soul with its PG rating and utter lack of CGI-blockbuster effects. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all. You’ve got the whole story figured out, including the happy ending, in the first five minutes. Well, folks, sorry to burst your bubble, but “Martian Child” is certainly no exception to the rule.

“Martian Child”

DIRECTED BY: Menno Meyjes
STARRING: John Cusack, Bobby Coleman, Joan Cusack
PLAYING AT: Area Theatres

This one stars John Cusack, and, as the title would suggest, an adorable little kid who thinks he’s from Mars. Sure, you say, all little kids play pretend; that’s not weird! But this wayward child is totally convinced he’s a Martian, and during the course of the movie you wonder against your will if he’s in fact telling the truth.

Cusack’s David, a recently widowed science fiction writer, decides to adopt the misunderstood little outcast and voilà, there’s the storyline! Little Dennis is odd enough to be sort of endearing – pre-Cusack, he lives in a cardboard box because he hates the sun, wears sunglasses indoors like a disenchanted hipster, and is never without his handmade “weight belt” just in case a loss of gravity causes him to float away.

But of course David and Dennis encounter a bunch of problems while trying to form a family with interference from pesky writer’s block and child protection agents. The pair gets into some sticky situations, including one involving police rescue helicopters and a precarious rooftop rescue, but in the end that happy ending is a surefire guarantee.

The kid (Bobby Coleman) is totally cute in that awkwardly pale Macaulay Culkin-esque child-star fashion, with a whispery little voice and a bunch of missing teeth that will make him easy to exploit for a few more years until puberty sets in. And it’s not to say he’s terrible (in fact he’s quite good), but John Cusack is 10 thousand times better when he’s starring in a Nick Hornby adaptation like “High Fidelity or an ’80s gem like “Say Anything.” The real fun is watching him interact onscreen with his sister Joan. (The real-life siblings play brother and sister in the film. Tricky!) Plus, the female Cusack is a never-fail supporting addition to any movie. Her no-nonsense presence is welcome when you’re beginning to feel like vomiting from all the syrupy-sweetness you’ve been visually force-fed.

The problem with “Martian Child” is that it tries too hard to rise above its saccharine premise. When it attempts to be quirky and charming instead of schmaltzy and cloying, it lapses into predictability and sentimentality. However, there are a few genuinely cute moments, like a little “Martian dance” Dennis performs with his foster father and the fact that he calls David’s faithful golden retriever “Flomar,” which is apparently Martian-speak for “warm furry friend.” These are “aww”-worthy bits in an ocean of cotton candy fluff. The audience is left squirming uncomfortably in their bucket seats from all the warm fuzzies the movie is trying to evoke instead of being genuinely moved by its content. “Martian Child” tries its best to rise above the stereotypical “lost-little-kid-finds-love” plotlines written eons ago in Hollywoodland, but it doesn’t just doesn’t have the heart to do so.

All in all, from its soundtrack of sappy string arrangements to its pleasant predictability, “Martian Child” is a family-friendly little dramedy probably more enjoyable for your softhearted mother, or maybe in your Netflix queue. It’s not a bad film per se, and it certainly aims to please, but your holiday cheer is definitely better spent with “It’s a Wonderful Life” and a glass or two of egg nog.