My Favorite Martian (1999)
Written by Sherri Stoner & Deanna Oliver
Directed by Donald Petrie
When I decided to do this first round of Television to Movies, I wanted to do at least one movie where I had little to no knowledge of the source material. My Favorite Martian is one of those shows. I was vaguely aware of the premise without knowing much detail, so the film was a reasonably fresh experience for me. That said, I could key in on specific elements being carryovers from the series because they were presented in a way that the audience was meant to see them as important. I also picked this movie because its two leads, Jeff Daniels & Christopher Lloyd, are pretty good actors, and so they might be able to elevate what could otherwise be a lame script.
Tim O’Hara (Daniels) gets fired from his news production job after humiliating the boss’s daughter and his girlfriend Brace (Elizabeth Hurley) during her coverage of the Mars probe launch. His assistant Lizzie (Daryl Hannah) consoles Tim and hints at her crush on him. While driving home that night, Tim witnesses an object fall from the sky. It’s revealed to be an alien ship, and Tim believes this will be the story that makes him legit. Unfortunately, by the time he returns with Brace, the vessel has been shrunk to the size of a toy, and she thinks he made it all up. Taking the ship home, Tim unknowingly brings a Martian (Lloyd) into the place who returns to standard size and introduces himself. It will take time to repair his ship, so the Martian takes the name of Uncle Martin and pretends to be family to Tim. There’s also an animated talking spacesuit called Zoot (voiced by Wayne Knight) and a scientist desperate to prove intelligent life exists in space (Wallace Shawn).
My Favorite Martian is not the worst television adaptation, but it’s your middle-of-the-road 1990s family comedy. Because of the cast, it feels just a hair more elevated even though these actors are doing some ridiculous slapstick. It is hilarious to see Wallace Shawn in movies like this, knowing he wrote My Dinner With Andre. He’s a versatile actor who seems willing to do less serious things because acting is his job. I think audiences often forget; we see all actors as artists when it is a job for most of them. You have to feed your family and pay your bills, so sometimes you take work you aren’t super-excited about because you have to. My Favorite Martian is one of those jobs that won’t ruin your career, but you aren’t winning any awards either.
The biggest problem with the picture is the lackluster script. It feels bland & aimless, retreading tropes seen in other movies like The Coneheads or any fish-out-of-water comedy. Lloyd as Uncle Martin is charming, and the character is not what I expected. Going into the film, I thought he would be a dim-witted weirdo type; instead, Martin is an arrogant dumb guy, which is always funnier. He sees himself as above these primitive humans but eventually succumbs to the indulgences available on Earth. For example, he’s never had ice cream and loses his mind over it. Daniels is affable and not doing badly; he just doesn’t have an extremely interesting character to play. Lloyd is the pillar of the film, though, playing the role with all his might.
On the annoying end of things is Zoot, the talking space suit. A carryover from the original series is that Uncle Martin can extend a pair of tv-like antennae from his head to showcase his powers from invisibility to mind-reading to telekinesis and more, whatever would have been needed on that week’s episode. The suit is an invention of the film and is one of the most ‘90s things to have ever been ‘90s-ed. I was immediately reminded of parodies of this sort of thing like the Poochie episode of The Simpsons or other Disney films this was clearly ripping off, like Flubber. Zoot is very obviously the idea of some brain-dead studio executive giving notes on how to make a movie that will connect with the kids. What he thought would work was a sassy-talking space suit with a lot of attitude. It does not work, and I wanted this suit to die so bad as soon as they were introduced.
This is not a movie I would really recommend to anyone beyond just satisfying curiosity. It’s the most generic Disney pablum that was coming out at the time. It’s a more fascinating mediocrity to watch than the hyped-up fare Disney currently releases under its many brands. While the formula has been perfected, it seems, I find an era where a very cheap, mediocre, flawed movie could get released in theaters far more interesting than what we have today.