After making its way through a nearly 80-year cycle in development hell (Disney originally planned on it being their first animated film before “Snow White”), Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter” stories have finally made it to the big-screen, courtesy of Pixar director Andrew Stanton and Disney. Stanton certainly should not be discouraged from working on live-action again, although his transition from animation to flesh-and-blood actors is not nearly as smooth as the one his Pixar colleague Brad Bird went through with the latest “Mission: Impossible.”
While searching for a cave of gold, Confederate Civil War veteran John Carter is pulled into a portal that transports him to Mars, which is not portrayed as the planet that modern audiences are accustomed to. The air is breathable, ice mountains are nowhere to be seen and there are two human empires battling for control of the planet while the Thark race (who are essentially Martians) sits back and watches. Since Carter’s body is used to Earth’s gravity, his strength is intensified and he is helpfully able to jump to incredible heights. Eventually his quest to return home and the war become tangled and Carter finds himself on the side of a princess trying to protect her home.
Despite a tendency to choke on its abundance of exposition, I never found myself bored with “John Carter.” The steady stream of light humor, appealing actors and large-scale action scenes was enough to keep me interested and involved. Where Stanton and the films writers trip up is how to condense so many events, characters and terms into a 130-minute running time.
A lot of the science fiction jargon (such as how the people of Mars actually call it Barsoom) adds flavor to the story, but it soon becomes overwhelming when characters start dropping names and titles with reckless abandon. Because of this, the plot often feels both overdeveloped and underdeveloped at the same time. There’s a lot of detail and explanation to go through, and Stanton isn’t able to fluidly lay everything out within only two hours.
What Stanton absolutely nails though is a tone of amazement and adventure. There are many moments of almost Spielberg-esque awe where I couldn’t help but admire the spectacle and sense of scale in the world Burroughs created. The massive action sequences are refreshingly clean and well staged, and the choice of blue blood for the Barsoom inhabitants allows for a surprising amount of hard violence within PG-13 boundaries. One blood-pumping sequence where Carter takes on a whole army in a fit of emotional rage was the standout battle, and his faithful dog creature shows that he’s not just useless comic relief.
Carter’s roughneck personality fits perfectly with the type of story being told here, and while Taylor Kitsch doesn’t completely command the screen against his costars, he makes for a decent matinee-style hero that is at the very least charismatic and easy to root for. Lynn Collins and Willem Dafoe are the best of the supporting crew here, playing the princess Dejah Thoris and alien Tars Tarkas respectively. In fact, Dejah is arguably the most compelling character in the film, as the gorgeous Collins deftly portrays the strong side of her personality while at the same time revealing the vulnerability underneath.
These protagonists get plenty of screen time together, which unfortunately doesn’t bode well for Dominic West and Mark Strong as the villains. West sneers his way through scenes and hams it up too much, while Strong’s mysterious character only feels like a convenient plot device until his motivations finally come to light near the end. One actor who I’m glad was barely in the film was Daryl Sabara (a.k.a. Juni from “Spy Kids”) as an in-story version of Burroughs, who was easily the weakest and most wooden actor of the bunch.
In the face of all the prerelease opposition, “John Carter” turned out to be a perfectly satisfying sci-fi yarn. The talks of it being a bomb and a failure are ridiculous, as the film has enough blockbuster entertainment value to please all audiences despite its flaws. The only thing really holding it back is the familiarity of the story, as the “John Carter” books originated many of the basic tropes and archetypes for nearly all fantasy and science fiction stories of the last century. But even on that level, I was able to disconnect myself from all those that have cribbed from “John Carter” since its creation and enjoy the movie version on its own terms.
2.5/4 Rating Criteria