Yet another Pixar director makes his live action debut with John Carter, Disney’s dip into the Edgar Rice Burroughs universe. The 2012 film comes directed by Andrew Stanton and is a big budget monster, but its underperformance at the box office made it a bit of a stumble for Disney. It was originally planned to be the first in a trilogy, although that plan seems to be on hold due to its “poor performance.”
As a film, John Carter is actually pretty fun. It’s an old-fashioned space opera, with notes of Star Wars tossed in for good measure. In that it is an adaptation of a pulp novel, its tone and light approach is spot-on. Burroughs’ vision of Barsoom, a sort of “dying Mars,” comes to life with impressive effects and big slices of gleefully embraced clichés.
Our narrative starts on Earth with John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) having apparently died. His nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) has been summoned to Carter’s impressive estate and given his uncle’s journal to read. In it, he discovers a tale that illuminates Carter’s past and reveals a story of Barsoom, a magical medallion, glorious cities, and a particularly spicy princess (Lynn Collins).
We learn that Carter was arrested in the Apache territory by Union Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston), but a strange chase leads to a confrontation with a Thern and an eventual transportation to Mars. Carter on Mars is gifted with amazing feats of strength and a tremendous jumping ability, capturing the attention of green Martians and their king (Willem Dafoe). This leads to the revelation of war and a princess in peril. John Carter must decide who, if anyone, to help.
The story is somewhat complicated at parts and could’ve been simplified, but it’s a neat ride overall. The different species on Mars make for some interesting material that could’ve been expanded on, with the Thern’s and their past history of false religious beliefs proving an especially compelling aspect of Burroughs’ stories. Still, there are some elements of belief on Mars that do make for some good sequences.
Kitsch’s performance may be the weakest point of the picture. At times, he is overly serious and seems to mimic Christian Bale’s throaty approach to Batman. Other times, he seems a bit lighter and draws in some critical comic energy. The lighter approach works better for Kitsch and the Carter character, although I’m not quite sure if I smell a franchise based on his performance alone.
Stanton’s direction is lean and breezy, though, and that’s what really makes John Carter fun. The massive sets and special effects are impressive from top to bottom, with scenes like Carter’s “discovery” of Mars’ gravity issues particularly bright. He manages to delve into some of the pulp elements of Burroughs’ tales, too, and unveils some of the interesting tribal customs of the various Martian tribes. This lays an interesting foundation that will hopefully be explored in some sequels, if Disney decides to go for it.
There are also some interesting ethical points made about the nature of ongoing war. Carter’s refusal to engage in conflict for no reason reaches a head when things get personal and his jumping services are dispatched. How will this jive with his lack of desire for conflict? Is there an end in sight? These questions could be answered in another entry to the series.
Today’s modern cynical movie audiences may not have much room on their plates for John Carter and that could explain why the film “underperformed” at the box office. But this really is classic Saturday matinee stuff, brimming with Stanton’s obvious passion for the characters and a wide-eyed, bushy-tailed approach that many of today’s “dark” ventures would benefit from.