There appears to be a disinformation campaign coming out of Hollywood. The visceral dislike of Disney Studios head Rich Ross, former marketing head MT Carney, and the envy of untouchable Pixar have combined to make Disney’s latest film a target of attacks. Opportunists who hadn’t even seen the film saw an opening to attack the Mouse House and have been making some wild accusations about “John Carter.” It’s way over budget (not true), the marketing was awful (definitely true), and it will be the next Ishtar (or perhaps Prince of Persia). The later is only true if one thing happens, we fans don’t get the word out about how great a film John Carter actually is.
Andrew Stanton and crew are in top form in John Carter, and aside from a few small technical snafus, have created a movie that fits in near the top of the action-adventure genre (think Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Avatar, and Superman). But it is also a typical Andrew Stanton film, in that the movie manages to transcend its genre.
Stanton combined elements from the first two books in Edgar Rice Burroughs “Princess of Mars” series and weaved together a story that will please fans of the series while also updating the story just a bit for modern audiences. Earthling John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) stumbles upon a portal to Mars (known as Barsoom to its occupants) while searching for gold and trying to forget a personal tragedy. On Mars, Carter finds himself in the middle of an epic battle for the fate of a planet, falling in love with the most beautiful woman on Barsoom, and gifted with unique powers that makes him a uniquely effective fighter. By making unusual allies, Carter is able to overcome impossible odds and become John Carter of Mars.
Burrough’s first “Mars” book was written 100 years ago in serial form (every chapter had a cliffhanger or climax), so it was up to Stanton to find a hook that could drive the film. I’m not going to spoil it, but fans of Stanton’s work won’t be surprise by what he chose.
One of the big concerns was if Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) could carry the film. He certainly can. Buffed out and in a loincloth for much of the film, Kitsch also has the acting chops that sees him something between John Wayne and Harrison Ford. That’s good company. Lilly Collins as Dejah Thoris (Carter’s love interest) has been fleshed out a bit from the original Burroughs books, but not too much Burroughs wrote her as a capable hero of her own. Collins is as believable as in the role of the princess as she is when swinging a sword.
In the books, Thoris and Kitsch fall deeply in love almost instantly. They do stretch it out a bit in the movie, but even then it was aspect of the story that might stretch credibility for modern audiences. There are also a few other changes from the original books that might upset fans, but over all I understand why Stanton made those choices. The movie would have been 4 hours long if he included everything. Instead his choices let him keep the pacing tight and leaves some great material for a possible sequel.
One of the characters kept from the book is Woola, a dog-like creature. Woola adds a lot of humor to the movie and was very popular with the audience in my theater. The movie could have used a bit more humor, but it never becomes kitschy or pastiche.
I would be remiss if I wrapped up this review without mentioning the excellent score by Michael Giacchino (LOST, Star Trek, Cars 2). The soundtrack gets out of the way when its supposed to and supports the emotion of the action when it needs to. Giacchino’s composition is worthy of some of the greats of cinema (John Williams) and was one of the real stand outs from the film.
John Carter is a story about a man finding himself in the oddest of circumstances, finding love, and coming to accept who he is. Don’t listen to the nay sayers. It is a fun film, based on a story that created so much of what we take for granted in epic action adventures, and with the rich storytelling you come to expect from Pixar’s brain trust (of which Andrew Stanton is a key member). John Carter of Mars deserves its moment in the sun.