Sci-fi/Adventure, 132 Minutes, 2012
I’ve always been a big fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories ever since I first read them as a teenager. Pulp fiction (the genre, not the film) has always been a favorite and Burroughs is one of the best. I also truly adore turn-of-the-(last)-century science-fiction. Reading about the advances that authors from the pre-transister-age invented has always been a joy. So when I found out that Disney was going to celebrate the centenary of the character (yes, John Carter is 100 years-old this year) with a big-budget blow-out written and directed by Andrew Stanton (“Wall-E” [IMDB], “Finding Nemo” [IMDB]) I was more than a little interested.
You know what? It was pretty damned good! Far from perfect, sure, but definitely not deserving the negative attention it’s garnered.
John Carter stories are cut from classic cloth. The men are strong and honorable, the women beautiful and worth fighting for. The odds are steep and the challenges overwhelming. There are no twist endings or moral dilemmas. The spirit of these stories is captured well in the film but may elude audiences expecting more modern action. The basics of the story roughly follow the first book in structure, but introduce several new elements.
It’s these new elements that cause the most trouble for the film. The original story was a relatively simple war between two rival city-states with the Tharks and John Carter as effective spoilers. The mechanism of travel between the planets was a clever, but simple, deus ex machina. Here Stanton elevates the Thern, a waning race in Burroughs books, into highly-advanced, almost godlike beings that control the transport technology and drive events for utterly vague reasons. The problem is that this is both unnecessary and tends to complicates things significantly more than they need to be.
On the plus side the film is beautifully done. The Tharks (green martians) are wonderfully realized in all their six-limbed, battle-loving glory. Woola, the hound creature John befriends, is charming as hell in that ugly-but-lovable way owners of bulldogs may be familiar with (and is wonderfully realized in all his ten-limbed glory). Special attention was given to the gorgeous flying warships. The dragonfly-inspired designs are like a Miyazaki-film come to life (and got me thinking – and salivating – over the idea of a live action “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” adaptation).
There are a thousand ways that this could have been better – but a million ways that it could have been worse. The pacing was a little off and the action scenes relied just a little too heavily on quick close-ups but overall this is the definition of a summer popcorn flick. It’s fun, heartfelt and doesn’t take itself all that seriously. Bottom-line is that this deserved to do a hell of a lot better than it did.