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Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar director Andrew Stanton take audiences to Mars with John Carter, a live-action epic based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp classic A Princess of Mars. A genuinely fun film, John Carter is infused with Pixar pep, devoid of the big-budget cynicism plaguing many modern adventure movies.
Our story begins with young Edgar Rice Burroughs (played by Daryl Sabara of Spy Kids), the nephew of John Carter who’s called on to administer his uncle’s Virginia estate after his unexpected death. There, Burroughs discovers that his uncle’s will contains the story of his enigmatic past as the film jumps back to the 1860s, where ex-Confederate Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) searches for a fabled cave of gold in the Arizona hills. After a series of scrapes with U.S. cavalry officer Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston), a squadron of soldiers and an alien, Carter is accidentally transported to Mars. Captured by the Tharks, 10-foot-tall, four-armed Green Martian warriors, Carter quickly becomes their No. 1 prisoner/pet/source of entertainment. With the assistance of Thark leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), gentle Sola (Samantha Morton) and adorable Woola (a gigantic Martian dog with more charisma than should be possible from a CG creature), Carter begins to learn just how far he’s mistakenly come.
Meanwhile, the devastatingly gorgeous Red Martian Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) struggles to find a solution to war as her city, Helium, is threatened by the aggressive city of Zodanga. She’s convinced that if Helium falls, all Barsoom (the Martian name for Mars) will come under the control of by the wicked Sab Than (Dominic West) and the mysterious Holy Thern Matai Shang (Mark Strong). Dejah and Carter’s worlds literally collide during a battle between the two cities, and the Princess, impressed by Carter’s feats of strength (due to the lower gravity of Mars), tries to convince him to help stop Zodanga. From there the movie dovetails into high adventure as battles are fought, ancient temples explored, and the Princess and the Earthman learn the horrific scope of their enemies’ plan.
From minute one the movie is an absolute blast. It’s fast-paced, lively and chock-full of the same energy and wit that filled Wall-E, Stanton’s previous film. More than anything John Carter is a lesson in the power of Old Hollywood movie spectacle. The filmmakers didn’t make a science fiction movie; they made Ben Hur in space. Presenting the film like a historical epic, Stanton and his crew pull out all the bells and whistles to create an utterly immersive cinematic experience. The 3D looks fantastic, with planets and swords whistling around your head. The cinematography is top notch as Director of Photography Dan Mindel’s camera sweeps over majestic Martian vistas and crumbling ruins, hinting at the planet’s past magnificence. The people look even better, as tattooed warriors fight in gleaming air ships and beautiful princesses wear firearms and wedding gowns with equal grace.
The cast is solid and likeable, especially Friday Night Lights alum Kitsch, called upon to embody the granddaddy of all action heroes John Carter. Kitsch plays Carter as an intense young man, unwilling to see innocents suffer yet unable to let go of his own dark past. The only cause Kitsch’s Carter espouses is his own literal enrichment, and his sullen mantra of only wanting to return home to his “cave of gold” becomes his catchphrase as the movie progresses. The actor is equally at home with comedy as he is with his brooding loner façade, and while Kitsch is unable to completely pull off some of the character’s most transformative scenes, you cannot deny the enthusiasm he brings to the film.
Of course, the scene-stealers are Dafoe and Morton as Tars Tarkas and Sola, a pair more human than Carter and the Red Martians that surround them. While Morton makes you pity the sensitive Sola, Dafoe gets to display his sense of humor as Tarkas, milking every second of dramatic irony with the air of a practiced comedian. Strong is as capable as ever as the sinister Matai Shang, and West is obviously having a ball playing the thuggish Sab Than.
But the acting highlight of the movie is Collins as plucky Dejah Thoris. In a firm departure from the Barsoom books, Collins’ Dejah is self-reliant, clever and completely believable as a strong female character trying to save her world. She and Kitsch are exciting to watch as they fight together, and while their overtly romantic scenes toward the middle of the film feel forced, the two are magnetic enough to make even flat dialogue sparkle.
Despite John Carter’s enthralling cast and setting, the film has problems cramming in the exposition necessary to bring viewers into the world of Barsoom. A lot of information is thrown at the audience initially, and even a die-hard Barsoom fan like myself who has read all the books had a hard time understanding the film’s midpoint revelations about the source of Matai Shang and Sab Than’s power. (It’s a ray of light? A weapon? A MacGuffin?) The midpoint also leads to a fairly boring and predictable explanation of why Carter became such a brooding loner, and it’s a little disappointing that a script by Pixar’s Stanton and Mark Andrews and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon falls prey to tired movie clichés. It’s a testament to the overall appeal of the film that these stumbles don’t overwhelm John Carter, and even the dullest explanations are delivered charmingly and sincerely by the cast.
A throwback to the age of swashbuckling serials and sweeping historical epics, John Carter is a visual feast that, while bumpy at times, results in nothing short of an absolutely satisfying cinematic experience.
John Carter opens Friday nationwide.