2012, PG-13, 132 min. Directed by Andrew Stanton. Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Thomas Haden Church, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 9, 2012
The second film of the year helmed by a Pixar Animation alum making his first foray into a live-action Hollywood blockbuster (the first was Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), John Carter is by far the better film. It's more exciting, more challenging, and a veritable bestiary of alien creatures that run the gamut from cute (a hippopotamus-sized, puglike critter) to frightening (giant, blind, white simians), and from red-skinned bipeds who sail on seas of light (the inhabitants of the peaceful kingdom of Helium) to the tusked, green-skinned, sinewy Tharks, a fearsome, tribal species engaged in conflict with the bipedal Zodangan warmongers.
Lost yet? So was I, but Stanton, who not only directed but also co-wrote (with Michael Chabon, no less) this wild and woolly adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1911 pulp adventure series John Carter of Mars, keeps things far less confusing on the screen than they come across when synopsized. Suffice it to say, we are on Mars with the titular John Carter (Friday Night Lights’ Kitsch), a former cavalry hero of the Confederacy who is spending his post-Civil War life searching for gold in the Arizona territories. Instead, he finds himself transported to Mars (aka Barsoom), where, due to the difference in gravity, he can leap tall buildings in a single bound, punch the daylights out of assorted baddies (notably Dominic West's sleazy Zodangan prince Sab Than), and woo the brainy and beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris (Collins).
If this sounds like a Boys Own adventure reminiscent of Flash Gordon, that's because it is in many ways similar, although this swashbuckling space opera by Burroughs (who would later go on to create another muscle-bound man apart, Tarzan of the Apes)is, for me at least, much more in keeping with the spirit of the Saturday afternoon matinee. This is a kids’ film made by some very smart adults, and while it often looks chintzy, costumewise (what's with all the fur ruffs?), the madcap pacing never slows down long enough to let you dwell on the silliness of it all. It's grand fun, particularly in the many excellently conceived battle sequences between the Tharks and the Zodangans. The CGI, it must be said, is excellent, on par with Avatar, and while the 3-D works well enough, it thankfully never intrudes on the multiple, interlocking storylines, which, as noted above, are bewildering enough to newcomers to Barsoom.
Disney bet a whopping $250 million on this becoming its next big franchise, and personally, I'm hoping audiences fall for this displaced yet dashing Southern gentleman and his newfound life abroad. Old-school "Gosh, wow!" sense-of-wonder filmmaking is in short supply in these anxious days, and John Carter (of Mars!) left me with my disbelief in suspended animation and once or twice with goosebumps dotting my arms. And that's enough for me.