Movies I’ve Sneen: ‘John Carter’

I had to take a couple of extra days to decide what I thought of Disney’s John Carter. On the one hand, I’m such a big fan of the books that scrounging up my nerd love for a couple of No-Prizes shouldn’t be tough. On the other, there’s the culprit that doomed this movie right there in the title: Disney’s.

Unlike the possessive title of “Tyler Perry’s,” Disney-branding isn’t necessarily a death sentence. But, how does anybody in the mouse-shaped office think that they could give “Conan on Mars” its best shake in a PG-13 environment?

The answer they settled upon in this office I’ve just invented was to take elements from Edgar Rice Burrough’s novels, put them on tiles, and mix ’em up Scrabble-style until they fit all the double word score boxes. Or, to put it more simply: as formulaically as possible to hit all the summer family blockbuster buttons.

That’s not to say John Carter is bad, just … disappointing. Disney tried to do what — from my own meager research — only one B-movie company has (with Traci Lords): finally try to give the original space opera its day on the big screen.

Reading the novels, it’s easy to see why Disney would make the attempt. While violent (every tribe on Mars has been at war with every other tribe since the drying of the oceans eons ago), A Princess of Mars‘ vision of Martian romance is based courtly love and wooing for marriage. The villains of this world are those who steal women to force them into slavery or unwanted advances.

In keeping with the books, Taylor Kitch (Friday Night Lights, the TV show) plays the titular hero, John Carter, a Confederate Civil War veteran who has been accidentally transported to Mars. He is found by a tribe of green men, the Tharks, who are led by Tars Tarkas — voiced by Willem Dafoe (The Last Temptation of Christ, Spider-Man).

During his brief introduction to one facet of Martian life, he rescues Dejah Thoris, the princess of the red man city of Helium and played by Lynn Collins (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Carter and Dejah fall in love, but she is promised to Sab Than, played by Dominic West (300, Punisher: Warzone), the jeddak (leader) of Helium’s rival city, Zodanga, who threatens to destroy Helium once and for all unless she submits.

It’s a pretty simple story, right? But, there was the potential for a franchise here, so get ready for shoehorned details from the later novels meant to set up future sequels that will probably never be made.

Helping Sab Than is Matai Shang, jeddak of the Therns — the white men of Mars — and played by Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes, Green Lantern). For reasons unexplained, Shang wants Sab Than to conquer Helium and, to do so, gives him a mysterious superweapon to shoot electric blue Silly String at everyone who gets in his way. This is the movie’s wedged-in MacGuffin, the ninth ray, which in the book is merely how Martian aircraft fly. In this movie, they fly because — “Hey, look! Awesome!”

And then there’s the city of Zodanga herself, which is a moving city on feet that I couldn’t help but be reminded of the giant steam-powered spider fortress in Wild, Wild West. (Do you know anything about spiders?)

Finally, there’s the addition of the reluctant hero trope: whereas John Carter is the baddest man on Mars and really loves Dejah Thoris, he must be conflicted. God forbid he has to overcome a bunch of real obstacles. No, in this movie, the only thing holding Carter back the whole time … was himself. If this sounds familiar, then you probably regret paying to see Green Lantern in 3D last summer.

Oh, yeah, and Matai Shang is a shapeshifter now because — “Hey, look! CGI!”

"Go on. Name a character. Watch me shift my shape."

It’s easy to see how neophyte audiences had trouble keeping track of the story, especially if trying to remember which summer blockbuster they’re watching. But, there were moments where Disney magic still managed to charm.

While John Carter may find it difficult to allow himself to love Dejah Thoris — because he’s complicated and stuff — it’s easy for him to fall for Woola the calot, a Martian warhound that is originally meant to guard him while his membership in the Tharks is still under review. (Ultimately, the green men decide that he can jump pretty high, and they need the dues.) Carter is able to rub Woola in all the right places to win himself a dog who follows him on eight hyperspeed legs. He may look like a penis to one of my friends (I think more like a grub), but his running scenes are adorably rendered with roadrunner dust trails.

Carter’s initial foray in walking in less gravity plays out exactly how I had always imagined. Wire fu becomes much more accessible when accompanied by prat falls and missteps.

As for the acting, it’s typical matinée fare. Taylor Kitch is breathless through most of the movie, hopefully because director Andrew Stanton reminded him that Mars has a thinner atmosphere and not as an indication of early-onset COPD. Lynn Collins plays her role well as the scientist/warrior/flower that still manages to require rescuing despite those first two qualities, and she’s not hard on the eyes, either. Willem Dafoe does what he always does, saves any scene he’s cast in — no matter how flawed the project might be — by acting.

"Do not be alarmed. That is out of your range."

And, hey, there’s James Purefoy (Rome), being legitimately awesome and making us wish he were in the movie more.

Everything looks beautiful, yadda yadda yadda, but this is Disney and a blockbuster. It’s supposed to be beautiful. The story is what should make it interesting.

I really wanted to like this movie, and there were parts where I did. But, I’m guessing that even Disney knew something was amiss when the final product was in front of them. This is probably why the PR for this movie suddenly shifted from mysterious costume piece with initials for a title to “If you think this movie is unoriginal, then that’s because you don’t read, stupid. Burroughs wrote A Princess in Mars in 1917, so Avatar ripped him off.”

And, that would be a legitimate point, if they hadn’t turned what was the original into every movie they already made summers past. I blame myself for not seeing that coming despite having watched their 1993 adaptation of The Three Musketeers.

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