In recent years Disney hasn’t had a big role to play in the live-action, big-budget feature film business. The Mouse House has had successes with its National Treasure franchise and did okay with Tron: Legacy over the holidays a year and a half ago. After seeing the marketing for John Carter and comparing it with the finished product, however, it’s clear that Disney had no idea how to market this entertaining, family-friendly action adventure.
Let’s take a closer look…John Carter is more or less the granddaddy of the modern day adventure film. Written by Edgar Rice Burroughs as a serial in 1911-1912 and appearing as its own novel in 1917, the character and the events of the film predate the majority of our modern adventure heroes (Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, etc) – many of whom have taken their cues from Burroughs’ work. In some ways there’s very little that surprises in John Carter because we’ve seen so much of it before, the danger of which is confusing this work as derivative of other works instead of recognizing that they are clearly paying homage to it.
Of course this is all semantics and history. Is the film actually any good? The film’s recent box office woes (pulling in just over $30 million in the US versus a $250 million budget) would suggest no, but this is a case of the numbers lying. It’s important to remember that this is a film that has been in the works for several decades and has passed through many people’s hands before it finally found the right combination of director and screenwriter in Andrew Stanton (of Pixar fame) and Michael Chabon (himself no stranger to classing up pulp works. See: The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). In their hands the potentially silly premise of a Civil War veteran transported to Mars to fight in a world-destroying war becomes more than the Star Wars-lite film it might have been in lesser hands.
The film features rising star Taylor Kitsch (of NBC’s brilliant Friday Night Lights) as the titular character and Lynn Collins (of X-Men Origins: Wolverine – but don’t hold that against her) as his lady love, Dejah Thoris. The plot is a bit immaterial: suffice to say that Carter’s ability to jump high and hit hard (due to his high bone density and the low Martian gravity) helps to tip the balance in a conflict between warring factions on Barsoom (aka Mars). The film’s outcome and the events that move our characters from scenario to scenario are familiar, but they’re well executed. There’s a nice gravitas to the film, which balances action with mostly decent character work and embraces a dash of humour without tumbling into Jar Jar Binks territory (a very real danger considering the presence of Tharks, motion captured CGI aliens that both aid and impede Carter).
The film’s greatest asset is actress Lynn Collins. As the princess of Mars whose marital status drives the film’s plot, she fulfills the perfunctory role of scantily clad damsel in distress. Importantly, however, she is also a scientist and warrior. I’m unafraid to admit that I prefer female characters who kick ass (give me Buffy, Nikita and Sidney Bristow over a crying, passive love interest any day), so it’s great to see a woman kick ass alongside “the hero” in a big budget action film (one of the film’s running jokes is who should wield the sword in the relationship). And while the film is not completely forward thinking (the film’s conclusion features SPOILER Carter rescuing Dejah from marriage to the antagonist END SPOILER), Collins brings warmth, sexiness and passion to her role. Bonus: The actress is a healthy looking role model in that she’s fit and toned, but not “Hollywood” skinny. As a result it’s not hard to imagine her holding her own in battle.
Other strengths include a CGI sidekick character that resembles a slug crossbred with a dog that is hilarious and lovable. The technical work also deserves a shout-out, as Stanton’s work in the world of animation clearly benefits the heavy amount of special effects on display. Less convincing are the costumes which, when matched with the familiar reliance on fantasy tropes such as amulets and magical light power, sometimes suggest a higher budgeted Chronicles of Riddick. Most problematic is the film’s opening scenes, which not only thrust viewers into an unfamiliar Martian conflict, but also drag when the action shifts back on Earth to introduce Carter as a 19th century soldier seeking to escape from his duties to the Union Army. Sure the scenes of his repeated escape attempts are mildly amusing and serve to establish him as a fighter and a loner, but they drag on far too long and waste valuable utility player Bryan Cranston in a thankless role. The film never truly gels until Carter arrives on Barsoom, is captured by Tharks and learns the local dialect. Only then does the balance between fantasy, adventure and comedy even out.
Key to enjoying the film is overlooking the familiarity of the narrative and the lack of characterization for many of the characters (the entire conflict is manipulated by all-powerful beings known as Therns, led by Mark Strong’s Shang, whose motivation is stupid, overly complication and surprisingly dull). If, however, viewers go in looking for a fun adventure film with great visuals, entertaining action sequences and a great female lead, John Carter is a very solid movie-going experience. It would be a shame to let Disney’s “what the hell do we do with this?” marketing effort or reports of the film’s poor box office returns diminish a legitimately fun time at the theatre.
At least until The Hunger Games eclipses everything, that is!
- If star Taylor Kitsch looks a bit stiff in places in John Carter, he looks positively terrible in the excretable Peter Berg directed Battleship later this summer. The trailer is a cross-between Transformers and Independence Day, a hybrid that has seemingly resulted in one-dimensional characters (including Rhiana in her big screen debut) and generic metropolitan destruction. Yawn
- Better looking is Pixar’s latest opus, Brave, featuring the studio’s first female lead. If the film’s overly familiar ‘outsider hero proves themselves to community in a quest’ narrative feels familiar, the production design (that hair!) more than makes up for it. Bonus points for making me think of How To Train Your Dragon, another animated film that hit the sweet spot for both kids and adults
- The Avengers trailer doesn’t necessarily benefit from being seen in 3D, even if the Joss Whedon vehicle does look like a lot of fun. My big worry (aside from Scarlett Johansson continuing to suck in her role as Black Widow) is that the entire climax of the film will take place on some random city street. The action looks good, but that is one boring location
- My most anticipated film of the summer (beyond The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises) is easily Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which, if we’re being honest, has the potential to go either way. Again 3D does not improve the film’s visuals, which are already slightly incoherent (a given considering the film’s secretive narrative), but the international cast and ties to Alien still make me salivate. TMI?