The Cynical Optimist says John Carter is a fun, classic pulp adventure!


Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic pulp adventure gets a film adaptation…

Back in 1931, Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett approached Edgar Rice Burroughs with the idea of adapting his 1917 fantasy novel, A Princess of Mars, into a feature-length animated film.

A Princess of Mars is the first book in Burroughs’ ”John Carter of Mars” series, which tells the story of a Civil War veteran transported to Mars. While the project eventually fell through, “A Princess of Mars” could have preceded Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to become the first American feature-length animated film.

Sadly, Burroughs’ classic science-fiction fantasy story never made it to the silver screen, though the ideas presented were borrowed by countless other works. Burroughs’ ”John Carter of Mars” series is so old that it actually influenced other influences.

From Robert E. Howard’s ”Conan the Barbarian” series to the pulpy “Flash Gordon” serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s that inspired George Lucas’s “Star Wars,” the themes and elements of Burroughs’ work have been mined so thoroughly that most moviegoers will find Disney’s live-action film adaptation to be rather irrelevant – but that’s not to say it isn’t a very good, entertaining movie.

From Academy Award-winning filmmaker Andrew Stanton (“Wall-E,” “Finding Nemo”), “John Carter” is a sweeping romance of action and adventure set on the mysterious world of Barsoom – a planet the inhabitants of Earth know as Mars.

The film tells the story of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who wakes up on Mars and becomes entangled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the planet’s inhabitants, including Thark warrior Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the absolutely bad-ass Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).
Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch star in “JohnCarter”
Dejah Thoris is perhaps the greatest female character in science-fiction fantasy history – a template for later heroins like Princess Leia, Red Sonja and Ripley. She’s a brilliant scientist, a fierce warrior and a drop-dead gorgeous temptress that refuses to take a backseat to the titular John Carter.

When I first saw “Return of the Jedi” as a boy and laid eyes upon Princess Leia in that metal slave bikini, I knew I liked girls. In that same way, Lynn Collins will no doubt ignite an entire generation’s Bad-Thoughts-Machine as Dejah Thoris, who wears a ceremonial wedding gown like no other.

As “John Carter” is an adaption of A Princess of Mars, it’s really unfortunate that Disney couldn’t figure out how to properly promote/identify this property and give the Princess credit she deserves.

Taylor Kitsch on the other hand, isn’t terrible as the titular John Carter, but he’s just all wrong for the part. Kitsch is a young, handsome guy – he looks like an underwear model, not a grizzled Civil War veteran haunted by a broken past.

He does a serviceable job, it’s not like he’s Hayden Christensen or anything, but he’s constantly upstaged by the digital world around him and the performances of Willem Dafoe and Lynn Collins.

“John Carter” ultimately suffers from a lack of consistency – it’s completely unbalanced. At one moment it’s silly and comic, with Tars Tarkas mistaking John Carter’s name as Virginia, the state from which he came. There’s also a ten-legged dog-monster that speeds around the barren Barsoom terrain like The Road Runner.

Other times the film wants so desperately to be serious and somber – all the while assaulting you with action sequences that, while thrilling, have been done before. Some of the special effects, it should be noted, feel completely unfinished.

Don’t get me wrong, the monsters and the airships and the landscapes are fantastic, but any time John Carter jumps and skips across the surface, it feels wrong – it reminds me of Elektra’s rooftop jumps in “Daredevil” – it feels fake, even in a world where we can breathe on Mars and there are Great White Apes roaming about.
There were several times where Stanton had me under the spell of “John Carter” but for every moment I began to truly believe, something happened to shake me free from the cinematic witchcraft he was creating. Stanton brings a Pixar-esque feel to the film (heart + humor = fun) but his live-action debut is a far cry from fellow Pixarian Brad Bird’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.”

Sadly, “John Carter” is destined to bear the brunt of comparisons to “Star Wars” and James Cameron’s “Avatar.” I even heard one misinformed moviegoer say, “It was just ‘Avatar’ on Mars instead of Pandora.” Ouch. If only that popcorn-munching casual film fan would have known that Cameron transformed the green-skinned Tharks into his blue-skinned Na’vi and completely ripped off the entire story.

In a 2009 interview with The New Yorker, Cameron said, With ‘Avatar,’ I thought, forget all these chick flicks and do a classic guys’ adventure movie, something in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold, like John Carter of Mars—a soldier goes to Mars.”

I’m just as guilty of this – I’m sure you’ve already counted the “Star Wars” references I’ve made in this review, but I just can’t help it. I grew up with “Star Wars” – and even though I’ve watched “Flash Gordon” and “The Hidden Fortress” and clearly recognize the influences and inspirations that Lucas mined for his space epic, you never forget your first time – and my first time was “Star Wars.”

Even eight-year-old kids with only a budding knowledge of Star Wars are going to be quick to compare the arena scene in “John Carter” with “Attack of the Clones.” The thing is, “John Carter” is way better than the Prequels. There’s a lot of heart to “John Carter,” and I hope Disney can repair the damage they’ve done in branding and promoting this movie so that a sequel is possible.

The film should have been titled “John Carter and the Princess of Mars” – it works for Indiana Jones and Harry Potter, why not John Carter? “John Carter and the Gods of Mars” has a bad-ass ring to it, doesn’t it?
Overall, “John Carter” is a classic pulp adventure – a worthy adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ work that comes a hundred years too late. It’s a fun ride, but it’s all-too-familiar territory for celebrants and enthusiasts who watch too many films and read too many books (is there such a thing?).

Scavenger Hunt: Find a movie review for “John Carter” that doesn’t reference “Star Wars” or “Avatar.” While you’re at it, find the Ark of the Covenant…