John Carter (2012)

(c) Disney

It’s hard to approach John Carter on its own terms because so much of it feels like only a fragment of what it should have been.  There’s a level of wishful thinking there, I know.  Too many movies just don’t measure up to their potential.  Now, you might read that and feel inclined to ignore the movie.  Don’t do that.  It’s a good film.  It’s fun.  It makes you laugh, and it makes you feel … but it doesn’t make you cheer.  And it should.

First, the story.  Young Edgar Rice Burroughs receives an urgent summons from his uncle, John Carter.  But when Burroughs arrives at his uncle’s estate, Carter has died.  He has willed the estate to his nephew, and left behind a journal, the contents of which spell out the crux of this story.  Carter, a civil war vet from Virginia, finds a mysterious cave while he’s prospecting for gold in Arizona.  That cave leads him to Mars, and I’d really be spoiling things if I told you how.

The actual Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the first of his Mars novels nearly 100 years ago.  Every major science fiction saga has pilfered elements from its universe.  So, even though John Carter‘s influence came first, even though it can’t help but feel derivative at this point, director Andrew Stanton still manages to pull together something that almost feels like its own thing.  Barsoom, as the natives call Mars, has a history, a lived-in world with a past affecting its present day.  The mythology might be a little dense, but even that isn’t a big problem.  Stanton, and co screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon pull off quite an accomplishment of world-building here.  The planetary conflicts between Helium, Zodanga, the Tharks and the Therns are all readily understandable to anyone paying attention.  This isn’t a story too complex for audiences.  The problem is in how we get to experience it.

Stories with a heavy mythological bent require a point of entry, usually in the form of a single character the audience can get behind.  (Quick aside–this is one area in which Lost succeeded where so many of its copycats failed.)  John Carter refuses the audience that point of entry.  The opening scenes take us straight to Mars via voiceover before we ever get to meet the title character.  If we’re going to go to Mars in a film called John Carter, it would seem to follow that Mr. Carter should take us there first.

Instead, John Carter‘s plot jumps in and out of the hero’s point of view.  It’s the story’s rhythm and pace that falters, not so much the story itself.  How the story comes off, however, is just as important.  Taken as a whole, John Carter carries a few good innings with just a few too many errors.

Carter the character has his interesting moments.  He gets a few good set-up gags at the beginning that might have made him into more of a loveable rogue if the filmmakers had kept at it.  Instead, Carter is not the most interesting thing about the movie that carries his name.  He is interesting as long as we’re learning more about what’s made him the way he is, but we don’t necessarily want to be around him the way he is.  Taylor Kitsch does a decent job—enough to get him past comparisons to the rogue he played on Friday Night Lights—but there’s just not enough color there.  All the color belongs to Lynn Collins, who brings much more life and energy to Carter’s love interest, Dejah Thoris.  Thoris is a woman, a warrior, a scholar, and Collins pulls all those facets together in a lovely way.  She belongs in an Indiana Jones adventure.

It’s those kind of heights for which John Carter aims.  There are even a few surprises in store.  It plays a good game, enough to warrant another trip to Mars if we ever get the chance.  As a meal, there are things we could lose, but there’s enough on the plate to wonder what the cook’s real potential is.  This is a film by the man that brought us Finding Nemo and Wall-E, who helped create Toy Story.  Stanton is no hack.  If Disney were to give him the go for part two, I’d pay to go see it.

Thing is, though, we may never get that chance.  John Carter was a $250 million film, and the box office receipts just never added up to success.  Disney took a gamble making this, and lost.  It’s exciting that they even tried, but the mouse house never really seemed very confident in it.

While movie was in development, trade reports all referred to the movie as John Carter of Mars.  Just before the release of the first trailer, Disney dropped “of Mars,” though it strangely finds its way back before the credits roll.  All the poster art looked generic.  Further trailers made the movie out to be something it wasn’t.  It’s like all the effort went into making it look safe and easy and … plain.  Even the opening sweep over the castle just before the movie begins can’t pass muster.  The name that appears over the water is just “Disney” sans “Walt.”  It’s like they’re trying to tell us, yeah, this is Disney, just not Disney enough.

There’s an interesting discussion to be had here – does a studio’s confidence in a big-budget effort have anything to do with the success and/or quality of the product?  Maybe.  Stanton was given huge amounts of control on this picture.  But it is hard to imagine that, after shelling out that much money, someone in the Disney production offices didn’t have some say in the development of things.

But that’s all speculation.  What matters is what is, and John Carter lands on a long list of movies that aim high and only just about get there.

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