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In the months leading up to its release, Disney’s “John Carter” seemed to have a lot going for it. The film’s director and critics’ darling Andrew Stanton was fresh off “Toy Story 3,” the latest in a long line of mostly Stanton-written Pixar hits. The source material, a sequence of stories written by early twentieth-century novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs, boasted an author also responsible for “Tarzan” and a long series of sequels providing ready-made material for an ongoing fantasy franchise. It looked like Disney had set the stage for another “Pirates of the Caribbean”-sized hit.
And “John Carter” is, for the most part, the film its source material and creative team promised it could be: a light-footed fantasy with Pixar charm and Tarzan cheese. And that’s enough to make it one of the most fun—and, if early receipts are any indication, likely one of the most under-appreciated—films of the year.
John Carter himself, in danger of suffering from faceless-hero syndrome at the hands of the relatively unknown Taylor Kitsch is at first as blandly heroic as he is generically handsome. However, “John Carter” comes to life when the protagonist travels from a cave in the Wild West to the plains of Mars, where he quickly discovers the superpower that makes him a hot commodity among the kingdoms of the red planet: jumping really, really high. The movie makes light of this talent—especially laughable because of over-powered superheroes made famous since the time of Burroughs’s novels—and so shows some good-spirited self-awareness.
But self-awareness should not be confused with self-parody. “John Carter” can be taken seriously to the extent that any playful sci-fi fantasy—think the mournfully romantic reunion of Princess Leia and the blinking, groping, newly unfrozen-from-carbonite Han Solo—can be taken seriously. It is a resolute, tight-lipped fantasy that only flirts with self-parody in asking us to treat a interplanetary war film as if it were a Vietnam documentary and a catalogue of mankind’s future calamities to boot.
“John Carter” has none of that severity and all the sense of going gleefully into the stars that books’ title “John Carter of Mars” would have suggested: the film’s strength is its joy in imagining another world with enormous, four-armed, double-tusked tribesmen called Tharks who make Carter an honorary species member just for being able to—you guessed it—jump really high.
Director Stanton reveals a deft touch in crafting a spirited sense of adventure. Shots linger on vast Martian landscapes, creating a sense of space and scope; a swelling score akin to “Lawrence of Arabia” teaches the audience to take the thing seriously but, for God’s sake, have some fun with it; Carter’s love-interest and Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) is given a ceremonial wedding get-up so sexily scanty it makes slave-girl Leia look like a self-conscious, kinky prep-schooler. The movie plays to its strengths: Mars is cool, sweeping fantasy scores are cooler, and Collins is so outrageously hot she makes young Carrie Fisher look like old Carrie Fisher. Really.
That’s not to say everything in “John Carter,” unexpectedly fun as it is, is all hilarity. Some scenes feel like rehashes of tropes done better elsewhere. The white apes unleashed to dispose of Carter and Thoris provoke that sense of anticlimax every effects-driven epic since “Star Wars” has had to grapple with—What galactic beasts could scare us in this post-”Star Wars”-Rancor world?—and the war between the two great kingdoms of Mars never seems to matter much beyond the truly pressing question of whose bed Thoris will be gracing with her presence by picture’s end.
But that question, the question of star-crossed lovers separated by that romantic vacuum called outer space—the question driving everything from “The Empire Strikes Back” to “Thor”—is more than enough to carry the film. Near the end of the movie Carter turns to nephew ‘Ned’ Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) and advises the young aspiring author to shoot for the stars: “Fall in love. Write a book.” Or, we might say, watch a movie. It is a great credit to the joy of “John Carter” that at its best—franchise or no franchise—it can convince us that those three things aren’t so different after all.
—Staff writer Adam T. Horn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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