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Thursday, March 8, 2012 05:53 pm

Not your grandfather’s John Carter

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It’s been noted that no other character has been stuck in Hollywood’s development hell longer than Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter.  First appearing in the author’s pulp serial “A Princess of Mars,” animator Bob Clampett of Looney Tunes had approached the author in 1931 to propose that his story be adapted into a full-length animated feature.  Negative reaction from film distributors to a test reel Clampett produced caused MGM to cancel the project.  Other proposed adaptations came and went over the years until the Disney Studios took the bull by the horns in 2010, commissioned a script from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon and handed the reins to director Andrew Statton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) to finally bring the hero to the screen 100 years after he first appeared in print.

A great deal has happened in the science-fiction world since Burrough’s character first appeared and that influence is plain to see in John Carter, a film that will please those in search of a passable adventure that at times flirts with greatness only to be brought to earth by a needlessly confusing plotline that’s been constructed to placate those of the Pirates of the Caribbean generation.  Devotees of Burrough’s original works will likely not be pleased as large chunks of the first novel have been jettisoned or glossed over while a war between two Martian cultures that appears at the three-quarters mark in the story now takes center stage.  The resulting film panders to the common moviegoer as it shamefully uses a wide variety of elements from the author’s Martian novels in a random and confusing manner.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran from Virginia who, while hiding from a band of Apaches in an Arizona cave, finds himself inexplicably transported to Mars. The planet sports various cultures and beings, some resembling humans, others, such as the Tharks, sporting two legs, four arms, green skin and averaging 10 feet tall in height.  It is these beings that Carter first meets, and he’s soon befriended by Tars Tarkis (voice by Willem Dafoe), a warrior who teaches him the ways of Barsoom, the name they’ve given their planet. A war is raging between the Zodangans and the citizens of Helium, whose Princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) has been captured by the Tharks and who soon has a protector in Carter.  That she’s engaged to be married to Zodangan Sab Than (Dominic West) in order to broker a peace between the warring cultures does not sit well with her.

The movie stumbles out of the gate with a protracted battle scene between the Zodangans and Heliumites that’s confusing and meaningless as it lacks context. Another 20 minutes go by before we’re introduced to our hero, and it’s only then that the film begins to peak our interest.  Stanton is not afraid to include a bit of humor in the midst of this epic, and it plays well. Lighter gravity makes walking a bit hard for Carter, and Kitsch has great fun careening about before his character figures out how to control his leaps and bounds. Equally effective is his reaction to being mistakenly called “Virginia” again and again after a botched introduction.

To be sure, Stanton creates an epic canvas, showing Barsoom as a vicious, barren place, while scenes involving vast armies of warring Martians are undeniably thrilling.  Of particular note is Carter’s duel in an arena with a pair of vicious White Apes and his single-handed slaughter of a brigade of Tharks, intercut with his memories of a tragedy on Earth that haunts him.

John Carter isn’t a bad movie by any stretch and should satisfy those looking for something in the Avatar or Star Wars vein.  Yet, by not fully embracing Burrough’s complex vision, the film is less than it should be. Instead of being sci-fi’s answer to Lawrence of Arabia, we’re treated to a suitable adventure whose greatest sin is a lack of vision.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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