The First Impression:
John Carter is a cute Disney film that you may enjoy more than you’d thought you would. It’s lively like The Rocketeer was and really has some great moments and interesting characters. Both the leads carry their roles well, and are eye candy for the audience. It’s worthy of all of the love it should get, but obvious comparisons to movies that came before it (even though the story predates those films), along with a shockingly forgettable score by Michael Giacchino may actually hurt it. If you’re expecting blood and guts, not so much. It’s a Disney film. The kids should love it, though the pace of the film in the beginning may seem a little slow for younger audiences. Skip the 3D version and go for the 2D instead.
The Longer Version:
It’s really sad when you see a movie that deserves all the love in the world, but for some reason just doesn’t quite hit the mark. Part of that is due to the way this was marketed. It really didn’t feel to me that Disney was putting their all behind this. When you look at how heavily marketed Tron: Legacy was, this seemed like a “Hey, we made it, just give us money.” kind of push.
As far as John Carter is concerned, maybe it’s better to look at it like this. We tend to compare things to make sense of them:
This object reminds me of that object.
All of James Cameron’s Avatar reminds me of Ferngully.
Remember, Short Controlled Bursts. What movie comes to mind when I say that?
This is ultimately the problem with Andrew Stanton’s John Carter. In watching it, you’ll end up making comparisons to so many other films that came before it. However, knowing that it was based on the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, it’s a lot like seeing Lord of the Rings for the first time when all you know of Elves and Dwarves comes from Dungeons & Dragons, The Elder Scrolls games or World or Warcraft. Burroughs’ material predates just about everything it showcases, from a pop culture standpoint. Hell, for all I know, John Carter was probably the original inspiration for the Kwisatz Haderach in Frank Herbert’s Dune (though that’s just my speculation). The problem is, with comparisons being what they are, audiences may view John Carter as a copycat of all the movies that were probably influenced by it.
I didn’t walk into John Carter with a lot of expectations. Andrew Stanton, for me, has the track record of being Pixar’s Dark Horse. This is the same guy that killed off a mother and a hundred of her babies in the opening moments of Finding Nemo. A man who gave a bleak, dirty and desolate future in Wall-E. Yet, both of those films had a theme of love and of heroes that rose to the occasion, so seeing the previews for John Carter told me enough.
John Carter is the story of a man in search of a cave full of gold. He wants no part of anyone’s battles and when he’s asked to join a faction, he does his best to avoid it. This leads him to a situation where he’s transported to another world. Just as it was with Earth, he encounters a number of different factions (all of which seem to feel he could aid them), but he simply wishes to return home. When he meets a fierce female fighter (who also happens to be a scientist), they work on figuring out how he arrived on Barsoom and how to get back.
The beautiful thing about John Carter is that it really feels like one of those old serials, or to make a more modern comparison, like an adventure film on the Indiana Jones level of things. There are a number of scenes where I found myself genuinely laughing at what was on screen. The visuals could be better in some places, but it’s nothing that’s groundbreaking. I look at John Carter as a pop culture lesson. You can see where other stories have used elements in the Burroughs tale. In that, it worked for me. The action scenes were really enjoyable for me, but some of the scenes between that could have been tighter. When you find out the reasoning behind Carters arrival, you may end up wondering why more wasn’t done with it with that story arc (on a technical level, anyway). As I’m unfamiliar with the original John Carter stories, I watched a few interviews of the cast and Taylor Kitsch noted that in the books themselves, Carter was pretty much the same person through every one. Stanton added a bit of character depth to him, with a little help from Spider-Man 2 scribe Michael Chabon. Chabon’s also responsible for the great Wonder Boys and The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which I still haven’t finished as of this writing. Carter is a conflicted individual for Disney purposes, but you shouldn’t expect Oscar performances here. It’s far better then Immortals was, in that sense.
Both Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins do well with their roles. Having worked together for about a hiccup in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, they have a good chemistry together. Kitsch is gruff with his mannerisms, and I can almost forgive him for playing Gambit. Collins is beautiful, statuesque even, and her character really does a lot of damage, fight wise. She’s very strong in some areas, though later on in the film, it felt like they may have eased that down a bit. Willem Dafoe has an inspired role in the leader of one of the alien groups that find Carter first when he arrives in Barsoom. Of course, no film would be complete without a villain and John Carter features two in Dominic West (Zack Snyder’s “300”) and Mark Strong (who’s almost always a go to bad guy). West’s character is more of the take action baddie, while Strong’s character is more of a calculating, behind the scenes one. Of note are Samantha Morton (“Minority Report”) as Sola and a little creature called Woola, that really reminded me a lot of Dug from Disney / Pixar’s Up. I wouldn’t mind having a few of those around the house.
The music for this film worked when the scenes were slow. However, when it called for action, I really didn’t feel anything special about it. I stayed to watch the credits only to find that it was Michael Giacchino’s work, who’s normally really good. I don’t know, this one seemed like it was phoned in for the action scenes. It’s okay, but I didn’t have that urge to buy the soundtrack afterward (which I have done for more memorable scores after leaving the theatre).
Overall, John Carter was a fun film in the vein of Disney’s earlier movies, but it’s not anything you absolutely have to run out to the theatre for. I’d love to see it do well and hope that there’s a sequel on the way, but when you’re paying a good $15 dollars for a 3D movie ticket ($20 for an IMAX 3D showing), the visual return on investment isn’t all that great. The story was enjoyable and didn’t slow down too much, but you may find yourself thinking that you’ve seen this film before in the way that so many other movies reference Burrough’s tale.
As a bonus, Disney released 10 minutes of the film. Enjoy: