A gregarious sci-fi epic that does enough things right to make for an entertaining film, ‘John Carter’ has a number of small missteps that don’t detract from your enjoyment, but do manage to keep the film from being anything really special. Andrew Stanton’s transition from Pixar animation to live action direction is a mostly successful one, but he has some growing pains, there’s no doubt about it. An incredibly interesting blockbuster flick that can’t always live up to its promise, it winds up settling for just being good when it could have been great. Granted, this is a story (based on a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs called “A Princess of Mars”) that has been attempted as a feature for more than half a century, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling here and there that it could have used a little bit longer in the oven. The issues are never large, but they hold back the work. The aforementioned Stanton’s writing and directing aren’t quite as good as I was hoping for, but it’s easy to see he’s got a live action future ahead of him. A pleasant surprise was the acting, which goes over the top at times but always stays on the right path. I was especially skeptical of Tyler Kitsch and Lynn Collins as the leads, but they’re actually pretty good. The special effects are excellent, even if the 3D is somewhat unnecessary (like that’s a new complaint these days anyway), making for a visual treat on the eyes. Disney hasn’t been marketing this film very well, but have no fear, the movie they’re hiding isn’t a bomb by any stretch…it’s just a hard sell. If you take the way that J.J. Abrams took his ‘Star Trek’ reboot and applied that sensibility to ‘Star Wars’ and filtered it a bit through the lens of last year’s ‘Cowboys & Aliens’, that should give you a small idea of what you’re in for here (even if Disney seems confused by what it is, going by how they originally placed a release date embargo on this flick for some reason…I actually saw the movie back at a screening in February).
Taking place during the American Civil War (after a brief prologue describing the parallel events taking place on Mars), the title character John Carter (Kitsch) is a weary and self centered Confederate veteran searching for gold in hidden caves. He has no interest in the war and just wants to get rich. One such cave accidentally transports him to the red planet of Mars. There, he finds not a dead and uninhabited planet, but a dying one also locked in a Civil War. Much like Earth also has Native Americans clashing with both sides, Mars has 12 foot tall creatures that like to fight both sides as well. They’re led by a sympathetic leader named Tars Tarkas (voice of Willem Dafoe) that sees John Carter exhibit super strength and agility (a product of the gravitational difference between Mars and Earth) and declares him his tribe’s newest warrior. After a chance encounter with a princess of one side named Dejah Thoris (Collins), Carter becomes involved in the battle between her people and those led by Sab Than (Dominic West), under the shadowy hand of a mysterious figure named Matai Shang (Mark Strong). Along the way, Carter will learn to care about others again, and just might end one war while trying to avoid another. It’s often a bit too complex for its own good, but it’s a fun time at the movies, there’s no doubt about that.
I didn’t go in expecting much from the acting, but it turns out to be an all around solid affair on that front. Tyler Kitsch displays a good screen presence, and while he won’t be an Oscar winner anytime soon, this type of material is perfect for him. Lynn Collins is a badass damsel that’s not always in distress, and she avoids making it a stock character. As for the supporting players, Willem Dafoe’s voice is perfect for the warlord with a heart, and others lending a voice to CGI creatures include Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton, both of whom are more than fine in their roles. In terms of live action thespians, also on hand besides the aforementioned Strong and West (both of whom are decent but forgettable) are Bryan Cranston, Cirian Hinds, James Purefoy, and Daryl Sabara. No one is going to blow your minds, but they all do their jobs in a way that keeps you from noticing them in the wrong way, as certain actors in the ‘Star Wars’ prequels fell victim to. That definitely isn’t the case here.
Andrew Stanton doesn’t quite change his sensibilities enough in his live action debut for my tastes, but he’s by no stretch doing a bad directing job here. My main issue is he lets the actors go too far sometimes, and more importantly, doesn’t balance the comedy with the drama. There are a bunch of humorous moments in this flick, but they’re too broad and don’t quite fit with the rest of the story. He’s also not too adept at his fights scenes yet, but they’re hardly the worst I’ve seen. His visuals are stunning though (especially some of the set designs and ship work), and this work obviously means a lot to him. Flaws aside, I can’t wait to see his next live action outing. As for his script that he co-wrote with Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, it’s too long and too talky at times, but it’s not bad at all. If a sequel is to come along, they’ve gotten all of the introductions out of the way, so the next time out should really be something. This creative team is definitely on the right path with this potential franchise.
Overall, ‘John Carter’ is an entertaining sci-fi epic that tries to be a little more and can’t quite get there. The good far outweighs the bad here though, so unless your expectations are absolutely sky high, you’re likely to be pleases with the final product. I certainly had my issues with it, but I’d never say this isn’t a quality movie. For a March blockbuster release, it’s a cut above. Count me in for the next adventure of this John Carter of Mars (it’ll make sense once you see the movie), as he’s got loads of potential in my eyes!
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