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Save the Red Planet

John Carter (2012)

Frank Connor/Disney

Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s story “A Princess of Mars” and directed by Andrew Stanton, who helmed “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E” for Disney/Pixar, the new Disney film “John Carter” tells the story of the titular character (played by Taylor Kitsch), an American Civil War soldier who is mysteriously transported from Earth to Mars (called Barsoom by the planet’s inhabitants). He soon encounters an alien race called the Thark, led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), and finds himself caught up in a conflict between the violent hordes of Zodanga and the peaceful people of Helium. At first Carter just wants to return to Earth; but after meeting Helium Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), he is slowly drawn further into the fight to save the planet.

“John Carter” marks Mr. Stanton’s live-action directing debut; and while the picture is ambitious and impressive in scope, some of the zest from his animated films seems to have been lost in the transition. There are a lot of character and story elements to juggle here, but they don’t quite seem to cohere into a satisfying whole; and the film is burdened with a dense backstory that sometimes slows things to a crawl. Mr. Stanton’s fellow Pixar alumnus Brad Bird created an energetic adventure for his live-action directorial debut, “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” deftly setting up the plot and characters, and peppering the film with lots of visual and verbal wit. But where “Ghost Protocol” was nimble, “John Carter” feels unwieldy.

The opening narration introduces the audience to Mars right away and tries to explain lots of plot up-front, but it only serves to confuse by throwing up lots of convoluted information in a brief amount of time. Omitting the voice-over could have allowed the audience to discover the mysteries of Mars as Carter does, which may have generated more anticipation and suspense. Also, it may have been better not to see Mars until Carter arrives, discovering the planet as he does, not feeling as though we’re seeing the faces and places that we saw in the opening. Instead, the audience knows quite a bit about the planet before Carter’s arrival, even though the story is mainly told from Carter’s point of view via his journal entries.

Mr. Kitsch is charismatic in the lead role, his laid-back drawl and cynical demeanor creating some amusing moments (such as the scenes on Earth when he is outwitting some soldiers — a rare example of exposition being communicated creatively — and later his interaction with the Thark when he arrives on Mars), while Ms. Collins imbues her familiar feisty princess character with dignity and stoicism. There’s also undeniable chemistry between the two leads (who both starred in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), which sprinkles some of their exposition-heavy scenes with a bit of sexual tension. Mr. Dafoe and Samantha Morton are also memorable as the Thark who help Carter, investing their C.G.I. creations with heart and soul, and making them convincing flesh-and-blood characters.

“John Carter” feels like one of the “Star Wars” prequels, with potentially amazing action scenes rushing by in a digital blur, and an extraordinary story buried under mounds of exposition. This film may have benefited from the type of lean storytelling and realistic look that defined the original “Star Wars.” Nevertheless, there are some awesome visuals to amaze audiences (although the 3-D isn’t as immersive as expected), along with some nifty twists and turns in the story, and a host of interesting human and alien characters. Although the film is frequently spectacular, audiences may feel that they’ve seen many of the elements here before. Burroughs created this story a century ago, and since then a number of films seem to have mined this work for ideas, from the tale of a human caught up in a conflict on an alien planet that was seen in “Avatar” to the fight to the death with monsters in a coliseum-like arena included in “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.”

There’s no doubt that the filmmakers of “John Carter” had their hearts in the right place and wanted to honor the source material, but oddly it feels like they’ve ended up smothering the story under an excess of C.G.I. and mass of plot instead of streamlining it and liberating it for the big screen. Like Disney’s recent “Tron: Legacy,” this is a talky adventure enlivened by a few moments of action, humor and some stunning visuals. Viewers intrigued by what would happen if a western-era protagonist bumped into extraterrestrial beings may be better off seeking out “Cowboys & Aliens,” a leaner adventure which, while having the requisite spectacular C.G.I., also had the fast pace, clear storytelling and true grit that “John Carter” lacks. Still, the visual effects, production design and costumes bring “John Carter” to life, and the cast and crew are committed to making the characters as convincing as possible. The result is an ambitious, intermittently exciting, old-fashioned epic.


Opens on March 9 in the United States and Britain.  

Directed by Andrew Stanton; written by Mr. Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, based on the story “The Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs; director of photography, Dan Mindel; edited by Eric Zumbrunnen; production design by Nathan Crowley; costumes by Mayes C. Rubeo; music by Michael Giacchino; special effects supervisor, Chris Corbould; produced by Jim Morris, Colin Wilson and Lindsey Collins; released by Walt Disney Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 17 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Taylor Kitsch (John Carter), Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris), Samantha Morton (Sola), Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkas), Dominic West (Sab Than), Mark Strong (Matai Shang), Thomas Haden Church (Tal Hajus), Ciaran Hinds (Tardos Mors), James Purefoy (Kantos Kahn), Daryl Sabara (Edgar Rice Burroughs), Polly Walker (Sarkoja) and Bryan Cranston (Powell).


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