Andrew Stanton is one of the Pixar guys. He is primarily responsible for Finding Nemo and Wall-E. One of his dream projects was to bring the characters and worlds of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom novels to life on the big screen. Well, he got his wish in the new fantasy epic from Disney, John Carter. But does Mr. Stanton succeed in his first live-action film?
John Carter focuses on a depressed Confederate soldier with no interest in fighting or choosing sides in the Civil War who is suddenly transported from Earth to Mars. Once there, he finds himself enmeshed in a different war whose outcome can affect the fate of several different races of beings and even the planet itself.
There is more to the plot than what is outlined above, but a full synopsis covering everything in the film would take several paragraphs. To say the story is convoluted is a massive understatement. Information flies at the viewer quickly and frequently within it’s two hour running time, and it rarely repeats itself. Considering much of that information is couched in alien speak and fantasy terminology, following the plot can be a chore. Not helping are unclear and muddied character motivations for both the heroes and the villains. Even the central character, John Carter, has a backstory that is kept a secret until well after the halfway mark of the film. It’s difficult to be invested in the characters if I don’t understand what danger the villains pose, or why I am rooting for the heroes.
The only characters who really shine in the film are the Tharks, the four-armed and green-skinned alien race that Carter first encounters when he lands on the red planet, known to them as Barsoom. We are offered glimpses into how they are born and how they live. It’s a fascinating society brought to exquisite life through high-quality CGI and wonderful character animations. The primary Tharks we meet are Tars Tarkas and Sola, voiced respectively by Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton. They feel more three-dimensional and convincing than all of their live-action counterparts. Not to diminish the efforts of the rest of the cast. They do an admirable job with what they are given, especially the leads played by Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins. It’s just that the film doesn’t allow them the same opportunities for character growth, and instead forces them to be conduits for plot points.
Although the movie may be hard to understand, there’s no denying that it is a lot of fun to watch. The film has a terrific pace, never getting bogged down with the details or stopping in its tracks. It’s constantly moving, whether it’s throwing new characters or plot points at you, dazzling you with amazing vistas, or thrilling you with some well-choreographed and well-directed action sequences. The music by Michael Giacchino is upbeat and lofty during the light-hearted moments, yet soaring and sweeping during the more grandiose sections. It’s not one of his better scores, but it serves the film well. As touched upon before, the CGI in the film is pretty phenomenal. Mars/Barsoom feels very textured and real. None of it comes across as fake or a facade.
Well, John Carter, you tried your best. You wanted to be a new classic fantasy film, bringing a century-old story to a new generation, and you mostly succeeded. If your characters were more fully developed and the story more clear, you would stand tall with such luminaries as the Lord of the Rings and original Star Wars trilogies. As it is, you are at least a lot of fun to watch, even if you are completely forgettable at the end of the day.