There’s no doubt “John Carter” was a major gamble for Disney. The film had a massive budget (reportedly $250 million) it will have to make back through ticket sales, and the project has been mired in “production hell” since 1931 (yes, you read that right). However, it finally hit theaters this weekend, and I found it to be an enjoyable ride. The film will appeal most to those who are fans of science fiction and fantasy in general, and the special effects really are mind-blowing.
“John Carter” is based on a novel written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the early 1900s about a Civil War veteran who finds himself transported to Mars (the planet is called “Barsoom” by the natives who live there; in Burroughs’ tale, Mars has both an atmosphere and water). Carter gets caught up in a war between the various cultures on the planet and helps to unite the oppressed peoples of Barsoom against a conquering warlord.
It’s a story that actually paved the way for later sci-fi classics such as “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” but it’s also one Hollywood has struggled for a long time to bring to the big screen. Preproduction for a film version first started about 80 years ago, when Robert Clampett (director of “Looney Tunes”) approached Edgar Rice Burroughs to make an animated feature out of the first book in his John Carter series, “A Princess of Mars.” Throughout the years, the film project passed from MGM to Disney to Paramount, and then eventually back to Disney again.
While the final product isn’t flawless, it’s still a rousing epic that’s just good, old-fashioned fun. It has some nice action set pieces, and the CGI special effects truly are impressive. Like “Avatar,” you can’t really tell what’s actual film and what’s computer generated. I liked the design of the flying ships on Barsoom, sort of a retro-futuristic look, and this type of style also is exhibited in the planet’s cities and in the human cultures, which have some Greco-Roman undertones.
I also liked the “alien” species on the planet, known as the “Tharks.” One of the film’s best characters is the leader of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas (voiced to great effect by Willem Dafoe). The film doesn’t take itself as seriously as “Avatar” does, and there are some nice interjections of humor, with Dafoe’s character Tars Tarkas supplying many of the best lines. Film composer Michael Giacchino, as always, provides a nice score.
Disney did seem to have some trouble marketing the film, and none of the trailers quite captured the essence of the movie. I’m still not sure why more effort wasn’t made to publicize the fact the John Carter character is a Civil War veteran who is transported to another planet. This detail adds another layer of interest to his character and the story, and I think it would have intrigued audiences if this had been included in the trailers. The title of the film itself also is a little troublesome. Originally it was supposed to be “John Carter of Mars,” which does a better job of communicating what type of film this is than just “John Carter” (that said, Disney does perform a nice trick with the title at the beginning and ending of the film). A still better title might have been “A Princess of Mars,” borrowing the name of the first book in the series.
“John Carter” scored about 50 percent on the film review website Rotten Tomatoes, which means half of the critics said they liked it, and half said they didn’t. I personally enjoyed this film, and I’d encourage you to go see it for yourself.
For more information about the film, click here.