We have all walked out of a movie before thinking to ourselves “That was just like this other movie,” or “The original was better.” In Disney’s new film John Carter, you will see elements you recognize from other stories like Flash Gordon, Dragon Ball Z and even the Planet Hulk storyline. The difference is that this story came before and probably influenced those and many other popular stories today. Based upon a book written by Edgar James Burroughs (Tarzan), entitled A Princess of Mars, John Carter is one of the earliest sci-fi heroes and Disney has probably struck gold here. There was an earlier movie loosely based on this book titled “Princess of Mars,” but um…yeah, look at that link and you’ll see why that went nowhere. One of the best things about this film is that it never feels like a Disney movie. It is not shoving any kind of message down your throat or trying to pass off any unnecessary humor. It just is what it is, solid action wrapped up in a classic (while all too familiar) story. If you walk into the theater expecting to see a good movie, despite the comparisons you will make, then there is no way you will be disappointed.
FIRST ACTION HERO? Like I said, the character of John Carter is old, both in terms of when he was created (1912) and the time the story begins. The story begins roughly around 1866; on-screen you see 1881, but the movie is told almost entirely in flashback. Carter was a Confederate captain and a damn good one. If not for a certain event (depicted later in the film), he may have led the South to victory. When we meet him, he is a no-nonsense, gold prospector in the Arizona territory. He doesn’t bother anyone and wishes them to do the same. Union soldiers come looking for him to recruit him in order to fight against Native Americans but Carter refuses. He is not interested in anyone’s cause. A misunderstanding between the soldiers and some natives leaves him trying to save the dying Union commanding officer until he stumbles upon the gold mine he was looking for. This is where Carter “dies” and our story actually begins. A journal inherited by his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (an homage to the author of the story) details his exploits on Barsoom; what we call Mars. How this young man gets this information when his uncle supposedly died some 15 years prior is the meat of the movie. The somewhat unexpected ending wraps up the package and sets the stage for a sequel fans will actually look forward to.
RAG-TAG BAND We spend most of the film getting to know four characters. John Carter (Kitsch), unwillingly at first, leads the four. Dejah Thoris (Collins), the Red Martian princess of Helium must persuade him to her cause as he is the only one capable of stopping the mobile nation of Zodanga (albeit not single-handed). Sola (Morton), a Green Martian , is entrusted to his care by her tribe leader/father Tars Tarkas (Dafoe) and she, like the “dog” Woola, are fiercely loyal to Carter. Woola the Calot is probably the one thing Disney can market into plush animals and all kinds of cute stuff; everything else would have to be action figures and playsets. Woola is one of the ugliest things in a world full of ugly things, but he is so loveable that you cannot help but like him. Look at it this way, he’s canon to the story and at least he isn’t Jar Jar Binks. The only thing I did not like about the grouping is that Carter seems to only pay attention to Thoris for most of the movie. This is understandable; What man would pay attention to the twelve-foot tall green bug lady or the ugly, superfast frog-dog instead of the hot chick that keeps giving him the eyes? He frequently leaves the two behind until he realizes that they never leave him behind. Both Sola and Woola are pivotal in the film – Carter would not have succeeded despite his strength and agility without them. I hope the inevitable sequel features more of this team.
NOT QUITE AVATAR With the exception of the jumping, which looked very fake, the special effects are top notch in this film. As much as I dump on Avatar, I admit that it has set a high bar for visual effects not seen since A New Hope. However, that is part of the charm of this film and what will set it apart from something like Avatar. It takes a solid story that requires a lot of visual effects and makes it so that you aren’t sucked in by them. What will suck you in to this is the story and that is the way it should be. The Tharks, their pets and the White Apes were pure CGI but they could have easily been regular people and animals. I partially take that back, the White Apes had to be CGI, that scene would not have been as intense otherwise. I saw this in IMAX 3-D and I have to say the 3-D was done very well, but it was completely unnecessary. I will not go on a 3-D rant here, but the thrill of it is gone and the only point of it is higher ticket prices. When the blu-ray drops I implore you to not waste money on the 3-D version unless every TV in your house is 3-D already (or it is the same price as the regular blu-ray).
SCORE ONE MORE The music might win an award next year, but it is not anything memorable like Star Wars or even Pirates of the Caribbean. You are not going to hear it and think “that’s the music from John Carter” and start humming along like you would with one of those movies. The pieces just do not stand out like that. Even still, the music fit the movie perfectly and was nothing short of beautiful.
I said it earlier and I feel it is worth repeating.I really think that Disney, like Carter, has struck gold with this one. I cannot fathom why no one ever tried to make this into a Hollywood production before (again, forget that direct-to-DVD joint). Kitsch was solid as Carter and has the physique to pass off the abnormal strength, but put him in a suit and he does not look like someone with those abilities. That casting was excellent because you have a character who visually has an average Joe look in one place and in another he is simply the man. This story was part of a trilogy and overall, part of a family of eleven books. I would bet money right now that we see at least the two sequels after this one. The other books go into Carter’s descendants, so that would involve all new casting. It is possible, but only if the overall trilogy breaks bank worldwide. Count on the return of John Carter within the next few years and definitely go see this movie.
SIDE NOTE: Looking for images for this article, I see there was even a Marvel Comics’ series based on the story. Wondering less about the similarity to this story and Planet Hulk now.