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‘John Carter’: Strange Land, Familiar Hero

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
March 8, 2012

John Carter may seem awfully familiar for a character who’d largely fallen out of pop-culture favor by the mid-20th century. The first fictional hero created by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs, Carter is a Civil War veteran accidentally transported from the rocky, arid landscape of the Arizona Territory to the similarly dusty surface of Mars. There, he finds himself able to leap tall rock outcroppings in a single bound, endowed with superstrength thanks to the reduced Martian gravity.

But due to the fantastical visual world Burroughs described in his writing, Carter became the lesser-known of his creations, resisting cinematic adaptations for a century. (Apart from a cheapie 2009 straight-to-video version). To make Tarzan, all you needed was a man in a loincloth, a chimp and a jungle. For John Carter to live beyond the page, a filmmaker would need entire cities built on alien landscapes, elaborate airships and 12-foot-tall, 6-limbed green Martians known as Tharks.

So Burroughs’ “Barsoom” novels (the word the residents of Mars use for their world) remained more influential than widely known — which is why, even if you’ve never heard of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), the movie that bears his name may feel like a compilation of science-fiction ideas from the last century. The most recent reference point is Avatar, which, when you boil the plot down to its essentials — a man assimilates with an alien race to help save their planet, falling in love with a native in the process — is almost entirely lifted from Burroughs’ story.

Given the visual requirements, it makes sense that Disney went with an animation director, Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo) to bring the characters and environments of Barsoom to life. The special effects are some of the strongest elements here, as Stanton and his digital team convincingly render a wide variety of Martian creatures — from the tall, green, tusked Tharks who take Carter prisoner before joining forces with him in a battle against one faction of the more humanoid-looking “Red” Martian species — down to the film’s primary source of comic relief, Woola, a blazingly fast creature that looks like a reptilian cross between a toad and a bulldog. All of these characters, and the richly detailed backdrops, are utterly immersive and lifelike — even without the completely unnecessary 3-D.

Stanton’s previous work expertly blended a dazzling visual sense and great action sequences with affecting emotion — who didn’t cry during Wall-E? It’s on that latter count that John Carter falls a little short. There’s a love story at the center of the movie, as Carter falls for the Red Martian princess Dejah (Lynn Collins), a beautiful warrior who’s being forced into marriage to save her people. But all the swelling music in the world can’t obscure the fact that there’s just no spark between the two; Kitsch is a decidedly bland presence in a movie that needs a larger-than-life hero to carry both the romance and the action.

A forgettable leading man isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker; Sam J. Jones, star of the 1980 cult favorite Flash Gordon, was hardly an impressive presence, but that film, based on a character that takes some cues from Burroughs, fully embraced the camp of the source material. This story is a similarly pulpy adventure tale, but there’s a tonal tug of war at work in the film between those leanings and a desire to make this into a more lush, serious romantic epic.

When Stanton lets the film be pure popcorn entertainment, with swashbuckling set pieces and lovably corny romanticism, it’s a great ride in the Indiana Jones tradition. But when John Carter begins taking itself too seriously — which, at an overlong 132 minutes, it has plenty of opportunity to do — its star feels a little lost. At those moments, it’s easy to wish that Kitsch was allowed to play things with a little more, well, kitsch. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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