If only Andrew Stanton’s John Carter had sneaked into the multiplex with its mostly shirtless Earth-man hero (Taylor Kitsch) fighting fourarmed green dudes and assorted hairy apes from Mars, audiences might have given it a pass as the mildly entertaining, old-school adventure it is.
But nooo! John Carter, a post-Civil War-era Confederate soldier from Virginia who finds himself zapped onto the red planet (called Barsoom instead of Mars), must face a deadlier enemy than author Edgar Rice Burroughs could have dreamed up when he created the character 100 years ago. I’m talking about the toxic buzz that has curled around the movie before anyone had seen it. How dare it cost so much money ($250 million)! How dare Stanton think he can switch from animation (WALL-E, Finding Nemo) to directing live actors! How dare they rip off Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Avatar? (Hey, haters: Burroughs got there first.)
My advice? Shut out the noise and just watch the movie. For all the bumps in the narrative, concocted by Stanton, Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chabon, and less-than-stellar 3D effects, John Carter exerts the pull of a tall tale told by a campfire. Stanton takes his time to show us how life lost meaning for Captain Carter after the war. And the Canadian Kitsch, so fine as the alcoholic bad boy on Friday Night Lights, brings a bruised heart and welcome gravity to a role a lesser actor might have turned into heroic cardboard. It’s fun to watch JC find that the atmosphere on Mars allows him to leap around like a human shot put. And though it’s shameless to give JC a mutt as a protector, Woola – the toothy, 10-legged lizard dog – is a beauty of a beast. Uggie from The Artist needs to watch his back.
I’ve been avoiding the plot, since its convolutions are headspinning. Burroughs, who later created Tarzan, wrote 11 books on Carter. You may leave this movie never knowing the difference between a Thark and a Thern. Willem Dafoe’s matchless growl enlivens Tars Tarkas, a 10-foot-tall Thark who befriends JC. And Mark Strong, as the shapeshifting Matai Shang, is one wily Thern. But you will know that JC truly loves Dejah Thoris (the excellent Lynn Collins), a defiant princess who won’t stand behind any man in a fight. John Carter bites off more than even Woola can chew, but it’s built on something rare: wonder instead of Hollywood cynicism.