Friday, March 9, 2012

'John Carter' aims at Mars, but misses

John Carter may not be a dud, but it's not the one we've all been waiting for, either.
Disney seems to shopping for a new franchise with John Carter, an action adventure taken from A Princess of Mars, the first in a series of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels centered on John Carter, a Civil War veteran who is transported to Mars. Originally published in 1912, Burroughs' novel has been the basis for a variety of comic book series that achieved popularity among some boomers. Maybe that's why Disney put its money on a piece of sci-fi that originated long before the words “high tech” entered the popular vocabulary.

If I were a betting man, I’d wager against the development of a major John Carter franchise, at least if the first movie is any indication. John Carter isn’t awful. It is, however, determinedly retro, and if you didn’t know it derived from Burroughs, you might find it to be a bit retro, a bit cheesy and mostly lacking in the kind of golly-gee enthusiasm that sometimes saves movies from looking ... well ... cheesy and dated. Worse yet, as played by Taylor Kitsch, the main character comes off as bare-chested and bland.

Director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E and Finding Nemo) doesn’t seem to have had as much luck making the leap to live action as Brad Bird, who went from The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille to the breathless achievements of Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol.

At two-hours and 12 minutes, John Carter has a few fun moments, but it also can feel as if it's laboring under its own weight, and several of the most interesting supporting players -- Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Haden Church - are unseen, providing voices for CGI characters such as Sola, a.k.a, the green martian woman from Thark.

The story transports John Carter to Mars (never mind how) where he finds himself battling with the Tharks, reptilian-looking creatures with tusks, long faces, four arms and a language that requires subtitles.

Tharks alone are not sufficient fodder for a movie this sprawling, so the plot tosses Carter into the middle of a battle between warring cities of red-skinned Martians, who look like humans who've spent too much time at the beach. Goaded by Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) of Helium, Carter ultimately drops his neutrality and joins the battle to keep Helium from being dominated by the wicked Prince Sab Than (Dominic West). There's even more plot manipulation thanks to another group of evildoers called The Elites.

To add another level of complication, Sab wants to marry Princess Dejah Thoris. Her father (Ciaran Hinds) consents to the wedding to keep Helium from being destroyed.

Of course, Carter and Dejah Thoris are the movie’s real romantic item, and by the end, Stanton manages a small tug at our oft-plucked heart strings.

I could have done without the 3-D, which seemed to be used to no special advantage, and John Carter includes a fair amount of Martian gibberish that would have been unbearable had it not generated a few unintended chuckles.

Oh, I almost forgot. On Mars, Carter discovers that he’s able to make giant leaps into the air; this newly acquired power, a result of diminished gravitational pull, helps him to survive and to become an effective fighter, including in the obligatory scene in which he battles giant creatures in an arena.

The movie, however, hardly represents a giant leap when it comes to action/adventure: I can't say John Carter generated the excitement a burgeoning franchise needs, and it certainly didn’t make me crave another helping.

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