The Hokey Fun of 'John Carter'

Disney's updating of the Edgar Rice Burroughs sci-fi classic embraces its own ridiculousness.

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You can take the boy out of Pixar, but can you take Pixar out of the boy? That question was raised last year by Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol and now by John Carter, the first two big live-action films to be directed by members of Pixar's enviable stable of writer/producer/directors. The provisional answer, I'm happy to report, is no—or at least, not entirely.

The Pixarian in question this time is Andrew Stanton, who, in addition to directing Finding Nemo and Wall-E, essentially served as the studio's in-house screenwriter on its first five films, and has played some role (executive producer, voice actor) in every Pixar film save Cars 2. As a movie, John Carter is not near the level of Stanton's Pixar work—but then, how could it be? The studio's magic is in large part the result of its collaborative ethos and the animators' freedom from the demands of a live-action shooting schedule. Still, the modest charms of John Carter are another reminder that Pixar's success is due not merely to a triumph of process, but to a collection of exceptional individual filmmakers.

The plot is not a selling point. But the film understands that, at the end of the day, we are there to have fun.

The first installment of the John Carter saga, upon which the movie is loosely based, was penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs (of Tarzan fame) 100 years ago. Entitled Under the Moons of Mars when it was first published serially, and retitled A Princess of Mars when it was later released as a novel, it is an ur-text of modern genre fiction—pulp, science, fantasy, and superhero—an important forebear not only of Superman but of Brave New World as well. It is, however, by any objective measure, an awful book: inert in style, haphazard in plot, and woefully, annihilatingly devoid of humor. Given such source material, Stanton's John Carter might easily have been the kind of glum, tooth-clenchingly self-serious "entertainment" of which we have seen so much in recent years.

But it's not. Rather, Stanton embraces the inescapable ridiculousness of his premise and adds several additional doses of likable whimsy.

Said premise is that, in 1868, a former Confederate cavalryman named John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is prospecting for gold in Arizona when he is unexpectedly transported to Mars—or Barsoom, as it is known to the natives. (The name sounds rather like an exotic scent for men—sandalwood, perhaps?—though the resonance is presumably unintentional.) A war is taking place between two cities with heavily tattooed human-like inhabitants: Helium (the good guys, devoted to peace and science) and Zodanga (the bad guys, devoted to conquest and pillage). You can probably guess which side is winning. What neither side knows is that both are being manipulated by a race of immortal, unimaginably advanced beings called the Therns, who thrive on conflict.

John Carter, meanwhile, finds himself in different company altogether, as a captive of the decidedly inhuman Tharks—primitive, martial creatures with green skin, four arms, and tusks. Luckily for him, he quickly discovers that, thanks to the weaker gravity of Mars, he is imbued with superhuman strength and the ability to jump great distances (the latter trait destined to be rather over-utilized by the filmmakers). Will John Carter impress the Tharks with his cunning and prowess? Will he aid Helium in its fight for survival? Will he and the lovely princess of Helium (Lynn Collins) wind up smooching? The answers are unlikely to surprise you.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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