Disney's updating of the Edgar Rice Burroughs sci-fi classic embraces its own ridiculousness.
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 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.
High-tech/low-tech, sci-fi/western hybrids of this kind inevitably find themselves in dangerous territory—Cowboys & Aliens territory, Wild Wild West territory. Moreover, the plot of John Carter, if you have not already surmised as much, is not a selling point for the film. (Though it bears noting that, goofy as it is, it makes a great deal more sense in Stanton's telling than it did in Burroughs's.) The action sequences are for the most part unremarkable and in many cases resemble scenes from the Star Wars movies to a degree that teeters between homage and plagiarism. And while there are some nice, painterly backgrounds on display throughout the film, the special effects are hardly cutting edge.
Yet despite such shortcomings, there is a hokey charm to John Carter, a clear understanding that, at the end of the day, we are there to have fun. Stanton has scattered throughout the script a surprising number of genuinely witty moments. (I laughed more during the film than I did during Adam Sandler's last three comedies combined—which is a long way of saying, I laughed.) And his cast delivers performances ranging from the entirely solid to the rather good.
In the first category are the two leads, Kitsch (from Friday Night Lights) and Collins (the doomed love-interest/character-motivation in X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Neither wows, but neither disappoints, and Kitsch offers an unexpected hint of Timothy Olyphant's lupine appeal. Moreover, the film's performances improve as we move out from the center. Dominic West and Mark Strong are deep in their comfort zones as, respectively, the sneering, treacherous warlord of Zodanga and the quietly malevolent leader of the Therns. Willem Dafoe has a number of the movie's better jokes as the voice of Tars Tarkas, the Thark chieftain; and James Purefoy, as a warrior of Helium, has perhaps the best.
But the most indelible performance in the film is not, strictly speaking, a performance at all. Rather it is—perhaps appropriately—a feat of animation. This would be Woola, a six-legged, razor-toothed Martian hound who serves as John Carter's captor and later companion, and who rather resembles a cross between a bulldog and a fetal gila monster. As you might imagine, he's not much in the looks department, but it's been some time since cinema has seen a more adorable sidekick. Late in the film, Strong's cold-blooded Thern warns Carter against taking sides in the war between Helium and Zodanga, explaining, "You don't have a dog in this fight." He's wrong, of course, in every way.