By Toussaint Egan
Here’s a little known fun fact: way back in 1931, the famous Looney Tunes animator Bob Clampett approached author Edgar Rice Burroughs, his main claim to fame being the novel Tarzan of the Apes, with the offer to develop and direct a feature length adaptation of his first novel, A Princess of Mars. Both of them felt that the limitations of live action film at the time could not faithfully live up to the potential of the novel, so they compiled a rough show reel of various locations and creature concepts and pitched it to MGM. They declined, saying that the premise and characters were too fantastical to seriously appeal to adult audiences at the time. Had MGM chosen to go forward with production, A Princess of Mars could have potentially become the first feature-length animated film before Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
After close to 80 years of suspended development and a few independent adaptions through assorted comics and animation, Director Andrew Stanton has finally realized the story of A Princess of Mars, now titled John Carter, in a live action film on behalf of Disney. But was it worth the wait?
John Carter tells the story of a former Confederate Cavalry prospector in 1868 searching for a fabled cave of gold in the Arizona territory. After being caught in an unfortunate crossfire between pursuing Union officers and a local tribe of Apache Indians, John discovers his prize and is almost killed by a mysterious unearthly visitor. In the midst of their struggle, John Carter is mistakenly teleported to the planet Mars, or Barsoom as it is known to the inhabitants of the planet. On Barsoom, John is again caught between the conflicts of three parties: The red martian Kingdom of Helium, The opposing rival Kingdom of Zodanga and the green skinned four-armed natives called the Tharks. Aided by the Helium princess DejahThoris and the honorable Tars Tarkas, John Carter must rescue Barsoom from the ruthless clutches of Prince Sab.
But how good is the actual film? Given that the story and characters are liberally pieced together from installments in a fantasy science fiction series from as far back as the 1910s, it holds up relatively well, with only a couple of exceptions. John Carter is considerably a physically capable man who, in being transported to a planet with roughly a third of the gravity of Earth, is endowed with the ability to jump across great distances and heave heavy objects as though he is a superhuman. This leads to a few interesting plot developments and makes for some entertaining chase-and-fight scenes, but in some of the more extravagant scenes it becomes a little too implausible and far-fetched.
The same goes for the premise of the film itself, involving a planet not only capable of sustaining life, but is ensnared in a planet-spanning civil war, which might be far too big a leap (pun entirely intended) for casual audiences to tolerate. John Carter travelled back in time as well as across space, going back toa planet Mars millennia ago that was not devoid of life. The circumstances of his transportation to Mars are a bit murky to say the least. It is implied that he has somehow been “copied,” with his essence and consciousness transported to Mars, though the reasons for why this happens is really any viewer’s guess.
I thought that the 3D conversion was more of a nuisance than nuance. There were multiple times where I just chose to take off the glasses, simply because the 3D added nothing significant to the experience of watching the film besides providing a sharper contrast between the foreground and background.
William Dafoe, to his credit as a method actor, delivers perhaps the only truly memorable performance in the film as Tars Tarkas. Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins do competent enough jobs in their roles as John Carter and DejahThoris respectively, but their chemistry comes off as contrived and predictable.
Overall, I thought John Carter was an okay film. Not great, not particularly exceptional or memorable, just okay. The art design behind the floating gondolas and the walking city of Zondanga was cool and the creature designs were imaginative. But besides the few jaw-dropping instances the film, there’s seldom anything striking enough to leave an impression. The epilogue ends with a couple of persistent questions, obviously hinting at a sequel. I would recommend this film to anyone who likes action-adventure films and science fiction. It’s not the best film, but you could definitely do worse.