John Carter’ reimagined on screen

By Drew Hunt

Not unlike his cohort Brad Bird, Pixar mainstay Andrew Stanton has stepped out of the realm of animation and entered the world of live action. Disney’s adaptation of “A Princess of Mars,” the first novel in a pulp sci-fi series from novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs initially published in 1912, is his latest directorial effort.

In the film, retitled simply to “John Carter,” the titular protagonist (Taylor Kitsch) is a former Confederate captain who turns to a life of crime after the Civil War. After stumbling upon a cave filled with gold, he’s mysteriously transported to Mars, finding its inhabitants—12-foot-tall, four-armed aliens and, peculiarly enough, human beings—in the middle of an epic struggle to rule of the planet they call Barsoom.

Before long, Carter is tasked by the voluptuous Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins) to help save her planet. He concedes, figuring his life on Earth has ceased to amount to much. What results is an overlong, overcomplicated action epic that, for every moment of intrigue it’s able to harness, falls back on the sort of rudimentary elements that make these big budget blockbusters intolerable.

Like Stanton’s other films, “John Carter” is a sort of hero’s journey set forth by a series of events that lead the protagonist down a path of self-discovery. Command of storytelling is one of Stanton’s greatest assets. His narratives are clean and concise, allowing his characters—who feel strikingly real for cartoon fish and robots—to interact in naturalistic fashion.

“John Carter,” meanwhile, is ruled almost exclusively by its plot, and what works on Burroughs’ page has trouble translating to the screen. Complex expository elements, such as the planet’s origins and history, are rattled off in a series of esoteric conversations that actually raise more questions than they answer.

However, one of Burroughs’ key thematic concerns is intact: The people of Barsoom worship a goddess called Issus, whom they deem benevolent. Her existence, however, is revealed to Carter to be a myth perpetrated by the villainous Thern, a humanoid race of Martians who secretly exploit select planets (even Earth, it’s suggested) and, unbeknownst to the inhabitants, drain them of their resources.

A distrust of organized religion runs throughout the original series. Stanton, whose filmography to date has little to say in the way of theology, gives this detail the briefest of glances, proving to be fascinating and maddening in equal measure—fascinating because it pulls the rug out from under the audience, allowing them to see past the curtain in a way the characters cannot, and maddening because the rest of the film is devoid of these grander ambitions, largely content to parade out its computer-generated spaceships and monsters in headache-inducing 3-D.

Ultimately, the film works best when it masquerades as other genres, particularly the western, succeeding where Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys and Aliens” failed. It’s near impossible to miss the allusions: the primitive Thark tribe is an obvious stand in for Native Americans, while the vast desert landscape of Mars evokes any number of classic western settings.

Stanton isn’t averse to references, either. An early sequence, in which Carter attempts to outrun a group of Union cavalrymen only to be cut off by a batch of Apaches, recalls the likes of Anthony Mann. Additionally, a series of flashbacks detailing the death of Carter’s late wife and daughter are clearly borrowed from John Ford’s “The Searchers.” These elements are enough to make “John Carter” a slight step above the usual tripe Hollywood doles out this time of year.