Edgar Rice Burroughs’ serialized adventures featuring former Confederate Captain John Carter were originally published 100 years ago in a pulp magazine called “The All-Story,” and now we have a 3-D Disney extravaganza that cost a zillion dollars, directed by Andrew Stanton of Pixar renown as his first live-action feature.
There is reason for the elitist movie fan to beware, not to mention all the carping that’s flooding fan sites. And yet, it seems you can’t keep a good story down. “John Carter” zooms forward, fueled by a highly professional, mostly British cast with a few solid American character actors, imaginative and comprehensible action sequences, a really attractive leading man, and a whole lot of imagination. The plot doesn’t always make sense, the characters are types, the little dialogue is mostly forgettable, but an exuberant gee-whiz spirit keeps the whole thing going and takes the viewer along for the ride. I liked it.
Stanton and his fellow screenwriters Mark Andrews and the novelist Michael Chabon have cleverly framed the story through Carter’s nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs reading his deceased uncle’s journal. A grand adventurer, Carter describes his experiences on Barsoom (that’s what they call Mars up there) in his diary, the volume that he‘s left to his heir. His youthful nephew, an appealingly dorky and wide-eyed Daryl Sabara, makes total sense as the future writer of imaginative fiction and perhaps as a meta-commentary on the whole creative enterprise.
Several scenes set on Earth establish Carter as an honor-loving skilled swordsman and horseman, so when we see him jump on an eight-legged creature and stir it to a furious gallop or massacre twenty Barsoonian soldiers single handed, we’re with him. Filmed in London and Utah, the visual contrast between a gloomy nineteenth-century Earth and the alien Barsoom, which seems to be mostly desert, is striking too. The movie looks great, from the wind-swept landscapes to the dragonfly delicacy of the flying machines. The reddish humanoid Barsoonians have the same fashion sense as comic-book ancient Romans--lots of drapery with plenty of skin showing. And that skin is covered with gorgeous tattooing. The primitive 12-foot Tharks with their double arms just have green hide and some junky Indian-style jewelry, but great tusks that jut out beneath their ears.