Fewer movies will be released this year that seem like they weren’t merely made but rather willed into existence and painstakingly crafted into genuine entertainment as much as John Carter. This is a movie that despite its flaws (which I’ll get to shortly) bleeds passion, ambition, imagination, and excitement from its pores. It respects the source material while finding ways to update and expand Burroughs’ narratives beyond the printed page.
This movie is pure fun. I love how Stanton and his co-writers Mark Andrews (the director of the upcoming Pixar feature Brave) and novelist Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys) tell the story from the perspective of Burroughs himself, portrayed here as a awe-inspired young man by Daryl Sabara (Spy Kids), in keeping with the narrative of A Princess of Mars. By inserting the actual creator of John Carter into the story the filmmakers shrewdly imply that Burroughs had some real-life inspiration for his amazing tales, much in the way Rudyard Kipling appeared as a supporting character (played by Christopher Plummer) in John Huston’s 1975 adaptation of the author’s classic story The Man Who Would Be King. The entire story is told by Carter in the form of a journal he bequeathed to his favorite nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs after he suddenly dies. Best of all Stanton and company use the wraparound story to great effect in John Carter. But once Carter reaches the planet of Barsoom the real fun begins. There are spectacular battles on great airships that recall Return of the Jedi, a sword-slashing melee between Carter and an army of vicious brutes that could have come from one of the late Frank Frazetta’s paintings, and wondrous visuals depicting fantastic Martian cities. Alien creatures are brilliantly realized by the film’s effects team. The Tharks are rendered using motion capture CGI and the actors chosen to portray the main Thark characters are all terrific and expressive in their roles, in particular Willem Dafoe as the noble, battle-hardened Tars Tarkas and Samantha Morton as the sweet but haunted Sola. Thomas Haden Church and Polly Walker fare almost as well as the treacherous Tal Hajus and Sarkoja respectively.
None of the actors playing the Tharks are given the chance to truly shine the way Andy Serkis did last year in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but they still do wonderful work. The humanoid denizens of Mars are also a mixed bag, but I truly enjoyed Lynn Collins as the beautiful and headstrong Dejah Thoris, looking lovely with red etchings on her skin and a fire in her eyes that would motivate any man to join her cause. James Purefoy, as Dejah’s brave fellow warrior Kantos Kan, brings mighty swash-buckling flair and great humor to his performance. Dominic West and Mark Strong both make for capable villains, but neither are able to adequately project the deadly charisma and menace of the greatest of classic movie baddies.