First came a clown fish without a sense of humour searching for his lost son. Second, a trash compactor with a personality looking for love. Now, an American Civil War Captain trapped on the planet Mars is the latest unorthodox hero protagonist for director Andrew Stanton's newest Disney epic, John Carter.
A two-time Academy Award winner, Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) is no stranger when it comes to films with massive scales and budgets -- but he is when it comes to live action. Stepping out of the pixelated world of Pixar for the first time, Stanton was given the whopping budget of $250-million to bring a century-old book series by Edgar Rice Burroughs to the big screen in John Carter.
Set in 1868, the story follows John Carter, played by Taylor Kitsch, a former American Civil War Army Captain who lost his family and his reason to fight. While being pursued to rejoin the confederate army, Carter is mysteriously transported to the planet Mars. On Mars, the planet has two inhabiting cities, Helium and Zodanga, with human-like people who are also in the midst of their own civil war that is slowly killing the planet. Outside of any city walls Carter is taken in by a barbarian species known as the Tharks. Carter and the Tharks find themselves in the middle of this civil war after a deadly battle leaves the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris, behind.
Confused yet? You should be.
John Carter is obviously unlike Stanton's previous two Disney/Pixar films appearance-wise, but unfortunately is also unlike them story-wise. Both Finding Nemo and Wall-E had tremendously large scopes, whether it be Australia's deep sea ocean or the futuristic barren Earth, yet both films had that introduction period early on so audiences would know what kind of universe the film's story was set in. John Carter did not have that intro period. The film has a steep learning curve in its story department after John is almost immediately dropped into a new world. Unless you had grown up with Burroughs' visitor on Mars adventure novels, and knew all of the different alien terminology, you will be playing catch-up for the first 30 minutes of the film. This is both disappointing and surprising considering Stanton's past two films relied heavily on their near-perfect story development to advance each film's plot.
The combination of the fantastical alien world of Barsoom (aka Mars) and Carter being from a stronger gravitational planet like Earth made for some spectacular visuals. Kitsch's Carter has abilities just short of Superman when he arrives on Barsoom, being able to jump vast distances with ease and having superhuman strength because of the planet's lower gravity, which makes for some very dynamic fight sequences. Then, with the world of Barsoom, you can easily tell that every other dollar of that $250-million budget went towards making the world into an epic cinematic landscape unlike no other. The problem with these incredible onscreen images is that unless audiences can blindly embrace the ridiculousness of the film's premise they weren't properly introduced to, they are wasted on the common viewer.
The average movie-goer accepts a certain amount of the absurd when entering a movie like John Carter. You expect to be amazed by characters, creatures, and a world like you've never seen before while having a great story to keep that kind of absurdity grounded. John Carter has that story, but I think it failed in telling it right. Normally, where a film of this grand size and scale falters is in its second act, where stories typically run out of steam. John Carter, rather, stumbles in its beginning and most of its end, yet does manage to have a strong centre for the majority of the lengthy 137-minute running time.
John Carter had the potential to be one of the great Hollywood epics, but it cut too many corners when telling this tale. Too much is expected of the audience to fill in the blanks, overshadowing the other many accomplishments the film has to offer. Stanton's live-action theatrical debut is a masterpiece in filmmaking, but it is a masterpiece that was left unfinished.
Andrew Burns loves film and comics, and can be found writing about when those worlds converge. You can follow him on Twitter at @myAndrewBurns.