Let’s Talk About John Carter

Not since Hearts in Atlantis have I been so motivated to read a book after watching its film adaptation. In the case of Hearts in Atlantis (read my full review here), I had read the story prior to seeing the film, and was so taken aback by the ending that I stopped the video before credits had even begun to roll, ran straight to the book, and re-read the ending. I was certain my memory was playing tricks on me, so different was the film’s ending from the book’s. But no, the film had been “Disnified”, to coin a term from my husband. I have to wonder if this may have also been the case with John Carter.

Considering the source material is a story by none other than Edgar Rice Burroughs, certainly director Andrew Stanton (who by all accounts is wonderful) wanted to be as faithful to the original book as he possibly could. At least, I hope the midsection of the story was based on original content, and not “spiced up” to garner higher box office. Maybe it’s just me–and maybe I’m a bit spoiled by the likes of Christopher Nolan–but the entire middle of the movie seemed to drag on forever, with little conflict to explore other than an ongoing war. Burroughs’ stories certainly had their share of violent conflict, and this was no different. And yes, the female lead was very strong, yet she still had her stereotypes to fulfill, including being pushed into an arranged marriage. Again. (sigh) There was potential for character development in both John Carter and various supporting characters, but these were opportunities left unexplored. They all had their stereotypes to live up to–no more, no less. And, most important, I never got around to really empathizing for the characters.

That said, the scenery and cinematography was truly breathtaking. I was only aware at a couple of points that this was filmed in Utah (yes, I did my homework, ha ha), and the CGI characters appeared mostly natural. Some of John Carter’s movements were a bit jerky for my tastes, and did appear too unnatural because of it. However, the fight scenes (of which there were many) rivaled the Lord of the Rings movies in their grandeur. And their length–or possibly just their frequency. Lots of spectacle; not a lot of heart.

But then…there’s the ending. And the beginning, for that matter.

Surrounding the midsection of this movie like a couple of beautifully-crafted bookends was the story I wanted to see. Edgar Rice Burroughs himself becomes a character in the movie, as a nephew of John Carter’s. The reason Burroughs (or “dear Ned”) is summoned into the story, as well as the resolution of that story, were the parts which held my interest the most. Sadly, they were also the shortest parts of this rather lengthy movie. The middle of the movie seemed to drag on so long that I had nearly forgotten how the story had begun, until it came time to end. I found myself wondering if this tale couldn’t have been told in a style more similar to–dare I say–The Princess Bride. Both movies are told as a story within a story, but Princess Bride breaks away from the central tale to remind you of the events surrounding it. By the time John Carter‘s story finally resolved itself, I found myself much more captivated by its telling, and feeling much more empathy toward the characters. Unfortunately, by the time my heart and mind became so fully engaged, the ending credits had begun to roll. I do wish there had been more of that story sprinkled throughout the entire film, rather than tacked onto the end.

So what is to be made of John Carter? As I said, I am very motivated to read its source material, “A Princess of Mars”. Having read only a very brief summary of the book, I do wonder how much the depth of Burroughs’ characters was sacrificed for the sake of plot and action. It is my presumption that the beginning and ending were written specifically for the movie, which might explain why I enjoyed them more. The story does redeem itself for me at the end, but not nearly as much as I would have liked. I guess I was expecting something along the lines of a live-action version of Disney’s Tarzan. At least Taylor Kitsch was very lovely to watch. Oh, and you’ll never notice it (at least, I didn’t), but Tars Tarkas–leader of the Tharks–was portrayed by none other than Willem Dafoe. At least, as much as he could be.

In my opinion, if you’re looking for something along the lines of a “popcorn movie” — ala Transformers, Avengers, etc. — you’ll probably enjoy this quite a bit, and maybe even get a little more than you expected out of it. As I said, the look of the movie itself is quite beautiful, even without viewing it in 3D. But if you’re coming to this movie as a fan of Andrew Stanton and his particular storytelling style, I’m afraid you’ll likely find this movie a bit lacking.

Side note: as a musician and as a moviegoer who always stays seated through all of the ending credits, I was happily surprised to see nestled among the credits the names and instrumentation of all of the musicians in the orchestra who performed the score. Bravo! And speaking of the score, Michael Giacchino once again delivers absolutely beautiful music to accompany the visual spectacle. In spite of the loss Disney is expecting at the box office, I hope Andrew Stanton will continue to do more film work for them–both live-action and animated. I continue to be a huge fan of his work, and will look forward to his next project, whatever it may be.

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