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"JOHN CARTER"
(2012) (Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-Fi: A Civil War veteran finds himself transported to Mars where he ends up in the middle of a battle for control of the planet.
PLOT:
It's 1881 and young Edgar Rice Burroughs (DARYL SABARA) learns that his uncle, John Carter (TAYLOR KITSCH), has died and left his estate to him. Reading through his uncle's journal, he learns of John's adventures 13 years earlier as a former Confederate cavalryman who, after run-ins with Colonel Powell (BRYAN CRANSTON) and the local Indian population of Arizona, ended up magically transported to Mars. Due to the lower degree of gravity there than on Earth, he's something of a Civil War version of Superman, possessing great strength and the ability to leap amazing distances.

That comes in handy when he encounters Tars Tarkas (WILLEM DAFOE), a Barsooman warrior and leader of his tribe of 12-foot tall, four-armed beings who try to avoid the more technologically advanced and humanlike warring parties that are destroying each other and the planet. The aggressor is the city nation of Zodanga, lead by Sab Than (DOMINIC WEST). He's been given a powerful weapon by the godlike Matai Shang (MARK STRONG) and has been wiping out other city nations, much to the dismay of Tardos Mors (CIARAN HINDS) who leads Helium, the last movable city still standing.

His adult daughter, Princess Dejah Thoris (LYNN COLLINS), is willing to fight to the death and thus isn't happy that her father has agreed to an arranged marriage between her and Sab Than in hopes of that bringing about peace. She finds an unlikely ally in Carter who's also had to deal with becoming the property of Tars Tarkas' adult daughter, Sola (SAMANTHA MORTON), all while Tal Hajus (THOMAS HADEN CHURCH) is constantly challenging her father's rule.

As Matai Shang attempts to coordinate how everything will play out, John Carter tries to find his way back to Earth, but eventually realizes he must help Dejah Thoris defeat the Zodangans before it's too late and she becomes Sab Than's unwilling bride.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
To paraphrase the legendary Welsh crooner Tom Jones, "It's not unusual" to hear tales of movies that have long and tortured paths from origin up to the point of being projected on a screen in finished form. For some, it's a legal matter that resulted in a delayed release or the halting of production or pre-production. For other films, smaller studios sometimes go out of business, thus leaving projects in limbo, while some are delayed due to post-production issues such as the special effects needing more time to be completed.

Then there legendary stories of scripts that have been around forever but never filmed, while the same holds true for non-cinematic fiction such as novels, short stories, comic books and such that, for one reason or another, simply have yet to be turned into a movie. I have no idea what the current record holder might be in terms of time from original publication to released movie, but Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars" certainly has to be among the top contenders.

Published in 1917, the work featured a character by the name of John Carter who actually appeared 5 years earlier in Burroughs' serialized "Under the Moons of Mars." Carter then appeared in many more of Burroughs's Barsoom novels over the years, prompting Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett to attempt to make a full-length animated film from that material.

That ultimately failed as did later attempts by legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen in the 1950s, "Die Hard" director John McTiernan and star Tom Cruise in the 1980s, and then directors Robert Rodriguez and Jon Favreau in the 2000s. Now, 100 years after his first appearance in print, John Carter finally arrives on the big screen in a movie titled, what else, "John Carter."

With a budget reported in the $250 million range, a story and character that most people aren't familiar with, elements that will remind viewers of other sci-fi films, and featuring leads that aren't exactly well-known names to all of the masses, the film is a huge gamble for Walt Disney Pictures. Only time will tell if it pays off for them, but the obvious question that remains simply boils down to "Is it any good?"

Despite early previews that made it look downright awful, the pic isn't half bad. Yes, it has elements that some/many will feel are ripped off from and/or too similar to nearly the same in "Avatar" and some of the "Star Wars" flicks. Yes, it's far too convoluted (for what it's trying to be) and not always satisfactorily explained in terms of characters, their groupings and parts of the story. Yes, some parts of it aren't believable (even in a world featuring astral projection, four-armed aliens and such) and the special effects aren't always as, well, special as they should be considering the mega budget.

But it does have its share of charms, some decent action sequences, bits of unexpected humor, and the leads are certainly easy on the eye. Even so, and despite the arduous and long path to get it up on the screen, one expects more of the pic, especially considering that director Andrew Stanton is behind the camera. Following in the animation to live action footsteps of fellow Pixar alum Brad Bird (who made the highly entertaining "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol"), Stanton cut his directorial teeth on the likes of the terrific "Finding Nemo" and "WALL-E" before deciding to tackle this project.

Perhaps Stanton -- who co-wrote this script with Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon -- should have gotten some pointers from Bird about the transition, because this film simply isn't as enjoyable or fun as his previous Pixar offerings. And that can't be blamed on all of the special effects since, you know, that's pretty much what his aforementioned films were from start to finish.

Maybe it was just me, but this film feels as if it was removed from the oven before it was ready. The ingredients are present -- as disparate as they might be considering the mix of a Civil War veteran character with Martians and other sci-fi elements -- but the overall project feels like it needed another pass or two through the pre-production screenwriting process and post-production editing work. Individual parts work, but as a whole it just doesn't come together as well as one would hope and/or expect.

Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins are okay as the leads (although her character is more engaging than his); Mark Strong and Dominic West's villains are a bit too cartoonish for my tastes; and the likes of Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton are a bit more interesting as the extra tall Martians (Barsoomans to be accurate), even if they're going to remind too many viewers of similar sized aliens in "Avatar."

Since we already waited a century for John Carter to appear on the silver screen, a few extra weeks or months probably would have done this film good in terms of tightening the narrative and creating a more entertaining experience. Not the cinematic train wreck I feared, but nothing great either, "John Carter" has its moments, but not enough to raise above mediocrity. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed March 1, 2012 / Posted March 9, 2012


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