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John Carter

Entry updated 3 January 2022. Tagged: Film.

Film (2012). Walt Disney Pictures (see The Walt Disney Company). Directed by Andrew Stanton. Written by Stanton & Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, based on A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (February-July 1912 All-Story as "Under the Moons of Mars" as by Norman Bean; 1917). Cast includes Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Taylor Kitsch, Samantha Morton, Daryl Sabara, Mark Strong and Dominic West. 132 minutes. Colour, 3D (converted).

Civil War veteran Carter (Kitsch) bequeaths Edgar Rice Burroughs (Sabara) the story of his Teleportation to Barsoom (Mars) and his adventures there with Tars Tarkas (Dafoe) and the warrior princess Dejah Thoris (Collins) against her rival suitor the nefarious warlord Sab Than (West), who is aided by the star-roaming predatory Thents; the manuscript, and Carter's faked death, turn out to be a ruse to lure Martian agents to Earth where he can steal their means of return, and Carter beams back to Barsoom to rejoin his bride.

Appearing in the series' centenary year, this was not quite the first feature version of Burroughs' novel, having been beaten by spoiler factory The Asylum with their low-budget, present-set DVD version Princess of Mars (2009; vt John Carter of Mars 2012). Nevertheless, its arrival broke a jinx reaching back to 1931, when Bob Clampett tried to make the novel into what would have been the first animated feature, only for MGM to get cold feet after some tantalizing test footage which anticipates Flash Gordon. Disney's first version in the eighties came to nothing, as did Paramount's version in 2002-2006 under Robert Rodriguez, Kerry Conran (see Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) and ultimately Jon Favreau, whose team would instead move on to make Iron Man after continuing indecision at Paramount allowed the option to lapse and the rights to be picked up again by Disney, now hoping to spin the series into a major franchise. The colossal success of the Burroughs-homaging Avatar (2009) made Planetary Romance seem briefly a viable blockbuster genre, at a time when the Disney/Pixar alliance was looking to extend into live action, and WALL-E writer-director Stanton seemed a safe pair of hands for the expensive investment; but though the film performed well internationally, its enormous production and marketing costs and a lacklustre domestic box office led to Disney taking a $200m writedown on the project, more than double the losses of the genre's previous biggest flop A Sound of Thunder (2005).

Stanton's film has many charms as a rendering of Burroughs' characters, world, and ambience. Kitsch and Collins both impress; the digital Tharks are state-of-the-art; the aerial sequences soar and thrill; action set pieces are skilfully staged; and the overall tone strikes an effective balance between fish-out-of-water interplanetary comedy of manners and the novel's palpable yearning for a life of manhood, meaning, and adventure. But the film smooths away much of the frank brutality of Burroughs' conception of Thark society, and with it the more thoughtful and humane aspects of Burroughs' reflection on civilization and primitivism across racial (and planetary) divides; while much of the plot is a straggling mess, overextending the terrestrial prologue and retrojecting or entirely reconceiving elements from the later books in an effort to repair the deficiencies in Burroughs' page-turning but shapeless narrative. The Utah-based Martian landscape has grandeur, but compares austerely with the fecund, colour-bursting forests of Pandora, and prospect of the planned trilogy swiftly receded. The novelization is John Carter (2012 dos) by Stuart Moore, bound with a reissue of Burroughs' A Princess of Mars. [NL]


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