Saturday, March 17, 2012

Disney's bloated 'John Carter' doesn't deliver

Disney's latest attempt at kicking off a live-action adventure series that could be its new "Pirates of the Caribbean" is "John Carter," a film following the exploits of a Civil War veteran magically transported to a very different Civil War on Mars.

"John Carter" is a flashy $250 million adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars," the first in a series of Mars adventures. Written in the early years of the 20th century, this series was one of the inspirations of "Star Wars" and was hugely influential on the sci-fi genre.

Much like Tarzan, Burroughs' other iconic character, John Carter spends most of the film showing off his rippling muscles. Taylor Kitsch, who plays Carter, has the well toned body, but perhaps should've spent a bit more time work on his acting chops. He is more than able in the action scene, but lacks charisma, depth or chemistry with his love interest, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).

For the most part, the film seems faithful to the source material with the introductions of the multiple armed green martians named Tharks and the feuding humanoid martians from the rival cities of Helium and Zodanga. To end the feud, Helium princess Dejah Thoris must marry Sab Than (Dominic West).

This adaptation by director Andrew Stanton and co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon also adds the Therns, which appeared in the later novels "Warlords of Mars" and "Gods of Mars." Therns present themselves as Gods and hold sway over the races of Mars. Mark Strong, seemingly forever typecast as a villain, is seen throughout the film manipulating the sides supposedly to keep balance.

On the level of story, this is all fine and well, but the execution is clunky and riddled with cliches. The most painful of which is the use of the monologuing villain, in which the bad guy, instead of simply killing the hero when he has the chance, explains his plans in very specific detail. It is a groan-inducing device that makes the scenes following it predictable and dull.

In movies like this we clearly know the final outcome: The hero will save the day and get the girl, so it is how you get there that counts. In "John Carter" that journey is rather pedestrian although there are a few saving graces.

There are some decent action scenes, but there's nothing that really lingers in the mind. John Carter, because of the differences in gravity between Earth and Mars, has super-human strength and the ability to leap really, really far. The scene in which he first discovers this is funny and entertaining. After that though his ability to leap becomes ho-hum.

The acting is also rather bland. Not bad per se, just, again, nothing that sticks in the memory. Collins is the exception. She takes the largely thankless role of a princess and adds at least some flashes of humanity to an underwritten character.

The best character in "John Carter" is Woola, a martian dog who becomes the title character's loyal companion. He is a fantastically rendered computer-generated creature (for that matter all the CG characters are first rate). Woola provides comic relief and is a genuinely fun character in a movie that otherwise takes itself too seriously. It also says something that a computer-generated martian dog with no dialogue has more personality than any other character.

Outside of Woola, the best thing about "John Carter" is a story frame in which the seemingly dead Carter wills his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), his journal chronicling his adventures. These scenes are better handled than anything on Mars and feature a genuinely clever twist.

The problem with the film is that in the century since the John Carter character was created we've had "Star Wars," "Star Trek" and other space adventures that had more style, wit and substance than this adaptation of Burroughs' character has to offer.

Had "John Carter" tightened the slack pacing and added some sharper writing, the film would've been greatly improved. As is, it is an instantly forgettable two-hour distraction.

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