(Dir: Andrew Stanton, 2012)
John Carter, of Mars, offers us the second example in recent months of directors who are renowned for their work in animation successfully making the transition into live action directing. Although it seems to help greatly if Pixar was the animation house that was your proving ground. Firstly there was Brad Bird, the visionary genius behind the stunning The Iron Giant as well as The Incredibles and Ratatouille, who marked his live action debut with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, which although not as good as the aforementioned films, was a thoroughly entertaining and well put together action thriller. And now Andrew Stanton enters the fray with John Carter, his live action debut following on from his work on the excellent Wall·E and Monsters, Inc.. For both directors the films chosen for their live action debuts appear to be logical extensions of what they have done previously.
Based on a character created a hundred years ago by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who himself is neatly written into the story, John Carter the film is about John Carter the man (Taylor Kitsch), a confederate soldier in the American Civil War who is inadvertently transported to Mars, which happens to not be the desolate empty planet that we think of today. There are different tribes living on Mars, some resembling humans and others not, but as ever with these types of stories there is the threat of war between the tribes which Carter quickly finds himself in the middle of, echoing his current time and place on Earth. But his involvement and inadvertent assistance of princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) adds an extra dimension to his story.
One of the key elements to making this story work is the rich mythology that’s established and built up. This is an alien landscape but with shades of humanity and it feels like there is a detailed history here. It's never fully explained but little snippets of customs and other interesting bits of background about the planet add to the authenticity, like knowing that the indigenous name for Mars is Barsoom. It’s this kind of thing that can make a difference in believing in the world that's being presented to us. One of the tribes, the Tharks, are tall green characters with four arms, who are completely digitally created. These work as they're interesting and fit well into this world, unlike many other films that strongly feature purely digital characters. Perhaps this is Stanton's background in animation successfully coming into play?
Kitsch is good and very likeable as Carter. He is suitably physical and driven, whilst offering enough to keep us interested in the character. The early scenes set on Earth in the 1800's offer a nice contrast and serve to anchor Carter, giving us context about who he is, whilst on Barsoom he plays the fish-out-of-water character well, taking everything in his stride but sticking to his ideals whilst figuring out where he is and how to get home again. The relationship between Carter and princess Dejah is pitched just right and develops well, chiefly because her character is so strong and well matched to Carter. When they're on screen together it's interesting.
The film doesn’t go too overboard on the action front, but these scenes do offer enough of a thrill. Yes it’s a cgi heavy film but fortunately this almost entirely works, with only a handful of scenes (mostly in one sequence) that look obviously fake. The focus is primarily on the characters so it's easy to stay involved in what's happening on screen, and the impressive supporting cast helps too, with Mark Strong, Dominic West, Ciarán Hinds, Willem Defoe and Bryan Cranston all cropping up.
John Carter is not a revelatory film by any means, but it is a solid sci-fi action adventure with its own unique charms, mostly due to its pulpy history and the interesting mythology it establishes for itself. On top of that it’s well cast and is very well put together. Yes the story is pretty average and it looks like it's had a lot of money thrown at it, which is probably why everything feels so grand, but fortunately it avoids coming across too brash in the way many other big budget blockbusters have a tendency too (the Transformers films for example). Stanton has made the transition to live action well and I look forward to seeing what he does next. It's fair to say I liked John Carter.
(Note: In the advertising for John Carter, Disney is strongly pushing that it's a 3D film. I chose to see the film in 2D, primarily because the early word was that the 3D ruins the film and should be avoided at all cost. Watching the film in 2D I couldn’t see how 3D would benefit the story or film in any way.)