John Carter doesn’t give you much to go on by way of a title, but being directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) you can guess there’s probably a lot of CGI involved. True to form, it’s an epic fantasy adventure that’s visually astonishing. Based on a series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter was originally slated to go into production as “John Carter of Mars,” with director Kerry Conran (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow). With Disney at the helm, however, the tone of the film has become family friendly and fun for all.
Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights TV series, X-Men: Wolverine) plays John Carter, a Civil War veteran attempting to elude soldiers trying to recruit him back into service as he goes about looking for gold. He stumbles upon a time-space portal that transports him to Mars (Barsoom). At this strange place, he finds himself endowed with extraordinary powers that make him superhuman. This makes him an asset to the tribe of Martians (Tharks) who look distantly related to Jar Jar Binks of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. They befriend or enslave him to serve under their master Tars Tarkus (Willem Defoe). He soon finds himself in the middle of a war among the tribes of Mars. Falling in love with the Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), he loses interest in returning home to Earth.
As comic-book-novel as it sounds, this film becomes more cutesy than it should be. An ogre-like animal (think Jabba the Hutt on all fours) turns out to be a loyal doglike companion to John Carter, a tortured Thark named Sola (Samantha Morton) becomes his sidekick, and John Carter must rescue the princess forced to marry the evil Sab Than (Dominic West). Did we really need a Mars setting for that storyline? A fairytale castle in the Kingdom of Hearts would have done just as well. However, the cuteness did make up the funny and heartfelt moments of the film.
Mark Strong lends eeriness to the scenario as Matai Shang, the leader of the Holy Therns, the guardians of the secret portal to and from Earth. He counsels Sab Than in his pursuit of planet domination while shift changing into various forms. He resembles the Star Trek Martians from the original TV series who had mind bending skills and communicated by telepathy.
What is a mindbender is that the Red Men of Mars aren’t really red at all but henna-tattooed and humanoid. The differences between them and the Tharks besides having less appendages are that they are more technologically advanced and they apparently need counsel of the eerie Holy Therns. As modern people of Earth we also wonder, if there is scarce water on Mars, how the creatures bathe themselves regularly – especially the princess who looks exceptionally well groomed for her wedding. On the other hand, John Carter maintains his dirty scruffy look throughout most of the film – not that we mind that at all on Taylor Kitsch.