Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Disney's John Carter (2012)

The fan-made trailer that Disney should have used.

Is any press good press? And is that a question asked by Disney's marketeers before they practically threw their most recent attempt at a big-budget film franchise John Carter under the bus? And is it a question that has been answered after John Carter's negatively anticipated opening weekend?

Prior to its release, the story about John Carter became the lack of a story. Media outlets paid attention not to any virtue it may or may not have, but to the fact that Disney seemed either not to know how to market it or seemingly chose not to throw good money after bad. They focused on the fact that Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels are not exactly renowned in mainstream culture, and on the fact that there was next to no public anticipation for it, and on the fact that it cost somewhere in the vicinity of $250 million to make. And the media talked about this a lot.

Then advance screenings went out and the people lucky enough to be paid critics started to weigh their opinions. As of Saturday, March 10th, half-way through John Carter's opening weekend, it sat at 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. The funny thing about it is that at least a good half of the negative reviews were actually positive reviews if you actually like the kind of movie John Carter is supposed to be. For example, Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star-Ledger, regarded as a "top critic" with a gold star and everything, lambasted the experience for being like "watching a dusty old sword-and-sandal epic." No Stephen, that is a good thing. That is what it is supposed to be like, and I love sword-and-sandal epics. (The other half mostly complained that John Carter had several characters each with motivations who needed to be kept track of for the story to make sense, and doing that is haaaaaard) Almost to a one, positive critics cited what John Carter actually is: Rafer Guzman of Newsday, another gold-star top critic, said "it's an enjoyable throwback to the movie spectacles of a more innocent age." Exactly!

Finally along came the audiences. Despite only a 50% freshness rating from the critics, 72% of the responding audience enjoyed it. When I went to see it on Saturday night, the theatre was practically full and a line was forming for the next show when we exited. The domestic gross came out to $30.6 million, which is actually a fairly normal figure, especially for a movie debuting in March. It did much better in the foreign market, to the tune of $70.6M, which Forbes' Roger Friedman attempted to downplay with the racist proclamation that "Released in countries where English wasn’t necessary... It’s a hit if you don’t need to follow the plot but want to see some cool effects." My girlfriend graciously joined me despite her preference for Disney's fairy tales and never having heard of Barsoom before in her life, and she thoroughly enjoyed it. We're both Canadians though, so what do we know? Obviously it's the foreigners who have bad taste, right Roger?

Any positive word-of-mouth John Carter receives is deserved. On the Disney scale, it has been their best live-action film since Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, which was Disney's best live-action film in decades, and Disney's best genre film since the mighty 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Granted that might not be saying much, since it's competing with Island at the Top of the World, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, The Rocketeer and another Burroughs adaptation, Tarzan, all of which I liked and think are unfairly maligned. One of the ways in which Disney marketeering was asleep at the switch was not including little facts in the trailers like "From the Director of Wall-E and Finding Nemo" and "From the Creator of Tarzan". Nevertheless, John Carter exceeds being "good for a Disney film" and is just plain good.

Any filmmaker who approaches Edgar Rice Burroughs' work is faced with a challenge of how to work with nigh on unfilmable material. There is a reason why there has never been a truly book-accurate adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes. Its disjointed, nearly plotless sequence of things that happen to Tarzan one after another would make a terrible movie. Yet there have been some fantastic Tarzan movies, from the Johnny Weissmuller classics of the Thirties to Disney's. Pixar's Andrew Stanton, whose previous credit highlight was directing two Academy Award Best Animated Feature winners, had a less formidable task with A Princess of Mars. Unlike later Barsoom novels, the first is a pretty solid piece of work with good, exciting scenes that only needed some massaging.... A massaging in of why any of this is happening to John Carter and a massaging out of the cringeworthy artifacts of the time and culture in which it was written. Stanton accomplishes both with aplomb.

In A Princess of Mars, Carter ends up on Mars through some kind of spontaneous mental transference, becomes inadvertently involved in the politics of Mars, and is mentally transferred back to Earth at the moment of an otherwise heroic death saving the planet. In Disney's John Carter, our hero stumbles across one of the interplanetary transfer points being used by the Thern, or white martians, and is accidentally transported to Mars by one of their indistinguishable-from-magic medallions. The political intrigues of Barsoom, into which Carter is thrust, are spurred along by the Thern to their own Machiavellian ends. The climax is not as random as the book's, and actually has to do with defeating the intrigues of these shapeshifting schemers. Stanton has taken all the best elements of the book and structured them in a coherent plot that sets up it trilogy quite well. For my money, Carter will return to a Barsoom oppressed by the Thern, take his Hero's Journey down the Iss to confront them and the power behind them, only to return and raise Barsoom up against their oppressors in the third film. Though being compared frequently to Star Wars and Avatar, the film that should have been called John Carter of Mars most brings to mind Lawrence of Arabia.

Assuming, of course, that there will be sequels. If Disney is planning further films in the Tron franchise, then by God they better be considering "John Carter and the Gods of Mars" and "John Carter: Warlord of Mars".

One valid complaint is that Taylor Kitsch is somewhat uncharismatic in a story that depends so profoundly on the protagonist's personal charisma. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Carter is given an actual character arc, unlike the novels where he just does his stuff. His choices to fight for Barsoom and Dejah Thoris are a direct growth out of his losses as a soldier during the American Civil War. Stanton even goes so far as to provide audiences with one of the most moving battle scenes I've ever seen. In most films, scenes of sex and violence are pointless. They seem to exist only for spectacle and titillation, and if they achieve any kind of impact it is usually by emotionally manipulative means (like the ubiquitous slow-motion death scene). There are very few that exist which actually tell us something significant about the human condition or the characters involved. When Carter turns to face down pursuing enemies so that Dejah Thoris can escape, and the viciousness of his assault on them is cut with Carter burying his wife and child back in Virginia, it leaps off the screen in a way that its digital 3D novelty cannot. The scene even tells us something about the character and general awesomeness of Woola, the wordless calot dog-beast.

By many accounts Woola stole the show as well, which is no mean feat for a beast that could have easily been made into obnoxious kid appeal (not that it matters, since Disney also dropped the ball on toys). Just enough of him is seen to make us love him, and every time he is seen he counts for something. The Tharks were well-realized, though in my mind's eye they actually looked more like how the white apes turned out. Perhaps the most unenviable task fell to Lynn Collins, given the role of Dejah Thoris, The Most Beautiful Woman in the Universe. Dejah is necessarily one of those characters that looks different to everyone who reads her lines, but Collins works astonishingly well. She is absolutely stunning, and not only does she retain her intelligent imperiousness, but she further cements her status as a Sci-Fi fantasy goddess by being good with a sword. Expect to see raven-haired cosplayers in red eyeliner tattoos at the next regional comic-con.

John Carter is, by itself, a solid and enjoyable Planetary Romance... a Sci-Fi sword-and-sandal epic that is exactly what it should be. In many ways it could be likened to Science Fiction's Lord of the Rings: a foundational text to the genre rendered in epic form. And frankly, I liked it a lot more than I liked Lord of the Rings, it having a coherent plot and intelligible direction being no small part of the reason. Brisk action scenes are complimented with well-staged exposition and genuine levity, including a running joke about John's name that never seemed to get tired. It's a very definite contender for the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing, which is the de facto category for best Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror or War film.

I can't help but wonder if John Carter's marketing wouldn't have been in better hands if it was a Disney*Pixar film instead of just a Disney one. That could have actually used the draw of the studio and made that connection to who Andrew Stanton is, not to mention reframe the media's narrative from "Disney's next live-action flop" to "Pixar's first live-action blockbuster!" For now it will have to rely on a reputation garnered from the people who dropped $100M to see it on opening weekend. Hopefully a good reputation will increase its draw over the coming weeks and prove to Disney that their marketeers don't know what they're doing. I mean, are we really going to be getting a Pandora at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom theme park instead of a Barsoom? Really?


spajadigit said...

I hate to disagree with you, but my take away was that while it wasn't a bad movie, it certainly wasn't a good one either.

As a fan of the original story I understand why they went in the direction the did, but it was a bad direction IMHO.

In the books, Carter is something of a misogynist by-product of the times. Uncomfortable around women he never really looked at them as equals. And this, I think, is where Stanton dropped the ball. The arc he should have used was where Carter started out the way Burroughs wrote him, (uncomfortable and sexist)and by the end, accepted Deja (and all women) as equal. To me, this would have been a much more interesting hero's journey and would have been drawn from the source material.

Especially since there didn't seem to be any real chemistry or tension between Deja and John, and I grew really tired of hearing him say he didn't fight for anyone. Again. And again.

A couple friends of mine mentioned the politics were overstated and reminded them a great deal of those in the Star Wars prequels. While I didn't find them that irritating, I can certainly see some parallels.

Another problem I had was how they played Woola, and how he stole the show. The reason Woola ended up being so loyal in the book was because everyone else beat the crap out of him and the other hounds on a regular basis. In the movie, it just kind of happened. As did the language barrier and a bunch of other things.

And finally, I realized that it wouldn't have been cool to show men and women walking around in their birthday suits wearing nothing but a harness on which to keep doodads. But I *hated* what they came up with- it's like they ignored Frazetta's and Vallejo's illustrations in lieu of a weird combination of roman and elvish armor.

Overall I liked the set designs and really liked the battles. My wife, who usually goes like or unlike on most movies, enjoyed the battles and hated the love story, and I kept seeing the Thun as Lord Blackwood from the Sherlock Holmes movie.

So yeah, I think you got a lot more out of this than I did!

Dan O. said...

Good review. Kitsch could have definitely been a little bit more charismatic but the flick still works due to amazing special effects and some really fun and exciting action. Sad thing is that this flick was made for $250 million and won’t make any of it back. Not a must-see by any means but still a good one to check out for the fun of it. Check out my review when you get the chance.

Marquis de Montcalm said...

Enjoyed your review very much. Reading a good review of an unfairly maligned movie is like listening with pleasure to someone compliment a friend. A rousing, old-fashioned film with great special effects and fascinating characters is something I guess most critics find wanting. As an old-time Barsoomian, I was prepared to be horrified by what Disney did, but I thought most of the changes were improvements or at least tolerable. You're right about Lynn Collins and her central role in making it memorable. She carried the movie, despite her lamentable father and his very un-Barsoomian policy of offering her up to the Zodangans. JC should have said "I still live" at least once though.

Cory Gross said...


Your idea for Carter's character arc isn't a bad one at all, though I could see a certain reluctance by Disney to go that route. It leaves it too open to accusations that it's promoting sexism and racism, as made by the same people who think that Disney Princesses also promote sexism.

The political scenes did bring to mind those in the Star Wars prequels, but I thought they were substantively btter. It's actually a little sad that Star Wars has so sullied people to the idea of a larger political context for what happens in a Sci-Fi movie. I thought those parts were dealt with briskly and shot in much more engaging way than "walking down a hallway, turning to face each other, then looking out a window, then sitting on a couch, then repeat".

I do agree that why Woola became Carter's lapdog could have been better explained (or better yet, shown). I could see the parts about the Iss and its significance also being lost on people who hadn't read the books, but perhaps that is something they are saving for the sequel.


Dan O.,

Not make any of it back? It took $101M on its opening weekend, and assuming that it keeps topping the charts everywhere else in the world, it will make it back no problem.

What I've actually been finding kind of disturbing about all of this buzz is how disgregarded the foreign market is... As though somehow it doesn't count because they're "just foreigners". If I was Disney, I would start by firing my entire marketing department, and after that I would take a sober look at how the balance of power has shifted. When your movie is #1 everywhere else in the world and makes over twice the domestic take, it's a sign to start developing more global strategies.

Or in the case of John Carter, ANY kind of strategy.

grouchomarxist said...

I was pleasantly surprised that they took so few liberties with the original material, and that most of the tweaks were fairly justifiable. Missus Marxist, who's never read any of the series, found it entertaining, too.

I have to say, though, that turning Carter into a giant flea was just plain ludicrous. A gravitational pull one-third of Earth's shouldn't mean he can jump hundreds of times higher. I know why they did it: So he could pull a Lois Lane with the princess and briefly confront the villain during that aerial battle sequence, instead of being just a grounded bystander as he was in the novel. My suspension of disbelief wouldn't have kicked if they exaggerated his naturally superior strength more than a bit (ERB certainly did) but this was, if you'll pardon the expression, too much of a leap.

Otherwise, Kitsch was adequate --thank you, Casting, for providing me with the chance to use that phrase! Agreed that Lynn Collins did a fine job with her Dejah Thoris and I second Monsieur le Marquis that Ciaran Hinds as Tardos Mors was a rather inexplicable choice. The poor guy looked like his breastplate was constantly pinching him, or maybe he was afflicted with kidney stones during the shoot, barely managing to get through his lines before a sprint for the toilet.

I wasn't expecting much from the costuming -- this is a Disney film, after all -- so I wasn't disappointed. But I was very impressed by the sets and art direction, particularly the way they echoed some of the original illustrations I'd seen in my old Dover reprints, as well as later illustrators like Frazetta. There were times when I felt the film actually captured something of Burroughs' Barsoom. Though again, I'm going to nitpick and wish they'd done the airships more like the flying dreadnaughts he described. And if these things are supposed to be solar-powered and therefore susceptible to losing power if an opponent who gets between you and the sun, I guess they don't fly at night, either.

Still, the action sequences were well done, and on the whole the film was much better than I'd anticipated, one of those occasional happy surprises for this confirmed pessimist. (And as an SF film buff, I can at least say that when it comes to that genre, I've acquired that pessimism honestly.) Though there were some stumbles, it's obvious this was made with some real affection for the source material, and I appreciate that.

Russell said...

Disclaimer, I haven't read the books, yet.

We saw a pre-screening of the movie (friends scored tickets, not sure how).

It was the best scifi movie I have seen in a long time. The epic battle scene of Carter vs an army should be the gold standard.

Pacing, CGI, characters, plot, every thing was well done and fitted together smoothly enough to make a great time at the theater. I haven't stopped telling everyone I know to go see it.

Far better than the last decade of Scifi movies in general. Much better than the sprawling mess that was Star Wars.

Disney should scrap Pandora, (gads, what a bland derivative work Avatar turned out to be) and run with Barsoom.

Jack Horner said...

I am conflicted. I think my view could be best summed up by the reactions of my spawn.

The eight year old was livid that there were any changes to the story at all, but grudgingly liked it, a lot. "But they really should have had the atmosphere plant."

The six year old non-nonchalantly pronounced it good. And then spent the next hour practicing his John Carter jumps.

Both have declared that our mastiff shall be renamed Woola.

Things I liked:

I actually like the set up very much. The tintype photo of him actually looked a lot like how I picture Tarzan in street clothes.

I was happy with JC's Thark harness and loincloth. It was very like that on the 1917 hardcover dustjacket: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Princess_of_Mars_large.jpg Yeah I grew up on Frazetta and Whelan, but I prefer the early illustrations.

I really liked the green men. Both in design and portrayal. Especially in the Warhoon attack, where many were running on four legs. That's a detail from the first book rarely visualized.

Things I didn't:
Gears on the larger ships deckguns. They looked like an afterthought. They may have been hot-glued on.

Two cities left on Barsoom? Really? Really? Ptarth at least seems integral to the continued story.

Lack of canals.

Things of which I'm ambivalent:

Changes to the Therns. I agree they give plot cohesion, and set up for the trilogy. But still, the way they did it felt like Stargate to me.

It seems the entire action takes about 3.5 days. And yes, I caught the "magic milk of language" bit, but a 'learning to be a Thark' montage would have been better, and added maybe 45 seconds.

They could have done the original transfer to Mars better. It surprised me that he woke up again in his original clothes. I think that going back to the book, where he stands beside his own dead body for a second would have helped.

Scott said...

I have to say that the trailer that you have embedded in your article looks a lot better than what I saw on TV. I haven't read the original book, and haven't (yet, at least) seen the movie. I wasn't planning on doing so based on what I saw. I didn't even know Andrew Stanton had directed it based on the TV previews (which I mostly saw on Disney Channel and on Nickelodeon).

Good review. I linked to it from my own entry (which was written before I saw your entry and Blue Sky Disney's entry).

David P said...

For the commenter who wondered at the choice of Ciaran Hinds, I agree his part wasn't great in this film. But he is perhaps best known for playing Julius Caesar in HBO's "Rome" series, which also starred James Purefoy as Marc Antony and who played alongside Hinds here as "Kantos Kan"...so fun to see them together for that reason.

I enjoyed the movie, but thought it would have been stronger if Carter had a roguish companion, and if the filmmakers had made Mars more visceral -- being in the desert had hardly any effect on anyone.