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 and 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?