Sunday, March 18, 2012

John Carter: They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To

My good friend Earl J. Woods has already posted an insightful and well-written review of Disney's John Carter movie, but I thought I should chime in with what I appreciated about it.
Classic Leading Man - I've never watched Friday Night Lights, but Taylor Kitsch brings a lot of emotionally intense, square jaw, old-school adventure hero physicality to the role of John Carter, which is really fortunate, because, really, nothing else would do. Ex-cavalryman, treasure-hunter, and adventurer who first appeared a century ago in the pulps, mysteriously transported to a distant planet? Instead of a wordy soliloquy or tearful confession, the reason for John Carter's emotional reluctance is conveyed by nothing more than a series of almost microscopically brief flashbacks and Kitsch's pained expressions. This is very much a larger than life role that Kitsch amply fills out without being subsumed by it.
Classic Leading Lady - In the original stories, Edgar Rice Burroughs spends copious amounts of ink describing exactly how beautiful and desirable Dejah Thoris, the titular "Princess of Mars" is, and it is quite the intro to live up to. Lynn Collins does a fantastic job, creating a character who is not only a royal beauty, but also, smart, brave, and an accomplished swords woman.
Best CGI Character Since Gollum - The chieftain of the green Martian Tharks,Tars Tarkas, is ably voiced by Willem Defoe, who seems to take more to this character than he ever did to other genre outings, like the Green Goblin. The Tharks are wonderfully designed, and director Andrew Stanton gives us many opportunities to observe them in close detail so we can appreciate the texture of their skin, the coloration of their tusks. In medium shots, the expressiveness of their four arms makes their body language almost palpable. Defoe's Tarkas balances the need to be a strong leader of a savage tribe with his need to be curious and to express compassion.
Fantastic Design Work - Where to begin? The opening set piece, a battle in the sky between two brittle and elegant airships, showcases fantastic imagery ranging from the armour of the warriors, to the airships themselves, to the imaginative ways they are controlled, to the vistas beneath them. The architecture, creatures, costumes, weaponry, and archaeology hearten back to an attention to detail not seen since The Lord of the Rings.
Lighter Moments - As you might expect from a Pixar alumnus, Stanton takes care to leaven the action and pervasive threats with light touches of humor, but never at the expense of the dignity of the characters or by underestimating the intelligence of his audience.
Supporting Cast - I have always felt a little guilty when I watch James Purefoy's portrayal of Marc Antony in HBO's Rome, surely it must be wrong to enjoy his swaggering, bullying presence on the screen as much as I do. Seeing him in a more likable role as Kantos Kan, noble of Helium and ally of Dejah Thoris, is a real treat. Speaking of Rome, Dejah's father, Tardos Mors, is played by Ciaran Hinds (Julius Caesar), and John Carter's terrestrial lawyer is portrayed by Caesar's body slave Posca (Nicholas Woodeson).
Danger and Disney - This is old-school kick-ass Disney that does justice to the brutality of the stories that spawned it.  When John Carter wades into a tribe of pursuing Warhoon, it's not as gory as, say, John Milius' Conan, but it's still a savage symphony of sword and sinew that looks like a series of Frank Frazetta paintings brought to life, which is probably the highest praise you can give it.

The movie is already being written off as a flop by many, undoubtedly due to in its inability to garner back a sizable percentage of its considerable budget during its opening weekend. This is a real shame, and a bit unfair to boot. You can pay the same ticket price regardless of whether you are seeing Avatar or The Descendants; the price tag of the movie's production should be of no concern to the viewer. That being said though, I paid a little extra to see it in IMAX 3D, and it was great: thoroughly immersive, non-intrusive, and not dimly lit or dully coloured at all.

Perhaps if a little less was given away in the trailers, or if there had been more toys released to support the imagery (not that this helped Green Lantern I suppose...), John Carter might be doing better box office, but it is futile to speculate. Anyone who paid good money to see The Phantom Menace in its recent 3D re-release owes it to the rest of us to suck it up and go buy a ticket to this movie. It is a reminder of how easily attainable the rapture of classic adventure cinema, from The Thief of Baghdad to yes, Star Wars, can be.
I can only hope that enough positive word of mouth, and perhaps healthy home video sales, get this worthy adventure classic in front of more eyes so that we, like John Carter, might have the opportunity to return to Barsoom.

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