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‘John Carter’ Brings Thrilling Adventure Back to Mars [Review]

Much like Tintin, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories have always been one of my pop cultural blind spots. I’ve got a lot of friends that swear by them, and I’ve always been vaguely aware that there were characters named “Dejah Thoris” and “Tars Tarkas,” but beyond that, I’m a pretty blank slate. As a result, I walked into John Carter, Disney’s big-screen adaptation of Borroughs’s A Princess of Mars, with more curiosity than anything else.

To be honest, it wasn’t the kind of movie that sparked my curiosity and made me want to hunt down a stack of books because I had to learn more about this story. But it was a well-written, well-acted adventure that I had a pretty great time watching.It’s actually pretty comparable to The Adventures of Tintin. Both movies rely heavily on visual spectacle, moving from one grand, beautiful set piece to another as the action keeps building to a climax. But more than anything else, it reminded me of one of my all-time favorites, 1980′s Flash Gordon.

I’m sure that Burroughs’s original novels were a profound influence on Alex Raymond’s comic strip, but the beats of the two movies’ stories are so similar that I couldn’t help but hear Flash Gordon‘s thundering soundtrack in my head while I watched Taylor Kitsch bounce around Mars. An exceptional Earthman is whisked away from his trivial concerns to a far-off planet where he battles against a ruthless dictator bent on subjugating the entire planet to his will. There’s even a sinister wedding that gets interrupted when someone crashes a spaceship into it. The only real difference is that instead of Brian Blessed with wings and the greatest beard of all time, John Carter gets a green four-armed, eight-foot tall Willem Dafoe. And on Mars — or Barsoom, as it’s known to the people who actually live there — people tend to wear a lot less clothes than they do on Mongo.

Of course, unlike Flash Gordon‘s unapologetic campiness, John Carter plays it straight, and that’s actually one of the best things about the movie. It’s still surprisingly funny and downright cartoonish in parts, especially where Carter’s loyal Martian dog is concerned, but it’s funny in the way that Raiders of the Lost Ark is funny. The jokes are built well and positioned to build characters rather than catchphrases, like the truly hilarious slapstick opening that finds Carter resisting his arrest by the Army. Even when there’s a running gag about Carter’s name among the Tharks, it hits that perfect sweet spot of being used just enough to be hilarious, without being driven into the ground. And more importantly, it helps to make you like these characters.

That’s the movie’s greatest strength. It’s not that it builds a really neat-looking version of Mars full of airships and lost cities and ruins, but that it fills them with people — and four-armed Willem Dafoes — that you actually care about.

There’s some really great character work on display here, particularly with Carter himself and the fact that he’s a man disillusioned by war and what he lost while he was fighting for someone else’s cause. It’s rare to see a movie made for kids that addresses ideas like that and does it well, in a way that seems driven by the character rather than just as a heavy-handed plot contrivance, but really, that’s what sets the good kids’ movies apart. In John Carter, it’s done very well, and not just because those scenes are blended in with a sequence where he takes on an army of Martians with a sword in each hand.

Okay, I’ll admit it. It’s largely because of that. But without the character, scenes like that just wouldn’t matter.

Here, they feel like they do, and a lot of it comes down to the fact that the movie’s got a great cast. You can see Carter’s aimlessness and the fact that he’s haunted by the past in the way that he acts. You can see Sab Than (Domic West)’s lust for power at any cost, and Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins)’s desperation when she turns to Carter for help.

Speaking of Dejah Thoris, she’s easily the best character in the film. It’s more than just the fact that she’s played as both a brilliant scientist and a capable fighter; those are both easy traits that it’s easy to hang on someone. So easy, in fact, that they’re basically a lazy shorthand for Strong Female Character. But the performance here goes so far beyond that. She’s not just smart, she’s cunning, and manipulative, and ruthless in trying to save her people.

There’s this great scene where, after one of the many occasions where she’s lied to Carter in order to get him to help her out, she explains that she’s being forced to marry Sab Than to consolidate his rule of Mars. Carter tells her to just suck it up and do it, but she comes off as the only person on the entire planet who realizes that marrying the power-mad dictator is an awful idea, no matter what he promises. She’s the driving force of the movie, and director Andrew Stanton did a pretty great job of making her great.

There’s only one thing that I don’t really care for, and that’s that she ends up falling for Carter at the end — because of course she does — a little too easily, and a little too quickly. It’s done well enough, I suppose, but it feels like there could’ve been a lot more to it. Beyond that, though, she’s a pretty fantastic character. I know just enough about the source material that I know the people who like the novels tend to really like Dejah Thoris, and after watching this movie, I can see why.

Aside from Collins, I thought Mark Strong as the creepy, immortal Matai Shang was a lot of fun. To be fair, though, he’s mostly just playing the exact same character he played in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, but with starched collars and faux-mysticism swapped out for gossamer robes, shapeshifting and Martian omnipotence. There’s even a scene that casts Edgar Rice Burroughs as a character reading the story of his cousin (guess who), and while I usually hate those because of how they have an inherent dismissal of the writer’s creativity, it ended up being pretty fun.

The only thing I actually didn’t care for was the title. A Princess of Mars is so much more evocative of what goes on in this movie, and even the film itself closes with the words “John Carter of Mars” on-screen. I know there was a lot of discussion about the title that centered on the idea that boys wouldn’t see a movie with “Princess” in the title and girls wouldn’t see one with “Mars,” and that whole thing seems ludicrous to me, especially when there are green, four-armed monsters running around the trailers. I’m not sure why they didn’t just go all out with “John Carter and the Princess of Mars,” to be honest. It worked out pretty well for the Indiana Jones movies.

More than anything else, it’s interesting to see Disney’s all-consuming marketing engine — which has been extremely princess-heavy over the past 20 years — come back around to start whittling away at its own products. And incidentally, that whole thing is allegedly why the gang in My Little Pony is ruled over by a princess and not a queen, as Disney has conditioned kids to think princesses are good and queens are evil.

Flash Gordon, meanwhile, conditions us to believe that Queen is awesome.

Really, though, if the only thing I can furrow my brow at is a boring title, the rest of the film has done pretty well for itself. It’s compelling, it’s thrilling, it’s got great action and strong characters, and it’s well worth seeing.

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