It is always interesting to see a primarily animated film director move into live-action films. Probably the most successful of these visionaries was Tim Burton who started off as an animator at Disney. And with the recent success of Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible 4, it was really interesting to see what fellow Pixar alum Andrew Stanton would do with this seminal sci-fi franchise.
It is a huge undertaking as I discussed in my LEGACY ARTICLE but I really think Stanton has done it with stride and even his Pixar humor still shines through.
In the film, we follow John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) as he escapes the militia and is accidentally transported to Mars. There he becomes reluctantly involved in a civil war and becomes friends with Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).
The stories of John Carter were always filled with deep tapestry and a vastness in their interpretation. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom was a very rich, beautiful world but Stanton uses simplicity to introduce us too it. In some ways, Stanton used his Wall-E approach to bring John Carter into the complexity of Barsoom. John Carter arrives in no man’s land and when he is discovered by the native population (the Tharks), he has discovered the birthplace of their young. So he is treated as such until they discover he has enhanced strength and agility. As Tars says, “Did I not tell you he could jump?”
It is the innocence of a child discovering the world and the difference between right and wrong that Stanton has embraced when delivering John Carter to Barsoom. This is what drew me into this sci-fi epic. The innocence and exploration of the hero. This is found quite a bit in Burroughs’s work and later used in other sci-fi films like Planet of the Apes, Star Wars and Avatar. And that same feeling I got watching those films is what I got when seeing John Carter.
It is challenging making a desert world rich and captivating but Stanton’s meticulous attention to detail from the Helium city to the suits of armor to the difference in size between Thark and man. I have found that when animators move into directing live-action they pay overly close attention to production design and costuming. If you know how longs it takes to make a being live and breathe in animation then you know about details.
This is also finely analyzed with Stanton’s Tharks in many ways these Tharks are even more real than any of George Lucas’s CGI-animated characters. Why? Because I really think because a former animator took the time to study and develop them. I connected more with Stanton’s Tharks then I ever did with any of Lucas’s prequel characters. They are rich and I wanted to know more about their society.
Stanton does spend a lot of time with sweeping panning shots and takes his time introducing Carter to Barsoom. The grand scale epic feel is probably lost on many modern day audiences who are unfamiliar with say a David Lean approach to cinematography and scope. What I believe Stanton was trying to do with John Carter was give us one of these old school epics. Many of the critics and naysayers complain that the film is very dull, I disagree. Yes it is vast, multi-layered and a lot going on but never dull. It does take a while to get where it is going but that is all exploration.
I think Taylor Kitsch makes an interesting choice as the pulp hero John Carter. There is a lot of the spirit of his Friday Night Lights character Tim Riggins in John Carter. But like Tim, John Carter was never going to play by the rules. Lynn Collins is strikingly beautiful, boisterous and capable as the heroine Dejah Thoris. I am not sure we needed John Carter saving her so much but Stanton also tackled that aspect of their relationship with humor.
Another thing that impressed me was just how powerful Willem Dafoe’s voice was inside Tars Tarkas. When I remember back to the books I can now totally imagine Tars talking with Dafoe’s voice. Tars was not assembled say as Gollum or Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, instead Stanton stuck with what he knew and made him more like one of his Pixar creations.
I liked John Carter and how bold it was to bring this kind of project to the big screen. I hope we will get to explore more of Barsoom and that in some way the film will find success. If the film isn’t successful then I would look more to the very odd and horrendous marketing campaign for the film. It is not the movie that is the problem here. It is like marketing a sci-fi epic was foreign to Hollywood. Awareness equals success.
Journey to Barsoom and be reminded how grand science fiction can be.
(4 out of 5)
So Says the Soothsayer