It's been more than 100 years since the story of John Carter was first told. Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs (most famous for writing the Tarzan novels), the character of John Carter has inspired many a science fiction writer over the years; elements of the novels can be seen in everything from "Star Wars" to "Avatar." Yet, as well-known as it was, the story has never made it to the big screen. Having seen it in action, we can safely say it was worth the wait.
Known as the Barsoom series of novels, the books use the fictional name of Mars created by Burroughs and explained away in both the books and the film as the proper name of the planet in the native tongue. The movie, "John Carter," is an adaptation of the majority of the first book, A Princess of Mars.
In the film, we're introduced to Carter (Taylor Kitsch) as a rough-and-tumble, independent minded kind of guy. He's a former Confederate soldier, currently prospecting in the West. He doesn't really care for the troubles of others and has a tendency to act before he thinks. Skilled with a sword, Carter isn't the type to run from a challenge. Instead, he usually attacks the problem head-on.
Carter's impulsive nature is what first leads him to Mars in the film. Determined to protect a cave of gold, he encounters a Martian Thern, who ends up transporting Carter to the Red Planet. Once there, Carter finds that the lower gravity grants him extra strength and the ability to jump higher than normal.
Although the gravity should have been a hint, the first visual indication that he's a long way from home comes when Carter runs into the leader of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). Nine feet tall, with four arms and a combative culture, the Tharks are a primitive tribal people who value strength above all else. Tars Tarkas claims Carter as his own, believing that Carter can help him in future battles.
While still a captive of the Tharks, Carter also encounters the human-like Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), princess of the city-state of Helium. Fighting a battle of her own, Thoris and her people are attempting to hold the line against the conquering Zodangans. Whereas Helium follows a live-and-let-live philosophy, the leader of the Zodangans, Sab Than, wishes to rule over all of Mars.
Given the fact that he already lived through one war, Carter has no interest in helping either Tars Tarkas or Dejah Thoris from the outset. He's already seen the horrors that war can bring and wants no part of it. Carter simply wants to return home to Earth. Unfortunately for him, how to do that is as much of a mystery as how he got to Mars in the first place.
Playing the reluctant hero, Kitsch does a decent job of showing Carter's transition from loner to leader. The story takes a little while to reveal the reason behind Carter's gruff nature, but it at least provides a believable motivation. As Carter slowly gets comfortable in his new role, Kitsch changes his portrayal of the character accordingly. Initially stiff, he seems relaxed by the end of the film.
Collins is easily the strongest character in the film, even if she's no longer mentioned in the title. Her version of Thoris is one of a fiercely independent woman. Although she's a princess by blood, her personality, intelligence and athleticism allow her to hold her own with any other character in the story. This is made clear when Carter and Thoris first meet. He initially tries to play the chivalrous role, telling her to stand behind while he fights off her attackers. That quickly changes when she steps forward with a sword of her own.
It's not just the physical aspects of the role that make Collins stand out, however. She seems to give it her all, maintaining a level of intensity in look and action throughout. No matter what is happening on-screen, it is obvious that Thoris is a woman who is driven to succeed, despite any personal cost.
The two leads may carry the story, but it is Woola who steals every scene he's in. Essentially an ugly, oversized 10-legged Martian guard dog, Woola takes a liking to Carter early on and follows him everywhere. Entirely CGI, Woola exudes a level of loyalty and "he's so ugly he's cute" that you just can't help but care for the thing. Rest assured, even if you don't like anything else about the film, you're going to end up with a soft spot for Woola.
Where "John Carter" stumbles a bit is in the pacing. Even though the story has been changed somewhat from the novel in order to shorten things up, there are still sections that are longer than they need to be. It is a minor issue, but there are a few moments where you find yourself waiting for something to happen. Eliminate those moments, and "John Carter" would be better for it.
It may have taken a full century for John Carter to appear on the big screen, but the story still holds up as an adventure yarn worthy of all ages. Disney did a good job on the transition, ensuring that the film kept to the spirit of the original story, even if it didn't keep to the letter. With 10 more books in the Barsoom series, this probably isn't the last we've seen of the title character.
"John Carter" is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes. It is showing in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX 3-D.
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