Listen up: John Carter

A Princess of Mars was the first serial novel published by adventure writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (the Tarzan guy) almost exactly 100 years ago. It’s a classic tale: Civil War veteran is mysteriously transported into the midst of two warring cultures, of course, with a beautiful woman to be saved. Hmm, countless sci-fi films and more than a few Western flicks have borrowed that theme. Most recently and notably, James Cameron has said that A Princess of Mars (which he read as a child) was his inspiration for Avatar. Here’s the problem: Once so many others have copied it, the original feels — oddly enough — derivative. Despite all that, Disney gambled that Princess had enough life left to kickstart a new franchise.

After many fancier titles were tested, and thrown out, the “Mars” film was released simply as John Carter. The movie was directed by Andrew Stanton, who had huge success with a string of animated hits including WALL·E and Finding Nemo, as well as co-writing all three of the Toy Stories movies. He co-wrote the screenplay for John Carter with Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon. With this kind of pedigree, you would expect great things. Stanton himself said he was looking forward to creating “Indiana Jones” on Mars.

The result, unfortunately, was not what Disney hoped for. John Carter left movie reviewers decidedly mixed, audiences decidedly lukewarm, and investors decidedly nervous (the budget is said to have exceeded $250 million). But you know what? When you walk into a theater to see a sci-fi flick about a guy in a loincloth brawling with green monsters on another planet, all you really expect is a fun evening’s worth of entertainment.  And in the end, a fun evening of entertainment is exactly what the film delivers.

John Carter’s title character is our civil war hero. Played by “Friday Night Lights” star Taylor Kitsch, Carter finds himself on Barsoom, the planet we earthlings know as Mars. That mythically warring red planet is, not surprisingly, in the middle of its own civil war. Because there’s less gravitational pull on Barsoom, Carter’s strength and jumping ability are quite extraordinary, much to the amusement of the Martian inhabitants, real and computer-generated alike. Speaking of which, the CGI creatures are excellent – they’re quite believable, with motion-captured performances by Willem DaFoe and Thomas Haden Church. The retro-futuristic world, complete with steampunk fragile ships that fly on light, is visually fascinating, if not entirely logical. If a culture can develop airships with massive fire power, why are most battles fought with swords? Well, because that’s the way Burroughs wrote it. Adding to the realism of the red-tinted natives, this is the first movie that I’ve noticed a spray-tan credit.

The sound design is spot on. In a movie with so much computer design, every sound has to be recreated. The ever-present wind across the desolate landscape is only replaced by the metallic whirring sound as the huge, moving city of Zodanga marches across the land.  The sound design expertly juggles thunderous explosions and extremely subtle sounds such as the delicate cracking of eggshells heralding the slimy birth of young Tharks.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this movie is the music.  Michael Giacchino has created a poignant and stirring score. His resume includes the TV series “Lost,” and fans will instantly recognize the trademark string arrangements. In fact, I have to wonder how much that influenced my enjoyment of this movie.  His use of cello and human voice weave emotions through rousing, sweeping orchestrations. One of the best showcases of the score is in an action scene where the sounds of battle are replaced entirely with music, punctuated by a powerful thud of a shovel in a flashback. Giacchino has a telltale touch, and once again, he nails it. You thought Holst was good? This is darn good too.

Carter is a campy FX spectacular, and it’s genuinely impressive on that level. The 3D IMAX presentation lets viewers see every detail of the Barsoomian landscape – beautifully shot on location in Utah’s red rock ambiences. You might want to save on theater tickets and instead put the Blu-ray on your shopping list. While it won’t be cinematic magic, the effects, score and sound design make this a perfect demo disc for your home theater. Disney may have over-thought and micromanaged this movie, but the result is an old-fashioned adventure story, told with the best film production that money (and lots of it) can buy. Round up the kids, pop the popcorn. For two hours, forget that butter is bad for you.