Maybe it won’t come as any surprise to long-term Pixar fans, but putting the forces behind Oscar winning animated films like “Toy Story 3” and “WALL-E” to work on live-action films would probably result in some very entertaining and fun movies.
Walt Disney Pictures clearly had the same idea in tapping Oscar winning screenwriter Andrew Stanton (who also directed Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E”) to direct and co-write their adaptation of Edward Rice Burroughs’ pulp hero John Carter of Mars.
Not shockingly, under Stanton’s care “John Carter” is the kind of tremendous fun-filled film that’s worth going to the theater to see and could signal the start of the next great action franchise.
The opening act is a bit tedious and drawn out in explaining that Carter (Taylor Kitsch, “Friday Night Lights”) is a Civil War veteran who has no desire to fight anyone else’s fight after the loss of his family. In trying to evade Confederate recruiters, Carter encounters an alien, whose dying act is to send Carter to its home world of Mars.
Once Carter arrives on Mars, the film starts to get interesting - if a bit overwhelming.
Fantasy/science-fiction films have an easier time bringing the audience into their worlds when the screenwriters slowly introduce concepts, especially when the names aren’t as common as “Luke” or “Han.”
Stanton and his co-screenwriters Mark Andrews (“Samurai Jack”) and Michael Chabon (“Spider-Man 2”) have a more “you’ll catch up eventually” approach. It’s an interesting move as it helps to convey Carter’s confusion and bewilderment to the audience, but for those who aren’t willing to stick with the story, it could prove frustrating.
For those willing to go along with it, the story slowly sucks you in with a mix of edge-of-your-seat action and some genuinely funny moments. Carter encounters a race of cricket-like beings, led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe, “Spider-Man”), who are amazed at his strength and jumping ability – a side effect of his denser body reacting to the Mars atmosphere.
Not long afterwards, Carter meets Dejah (Lynn Collins, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), a beautiful princess being forced to marry the evil Sab Than (Dominic West, “Punisher: War Zone”) in an effort to restore peace to the war-torn land. Sab has the backing of a trio of beings led by Matai (Mark Strong, “Green Lantern”), who views Carter as a potential disruptive force to their larger scale plans for Mars. Initially, Carter just wants to get back home, but upon coming to care for Dejah – and absolutely nothing to do with that fact that she’s hot – he decides to fight to save her and her people from imminent doom.
Kitsch, who looks like the younger brother of “Justified’s” Timothy Olyphant or “Transformers” Josh Duhamel, comes across as a natural lead. It helps that his movie career is just getting started so audiences don’t have preconceived notions about what role he can or can’t do.
He shows that he’s got the makings to be the next big thing as he never lets a scene become too big for him, whether fighting a horde or in a thick-with-romantic-tension moment with Deja. This movie is called “John Carter,” not “A Trip to Mars” and Kitsch never loses focus that the film largely succeeds based on his efforts, especially since save for Collins, he’s the sole real actor onscreen for the majority of his scenes.
With blue blood gushing out of vanquished foes (it’s ok since they’re aliens), the film isn’t dumbed down to get the whole family in the theater and fully earns its PG-13 rating and that’s not even counting some of Deja’s more risqué wardrobe.
The screening I caught was in 3-D and the film boasted some strong use of the effect and making a strong case for chipping in a few more bucks to watch it with the added feature.
Stanton fully embraces the challenge of crafting an entirely new realm. Everything seems fresh from the character designs, incorporating Carter’s jumping ability as a fighting style to the planes that resemble dragonflies. This isn’t “Conan the Barbarian” with a new title. It’s a fun world that is ripe with potential for sequels to fully explore what else lies ahead for Carter and company. And I’m looking forward to the next trip to Mars.
Rating: 8 out of 10