Review of Disney’s “John Carter” – A Tale of Two Worlds

Walt Disney Studios’ John Carter opened nationwide on Friday, March 9th, but it wasn’t until last weekend my family and I were able to see it.  Three weeks into its theatrical run, John Carter is clearly on life support – mortally wounded not only by Katniss’ arrow from The Hunger Games, but from Walt Disney Studios itself.  When my family of 4 entered the theater, we easily doubled the audience for that showing.  Disney’s John Carter is about a man transported from Earth to Mars.  However, those aren’t the two worlds I’m referring to in this review.  No, this discussion is centered on the on-screen world of John Carter vs. what went on off-screen.  Continue reading for more about John Carter’s tale of two worlds.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) and Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) photo by Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.

Director Andrew Stanton’s attempt to translate the 100 year old novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs “A Princess of Mars” to the screen was an incredibly ambitious one.  By now we all know (or at least we should know) that John Carter is a tale of a post-Civil War Confederate soldier mysteriously transported from Earth to Mars.  Once on Mars, John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) was adopted by one species of Martians – the 9 foot tall, 4 armed, green skinned Tharks, and Carter becomes embroiled in an age old Civil War between two clans of tattooed, red-skinned Martian Humanoids.  The film starts off with a long, expository scene on Mars telling the backstory of the war between the red-skinned Heliumites and Zodangans, and how another race called the Therns (possibly Martians, possibly from another world altogether) tips the balance of the war in the Zodangan’s favor.  Notice none of these races are the towering, 4 armed, Martian Tharks, they play another role in the war and John Carter’s development.  Confused?  You aren’t the only one.

Sab Than (Dominic West) Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.

 

When I saw the opening scene, I flashed back to another ambitious attempt to deliver a cult sci-fi novel to the big screen – Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”  When “Dune” was in theaters back in the mid-1980’s, the movie studio distributed handouts explaining the various terminology of the film.  I read the flier, but my sister did not.  I barely knew what was going on; she had no clue.  John Carter’s opening scene was the handout for “Dune” – if you didn’t get it, you weren’t totally lost, but as my 14 year old asked 30 minutes in, “do you know what’s going on?”

©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.

 

To be fair to Andrew Stanton, I blame this confusion on Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Stanton did the best he could with a novel full of complicated names and places.  It was difficult enough keeping the names straight when reading the book.  Hearing everything coming at you, spoken quickly on the screen, sounded like a word salad of uninterpretable name after unpronounceable place.  There was nothing for the audience to hang their hat on, and this lack of connection ultimately made the characters feel as distant as Mars.

Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.

 

There were some amazing aspects to what was presented on the screen during John Carter.  In particular, Lynn Collins’ portrayal of Dejah Thoris (the Martian princess) was spectacular – she brought life to a strong female lead who was more than a princess and damsel in distress.  Collins’ Dejah Thoris was intelligent, scientific, strong, and heroic, and her on screen presence captured the audience’s attention.  Taylor Kitsch was acceptable as the strong, silent type, leap-frogging his way across the terrain, but, ultimately, his performance took second place to Collins’.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.

 

The visual effects for the film were stunning.  Along with John Carter, the audience was transported to a Martian world full of the grit and grime of an ancient, decaying civilization.  The animated creatures populating this world including: the green-skinned Tharks, the baby Thark hatchlings, and Woola the Martian, dinosaur-like dog, were seamless and convincing.  The movie was epic in its range and scope with different species in far-flung locations.  Filmgoers were transported to late 1800’s Victorian New York City, to the wild west of Arizona, to a journey on Mars, and finally back to Earth.  However, all those locales and characters ultimately left us with a whole film that was less than the sum of its parts.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.

 

That’s where the off-screen world of John Carter comes in – this movie was inherited by the current regime at Walt Disney Studios.  The film was green-lighted by then studios chairman Dick Cook who was forced out of the company in 2009.  Rich Ross, former President of Disney Channels worldwide, was now responsible for this big-budget baby when he replaced Cook as Chairman of the Studios in October 2009.  However, was Ross totally behind the film?

Rich Ross, Chairman, The Walt Disney Studios, attends the Muppets Hollywood Walk of Fame Star Ceremony on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame on March 20, 2012. Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage

 

John Carter was clearly Andrew Stanton’s “passion project” – saying as much in numerous interviews.  Stanton, the two-time Oscar winning director (Best Animated Feature in 2008 for Wall-E and in 2004 for Finding Nemo), is an extremely talented, creative, and valuable member of the Disney/Pixar team.  It would make sense that Ross would want to keep his prized director happy, and with Stanton’s previous successes, he earned the right to his big-budget, risky, passion project.  However, as the budget continued to grow, with final estimates between $250-$350 million to create, Disney needed this film to wow everyone.  It was now up to the marketing team to get the fannies in the seats, but Disney didn’t quite know how to market the film.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.

 

The imagery and trailers for John Carter at best did not give a clear picture of the film and, at worst, were confusing.  My wife, a PhD scientist, saw the ads and thought it resembled another “Clash of the Titans” film.  Others saw sweeping western vistas, Reconstruction era Union soldiers, alongside Martians, and thought “Cowboys and Aliens.”  It certainly didn’t help the film when Marketing President, MT Carney, left Disney in late January 2012 after only 19 months on the job.

Mickey Mouse and MT Carney at the World Premiere of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" at Disneyland on May 7, 2011. Photo by Eric Charbonneau/WireImage

 

Carney’s departure came a little more than 2 weeks ahead of Super Bowl Sunday and the launch of “The John Carter Journey to the Super Bowl Sweepstakes.”  The Super Bowl ad involved a slow zoom out showing a montage of images that eventually revealed the words “John Carter” – unfortunately the ad was cut short due to the timing of the game and rushed any mention of the sweepstakes.  Compare the two versions of the ad below, and see how quick the mention of the contest is in the 30 second spot that aired during the Super Bowl.

Compared to the final 10 seconds of the longer, 40 second version of the Super Bowl ad.

By all accounts the John Carter Super Bowl ad was underwhelming, and there was very little “buzz” created from the subsequent Super Bowl sweepstakes.

Finally, 10 days after John Carter’s March 9th nationwide release, Walt Disney Studios announced the film was expected to lose $200 million.  This statement was picked up and reported worldwide by the press.  Dawn Chmielewski quoted Disney in the Los Angeles Times:

“In light of the theatrical performance of John Carter ($184 million global box office), we expect the film to generate an operating loss of approximately $200 million during our second fiscal quarter ending March 31,” Disney said in a statement. “As a result, our current expectation is that the Studio segment will have an operating loss of between $80 and $120 million for the second quarter.”

The timing of this announcement was perplexing.  The film was not yet released in all of its international markets.  John Carter just had its Tokyo premiere on Sunday, April 1st, and the film won’t open in Japan until April 13th.  However, after Disney’s statement, the press have already dubbed John Carter a flop, failure, one of the greatest busts of all time, and thus limiting any success it could have in the US market if not worldwide.  Showings of the film are currently extremely limited in US theaters, and John Carter has already been removed from first run theaters in some markets.

Tokyo, Japan Premiere of Disney's "John Carter" Japan at Roppongi Hills on April 1, 2012. Photo by Jun Sato/WireImage

 

So where does this leave us?  Disney’s John Carter is certainly not without its problems, the largest of which is a convoluted and confusing story.  In retrospect, maybe the story of John Carter was better suited for a television series that could dedicate entire hour long episodes to each locale or scene instead of cramming everything into a 2 hour block.  Do the story problems make John Carter the biggest flop of all time? Certainly not.  There are some very entertaining parts to the film including Lynn Collins’ performance, the amazing scenery, and impressive special effects.  Would I recommend seeing the film?  Yes, see if for yourself, and make your own decisions.  Although if you haven’t seen it yet, wait until it comes to the bargain theaters.  You shouldn’t have to wait too long.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) and Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.

 

So what do you think?  Have you seen John Carter?  Share your thoughts below, I’d love to read your impression of the film.  For more adventure movie news, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.