As a fledging young sci-fi geek, when it came to Edgar Rice Burroughs, I was always a major fan of the Frank Frazetta covers. But now I’m married to another geek who actually was a twelve-year-old boy once, so of course we were going to see John Carter. Just not during the opening weekend, or in 3D (it was composed & shot in 2D). Turns out it’s a fun movie, great weekend-matinee entertainment, about which Paul Constant gets it right:
… So how does an adaptation of a 100-year-old book—one that has been relentlessly strip-mined by everyone from George Lucas to David Lynch—manage to be so goddamned entertaining?
The answer, of course, involves Pixar. WALL•E director Andrew Stanton surrounded himself with a crew of skilled visual storytellers (and a few nonvisual storytellers, too, like nerd-friendly Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Michael Chabon) to approach the characters with respect. The basic framework—a former Confederate soldier accidentally is transported to Mars, where he lands in the middle of a war between Red, White, and Green Martians that threatens to destroy the planet—is directly from the book. But rather than clinging desperately to some of the text’s pulpy quirks, Stanton streamlined the story, with Pixar’s near-perfect discipline, for a visual medium.
The pleasures are many…it’s ultimately a love letter to childlike wonder at the impossible made real.
The Spousal Unit’s inner twelve-year-old was very pleased, and even within the restraints of live action Stanton does much better Frazetta-mimicry than James Cameron, so if you liked Avatar you should like John Carter at least as well. The screenwriters have grafted a more twenty-first-century “realistic”-ly sombre railtrack under Burroughs’ weightless and-then-another-thing-happened story-boxcar, to go with riffs on every action-adventure movie trope of the last hundred years, from African Queen and every John Ford movie to Braveheart. Swashes are buckled, the drama is high, the comedy is low, and you won’t regret the outlay for Junior Mints and popcorn. Even if John Carter gets swept out of the multiplexes prematurely by Hunger Games (aka “the bastard lovechild of Harry Potter and Twilight, or so its backers hope”), I think it will have a long enough marketing “tail” that Stanton will get to do a sequel… according to the Spousal Unit, “In seven or eight years, when he won’t have to deal with human actors at all.”
But even if you won’t see this movie (at least in a public theatre), if you’re interested in movie-making and movie-marketing, it’s worth reading NYMag‘s explanation of “The Inside Story of How John Carter Was Doomed by Its First Trailer“:
…Traditionally, a blockbuster movie will begin production with an eye towards having ready the handful of impressive and complex special effects scenes that will be essential to its marketing. Even if these scenes wind up not being in the final product, at the least they’ve wowed audiences, getting them intrigued early… Even though most of a movie’s effects aren’t finished until later, these Ka-BOOM! shots are prioritized because they lock in audiences early.
But Stanton hadn’t scheduled for this. Being new to live action, he was suffering under a double load: He was having to learn live-action filmmaking on the go, even as he was still essentially making an animated movie. (John Carter actually has more character animations than WALL-E or Finding Nemo.) Used to the far slower-paced, perfection-is-possible world of Pixar Animation, Stanton had nothing ready for Carney and her team when they arrived to meet him on set looking for signature shots. Certain shots had potential, but they were unfinished. “We had nothing to cut from,” laments one Disney marketing insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recounting the stand-off between Carney and Stanton over the shots, “Before we left, we’d show [a version of the teaser] to them. But it was always, ‘You can’t have that shot! It’s not color-corrected!’ Or, ‘You can’t have that one, either: The CGI’s not finished; they haven’t taken out the wires!’ It would be disingenuous to say [Stanton] refused to finish it; there was nothing to be done, because it was just the physical fact that it wasn’t ready. You can’t make it ready if it’s not ready. It wasn’t really deliberate.”…
Because the Barsoom books were so influential to cinema’s greatest sci-fi auteurs, just about everything in it had already been plundered and reused by other hits. And as a result, the more that was revealed of John Carter, the more derivative it looked, even if its source had originated these ideas… Looking beyond Lucas, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry famously pillaged the books, as did James Cameron, who in numerous interviews called Avatar “almost an Edgar Rice Burroughs kind of adventure.”