John Carter is the live-action debut of director Andrew Stanton, an Oscar winner who helmed Finding Nemo and Wall*E. It is also an appreciably big-budget movie, a would-be blockbuster from Disney that marks an early start to the summer moviegoing season. Why would Disney entrust such a big title to an untested live-action director? I can think of two reasons. One is that enough of John Carter is computer-animated that it almost counts as an animated feature. The second is that even when what's on the screen is flesh-and-blood humanity, the movie has a decidedly cartoon-ish feel.
Not that it's as good as either of those Pixar masterpieces—or for that matter, the live-action debut of Stanton's Pixar cohort, Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), whose recent Mission: Impossible entry was also an enticingly cartoony non-cartoon. Ironically enough, the fish in Nemo had a lot more humanity than any of the humans in John Carter, and as science fiction goes, it's not as bold or as visionary as Wall*E.
But let this be said for John Carter" It's terrific entertainment. Stanton has crafted a movie that is way too long and far from perfect, but it's paced to hold the audience's attention. Its world-creation is superb, its action scenes compelling. It's not really funny, but there are enough moments of humor to keep it from being too solemn. If you're a sci-fi geek or fanboy, you'll probably love this. If you hate anything involving spaceships or little green men, you won't.
Most of all, John Carter is winsome because it stays true to its roots as a semi-pulpy fiction, but doesn't ratchet up the corniness. It's based on a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who also created Tarzan; between the book and the film, there have been many different comic book titles carrying the John Carter name.
Burroughs himself is written into the movie; played by Daryl Sabara, he is summoned to the estate of his just-deceased uncle, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch). He begins reading Carter's private journey; the full story then unfolds in flashback. It begins as a Western, really, before transitioning into sci-fi. (It is light-years ahead of Cowboys and Aliens, I should say.) John Carter is seeking a cave of gold, but instead finds an amulet that whisks him away to Mars.
In the Mars of this movie (like the book), the men are clad in Roman armor, women seem to be perpetually bikini-clad, and yes, there are actual green men. There are also airships that do battle, an epic coliseum, warring races of aliens, an ancient religion of mysticism, and, in John Carter, some strange superpowers, which essentially make him a god to the people of Mars. It is not at all hard to see why George Lucas has said, time and time again, that his Star Wars is deeply rooted in the imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the John Carter books in particular.
There is a lot to be said about the plot—which is not entirely a good thing. There is simply a lot going on in this movie, and it's probably not unfair to suggest that Stanton doesn't always have total control over where this picture is headed. And did I mention that, at two hours, it feels rather long? But no matter. What the film lacks in focus it makes up for in ambition.