Welcome back, Carter

The original space epic finally makes it to the big screen

Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins and Willem Dafoe. Directed by Andrew Stanton. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

A young adventurer is abruptly thrust into a vast conflict on a planet far, far away and finds himself drawn to a warrior princess fighting to save her tribe. Our hero is aided by a loveably ugly squat sidekick and a taller one prone to flamboyant language and gestures …

Well, you get the point. The long-awaited adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ proto-fantasy swashbuckler A Princess of Mars has the uphill battle of telling a compelling story within the restrictions of contemporary genre tropes. Debuting in 1917, the franchise essentially served as ground zero for everything from Superman to Star Wars, and every fantasy in between. Which means that what was blazingly original in the early days of the 20th century has been cherry-picked to the point that there’s pretty much no fresh fruit left on its limbs to dazzle a 21st-century audience.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that John Carter still manages to be an entertaining piece of work in its own right. Not a game changer, but still not near the dud that the Internet schadenfreude has been indicating. Not saying that all of the $250 million budget shows on the screen, but one has to assume that Hollywood accounting has more to do with that than the creative minds at work here.

Director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E and Finding Nemo) and screenwriters Michael Chabon and Mark Andrews have managed to find the heart of the material, drawing on their Pixar approach to narrative and imbuing the proceedings with a whimsical touch that makes the piece more endearing than most space operas. But they also deliver on the epic sweep of the material, creating an alien vista that at times evokes other genre classics (and some not so classic, such as Dino De Laurentiis’ camp delirium, Flash Gordon) while still maintaining its own identity.

Of course, some purists might object to the Disney-fication of the source material. Burroughs’ John Carter was the original anti-hero, with some pretty brutal approaches to conflict resolution. That, and in the books (10 more followed) everyone on Barsoom (Mars) fought nekkid. Yep, the original blood-and-boobs approach to pulp entertainment. Which would have meant an R rating, for which Disney probably wouldn’t have put up the budget.

As the eponymous character, Taylor Kitsch acquits himself well enough in a taciturn role that calls for bursts of superhuman athleticism, and Lynn Collins makes for a most excellent Disney princess. Sturdy, not some frail thing that’d blow away with the dust. (Although I’ll cop that I miss sci-fi artist Frank Frazetta’s skimpy approach to Princess Dejah’s wardrobe.) And buried beneath CGI, the supporting cast still manages to craft compelling characters that refreshingly avoid the Jar Jar Binks ghetto.

Note: Do not bother with the 3-D version. While generally it’s not bad, there are still points where the technology cannot keep up with the scope of the action, rendering crowd scenes and complicated action gags into a roiling stew of pixels.