John Carter hits theaters 100 years later

Rated 4.0

Tall, strong, agile&8212;and on Mars, he’s the best-looking man around.

The title of the movie is actually John Carter of Mars, but you won’t see it on any of the posters; you won’t see it at all until the movie’s over and the end credits start to roll. According to reports, director Andrew Stanton removed of Mars to appeal to a wider audience, changing the title to the shorter (and weaker) John Carter.

Fortunately, that’s about the only mistake Stanton has made in bringing Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal pulp-fiction adventure to the screen, and the movie itself, unlike the title, is anything but weak. The basis for the script by Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon is Burroughs’ first novel A Princess of Mars, originally serialized as Under the Moons of Mars in The All-Story Magazine beginning in February 1912; Burroughs’ second most famous character makes his movie debut just a tad more than 100 years after first appearing in print.

The movie has been brewing almost as long. Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett originally planned an animated feature in 1931, but nothing ever came of that, nor of The Walt Disney Studios’ plans in the 1980s to film it with director John McTiernan, nor Paramount Pictures a few years ago first with Robert Rodriguez directing, then Kerry Conran (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), then Jon Favreau (Iron Man). Finally, Paramount dropped the option in 2007, and Disney picked it up again, handing it off to Pixar and Stanton. It’s a pity Burroughs and all of his 1912 fans are no longer with us, because what Disney, Pixar and Stanton have done with it was worth the wait.

The ironically named Taylor Kitsch plays John Carter, Civil War veteran from Virginia, gold prospector in the Arizona Territory in the 1880s, and all-around man of mystery, who finds himself miraculously transported to the planet Mars, which the local creatures call Barsoom. One of the many tweaks Stanton and company make to Burroughs’ story is the manner of Carter’s transportation: In the movie it happens through the intervention of a Thern, a member of a malign priesthood that didn’t make its appearance in Burroughs until his second book, The Gods of Mars. The movie brings them in early, expediting the plot and—if all goes well—setting up the sequels at least as far as the first three books, which make a tidy trilogy (the third book was The Warlord of Mars).

Because of Mars’ weaker gravity, the already strong and agile Carter finds that he has almost superhuman powers, and his prowess wins him the respect of the gigantic, green, four-armed Tharks, a fierce and bloodthirsty race led by Tars Tarkas (voice by Willem Dafoe), who becomes, to his own surprise, Carter’s best friend and dauntless ally. (In their first halting efforts to break down the language barrier, Tarkas misunderstands the Earthman’s introduction as “John Carter of Virginia” and thinks “Virginia” is his name—an amusing touch that Burroughs, wherever he is, probably wishes he had thought of himself.)

Carter also meets the Red Barsoomian princess Dejah Thoris of Helium (Lynn Collins, who needs no digital Pixar help to embody Burroughs’ luscious Martian damsel). Carter becomes her champion in the struggle of Helium against its age-old enemy Zodanga, which is poised to conquer all of Barsoom with the help and guidance of the Therns. By his honor and unstinting valor, Carter crafts an alliance between Helium and the Tharks to resist the Zodangans and their malignant plans.

All of this, with minor tweaks and adjustments along the way, is surprisingly faithful to Burroughs’ original outlandish adventure. If there’s a problem with it, it’s merely that in taking so long to come to the screen, it may look a little old-hat to the uninitiated. Burroughs’ Barsoom novels inspired generations of science fantasy and space opera (its influence on Star Trek and Star Wars, for example, is obvious to anybody with one eye, one ear and half a brain), but now it may seem to be taking up the tail end of the parade Edgar Rice Burroughs actually led.

But never mind. John Carter is great fun, faithful to both the spirit and the letter of A Princess of Mars. Here’s one lifelong Burroughs reader who hopes it does well enough to keep the series going.