Audiences are bound to feel a cognitive disconnect between John Carter and the advertisements intended to promote it. Beneath its high-tech exterior, the film itself is unabashedly old-fashioned, evoking both the protean swashbucklery of Edgar Rice Burrough's century-old novel A Princess of Mars and the countless imitators that followed in its wake. It also reflects an earlier era of Disney filmmaking, when "family adventure" meant delivering material that teens and adults could love without any sex, violence or naughty words. On these levels, John Carter is an absolute romp, buoyed by director Andrew Stanton's spot-on emotional sensibilities and a Boys' Own passion for the source material.
Looking at the promotional content, however, you wouldn't know any of these things. The trailers display a CGI tangle of meaningless imagery devoid of context or emotional resonance. They convey nothing of the film's pulpy appeal, retro tone or roots in a book that has informed everything from Buck Rogers to Star Wars to Avatar. The things that stand out about John Carter is lost... and if Disney wants to get newbies into the theater to help recoup its enormous budget, it really needs to do better.
To make matters worse, the film is very slow to get going. An unnecessary chunk of studio-mandated exposition tries to explain the political situation on 19th-century Mars, followed by a slightly less awkward framing device in which a young Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) receives the diary of his supposedly dead uncle John Carter (Taylor Kitsch). The main narrative is encompassed by the diary, which begins 13 years previous in the wilds of the Arizona Territory. It takes a good 20-25 minutes to sort through all that, and by the time it finally gets rolling, even the most patient viewer is apt to scream "GET THE HELL ON WITH IT!" The effort pays a few dividends during the closing minutes, but not enough to justify such a slog.
Things pick up considerably once Carter finally reaches the Red Planet. A soldier of fortune on the run from the demons of the Civil War, he has little use for either Earth or the people who dwell there. That doesn't change much when a mystical doohickey transports him to Mars -- a barren desert populated by warring tribes and scheming city-states -- and apparently leaves him stranded. He initially wants only to return home, despite the presence of standard-issue evil overlord Sab Than (Dominic West) and his sinister sponsors looking to crush the planet beneath their stylized iron boots. Brave princess/historical fanboy cheesecake Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins) hopes to defy him -- and how nice that they got a properly beautiful woman to play her rather than an emaciated stick figure -- but with a shotgun wedding to Sab looming above her, she needs a miracle to save her planet. Whether he likes it or not, Carter is just what the doctor ordered.
It takes a certain amount of moxie to revel in old cliffhangers like that. 1980's Flash Gordon reveled in the same tropes of abductions, trials by combat and rousing speeches to incite the rabble against their would-be conquerors, only it played the whole thing for laughs. John Carter doesn't, and that's really kind of the point. The source material is prototypical pulp fiction, created at a time when the concept still held some creative juice and driven to cliche only by a century's worth of earnest imitations. To treat it with smug disdain would do it a great disservice, as would attempting to update the story for 2012. (Check out the wretched Princess of Mars video if you want to see how awful a modern interpretation can be.) Mars here may as well be Oz or Middle Earth, and if you can make the leap that these beings somehow inhabit the desert there, then the film's straightforward attitude becomes an active selling point.
Stanton possesses an exquisite sense of emotional tonality, and properly balances the drama, humor and epic bombast without short-shrifting any of them. Even the battle sequences, which become bewildering towards the end, are kept afloat by a combination of investment in the characters and pure old-fashioned pep. Good casting helps with that (particularly Willem Defoe and Samantha Morton, who don the mo-cap suits as a pair of green "tharks"), but Stanton's refusal to score cheap points with the hipsters plays the biggest role. Were those sensibilities not in place, John Carter might have succumbed to empty spectacle.
And that's where the promotional campaign has really failed this film. Judging by the trailers, it looks no different than any other big budget epic; a reader on Rotten Tomatoes describe it as the "Star Wars wannabe," when in fact it's the other way around. In a lot of ways, John Carter was the first superhero as well: Mars's lowered gravity grants him enhanced strength and allows him to leap tall buildings in a single bound, laying the groundwork for more formal costumed do-gooders to follow. If Disney wishes to do right by the work, they can't shy away from those components; rather, they need to convey its historical importance and ask the audience to evaluate the film on those terms. And taken on those terms, the film is a blast: an early bit of summer fun with a pedigree far stronger than most sci-fi epics. Stanton delivers it under the auspices of Disney family entertainment without skimping on the sense of wonder and adventure that can hook older teens as well as children. Sadly, it doesn't look like the company has the first idea how to convey that excitement to the viewing public. Don't blame John Carter if it can't scare up an audience; entertainment this solid deserves to be seen by millions. I fear that too few of them will understand what they have here, leaving John Carter a box-office misfire rather than the well-regarded hit it really deserves to be.