Andrew Stanton knows what he’s doing. He was the second animator to join Pixar. His first feature as a director was Pixar’s second as a major studio — 1998’s A Bug’s Life — and he would go on to direct Finding Nemo and WALL-E while also receiving story credit for many of the company’s other modern classics. This is, in other words, a man who understands the power of strong stories, powerful visuals, and the way a film can create an emotional engagement with its audience. As a result, it’s somewhat frustrating that the things that keep John Carter from true greatness are those things you wouldn’t expect to trouble Stanton, like narrative cohesion or visual language. Granted, it’s not that the film is bad: the sections that work are among the most entertaining epic-scale set pieces of the past few years, and the characters are mostly reliable and understandable. Yet in adapting a hundred-year-old pulp novel for the big screen, Stanton and co-writer/fellow Pixar hand Mark Andrews — with script revisions from Michael Chabon, himself no stranger to hero mythology — sometimes struggle to find the balance between too much and too little, between a dizzying cacophony of people and places and a more organic flow for the action and story. The film occasionally feels like we’re watching a battle for power between John Carter, the film, and John Carter, the property. Stanton almost comes across in certain moments as unsure of himself, and uncertain how much information to give and in what order, traits hardly in line with his animated output. The good news, though, is that these moments, real as they are, aren’t enough to derail the film or to detract from the sense of adventure, fun, and spiritual reckoning that Stanton evokes in the story proper. When the film really gets going, it’s a solid action-fantasy with a genuine heart that isn’t afraid to deal with complex moral issues. It just has a little trouble getting on its feet.
The biggest hitch is that the film is saddled with three beginnings. The first sends us through our solar system, as a gravelly narrator informs us that the planet we know as Mars is actually called Barsoom, and that Barsoom is not the lifeless husk it appears to be from a distance. A quick blister of narrated scenes attempts to set up the relationship between two warring humanoid tribes on the planet, after which we’re off to the film’s second beginning: John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), renowned explorer, works his way through the streets of 1880s New York City while avoiding shadowy men in classy dress. He sends a telegram to his nephew, Ned (Daryl Sabara), asking him to visit immediately. Ned soon arrives at Carter’s estate only to learn that Carter has died unexpectedly, and that Ned has been entrusted with Carter’s house, belongings, and private journal. Ned opens the journal to begin reading, at which point Carter’s voice-over kicks in and we’re whisked off to our third beginning, set in Arizona just after the Civil War.
This, finally, is when the story really begins. Ned’s era acts as a bookend for the heart of the narrative, but the choppy space scenes at beginning dilute that effect and throws the whole thing off balance. Instead of transitioning from one time to another, we’re constantly sliding down the rabbit hole, not quite sure when to settle in. The film feels too hurried in the beginning, as if Stanton’s not sure we’re following along (or willing to), so he’s trying to bombard us with information in hopes that something sticks. As a result, it takes a while to find our footing and to start understanding just what’s happening on Barsoom. Our first experience with the politics of Barsoom comes via a dense, hastily narrated paragraph about people with clunky names we immediately forget. It’s not until late in the film that Stanton starts playing up the visual cues, in that the warring human tribes use different primary colors as the basis for most of their clothing and design (one red, the other blue), which seems like something he’d have wanted to thread into the film earlier as a way to underscore the division between the clans and provide the viewer with a sense of location. It’s always better to show than to tell.
When John Carter’s story gets going, though, it can be a blast. After dodging some Apaches while prospecting for a hidden cave of gold, Carter meets a mysterious man and is transported to Barsoom when he grabs the man’s medallion. Once there, he discovers he can run and leap great distances thanks to the planet’s lighter gravity, but it’s not long before he’s captured by a roving band of tall green aliens known as Tharks. They toss him in a nursery pit with their young and give him a drink that carries the “voice of Barsoom,” a magical property that lets Carter understand what the aliens are saying and respond in kind.
Parallel to all this is the growing war between a pair of nation-states on the planet: the evil Zodanga, led by Sab Than (Dominic West), and the peace-loving Helium, governed by Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) and his daughter, the princess Dejah (Lynn Collins). Stanton isn’t quite successful at getting these names to stick — for the first hour of the film, you will probably find yourself mentally referring to the characters The Good Guy and The Bad Guy — but he does succeed in setting up their goals and personalities relatively quickly. Dejah’s particularly a standout, especially since she’s driven by a love of science and turns out to be a more formidable warrior and foil for Carter than you typically get from the female lead in movies like these. Eventually, as he must, Carter crosses paths with Dejah and finds himself reluctantly drawn into the battle to save Barsoom, while also working to find a way home.
If that all sounds like a lot to take in, it is, but Stanton keeps the energy and story moving quickly enough to (mostly) keep from getting bogged down. While some scenes go on a bit too long, and there are a few patches of cliched dialogue, the overall effect is actually pretty winning. The film is a believable adventure tale, peppered with the right amount of comic relief even as it’s increasingly willing to deal with themes like loss, manipulation, and sacrifice. I’ll put it this way: I take notes during a film I’m reviewing, usually of memorable moments or phrases, so I’ll have emotional or technical touchstones to reference later. Sometimes, I’ll stop writing for a while because the film has stopped being interesting, or fun, or producing something worth the extra notation. However, there were long stretches during John Carter when I didn’t take any notes because I simply forgot about the pad on my lap: I was that involved with what was happening on screen, whether that meant focusing on the fragmenting relationship between two characters or simply being pulled along by a smartly done action sequence. I went along for the ride.
What really makes the film work — and where Stanton shows off the chops for poignancy he’s picked up as an animator — are the moments that believably posit John Carter as a conflicted hero. For much of the film, Carter resists Dejah’s attempts to recruit him to fighting for her cause, but it’s not just because he’d rather go home more than stay on Mars, or because he’d prefer to find the gold he was chasing rather than let the dream of riches go. It’s because he’s still haunted by his memories of war, and finds himself reliving its horrors every time he picks up a weapon. There’s a fantastic chase scene late in the film in which Carter fights off a horde of enemies to give Dejah time to outrun them. Yet this isn’t a triumphant for Carter. As he leaps into the fray, he remembers the wife and child he left behind before the war, and the way they were gone when he returned. A part of him is still stuck in the past, and he fights as much to forget it as he does to try and find some way to make it right. Stanton choreographs the moment with a kind of bloody poetry that nicely rounds out what could’ve been just another blur of computer-generated bodies.
Carter’s battle to save the planet, find a way home, and put his own demons to rest follows the beats you’d expect, but the film’s general predictability doesn’t really diminish its enjoyability. Kitsch, in the first film he’s ever had to carry, looks and mostly feels like a hero, though there are a few moments where his delivery doesn’t match his words. (There’s a reason he clicked so well playing Tim Riggins, the monosyllabic bad boy, on “Friday Night Lights.”) Stanton’s animation background goes a long way toward making the CGI Tharks work, too, and the voice acting from Willem Dafoe and others helps make the aliens some of the most grounded characters in the movie. It’s Collins, though, as Helium’s troubled princess, who’s the most enjoyable to watch. There’s an inherent silliness to some of the proceedings, but she sells it through sheer conviction and a recognizable glimmer of humanity.
I find myself walking a careful line between over- and underselling the movie. On one hand, it’s not without its flaws, in structure and pace. On the other, it’s often fun and enjoyable, and the sections that work really do work. To damn it outright or to do so with faint praise seem equally unwholesome options. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is a damn sight better than most of the other epic-scale action movies that have been released in the past decade or so. Put it this way: toward the film’s end, when confronted with a plot twist, I felt myself leaning forward, eager to know what would happen and how our hero would get out of what seemed an impossible situation. For all the film’s missteps, it still had its hooks in me. I enjoyed my time on Barsoom, and I’d happily go back.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.