I would venture that the most frustrating thing for any filmmaker is to have his film scrutinised and/or dismissed for any reason bar the only one that matters - its quality or artistry. Such is the case with Pixar animator Andrew Stanton's live-action debut John Carter, a lively throwback to classic Hollywood whose wide-eyed love of old-fashioned derring-do and solid if stodgy world-making has been completely sidetracked by the negative buzz surrounding its inflated budget and box-office under-performance, leading it to be dismissed as a Hollywood-gone-wild unmitigated disaster. The sad thing about it is John Carter is actually a pretty good adventure film whose ambitions and mindset are so alien to Hollywood's current herd mentality and scope that it would have been all but impossible for any studio to realise what exactly they had in their hands and how to package it.

     The tale of Civil War-era Confederate cavalryman John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), mysteriously teleported to a ludicrously fantastic planet Mars prey to a civil war of its own, was an early creation of writer Edgar Rice Burroughs pushed back into the shadows after Tarzan, but that has been irregularly revived in the comic-book format. Mr. Stanton, scripting with Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chabon, remains faithful to the original set-up and plot, but gives it a lustrous steampunk sheen, updating the technology just enough to mesh well with the story's mash-up of classic schoolboy adventure tropes and exotic safari tale given a fantastic-planet paint job. The director being a Pixar alum, it's little wonder that the story is a lot more solid than usual for a sci-fi/adventure blockbuster, particularly in the way that it draws a credible, lived-in world while leaving all the specific details blurred and many blanks unfilled.

     It's as a live-action director that Mr. Stanton is less assured; the film has a halting, jagged rhythm, occasionally suggesting a visual juggler struggling to keep all his balls in the air successfully at once, and the breathless sequence of setpieces eventually become a case of "too much of a good thing". And while its untested leads, Mr. Kitsch (looking like a young Johnny Depp) and Lynn Collins as feisty Martian princess Dejah Thoris, are perfectly fine, neither of them brings that gusto and energy that could make these breakthrough roles; it's the suavely sinister Mark Strong, as the shape-shifting villain Matai Shang, and Willem Dafoe voicing the CGI-animated four-armed, tusked Thark warrior Tars Tarkas, that run away with the film.

     So, perfect it certainly isn't, and it does have a certain quality of runaway imagination tripping over itself, a sense of a director stretching beyond his powers at the moment. But in the greater scheme of things that is really not much of a problem: the great pleasures to be derived from John Carter come from the simplicity of a classically derivative, B-picture-influenced adventure movie, done with care and cleverness by a prodigiously creative fanboy, and one that has more respect for its audience, love of film and storytelling ambition that most of what Hollywood greenlights these days. It's not perfect, but it's great, smart fun. More than you can say about most would-be contemporary blockbusters.

Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Polly Walker, Daryl Sabara; Thomas Haden Church; Willem Dafoe.
     Director, Andrew Stanton; screenplay, Mr. Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon, from the story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars; cinematography, Dan Mindel (colour by DeLuxe, Panavision widescreen); music, Michael Giacchino; production designer, Nathan Crowley; costume designer, Mayes C. Rubeo; editor, Eric Zumbrunnen; visual effects supervisors, Peter Chiang, Sue Rowe; producers, Jim Morris, Lindsey Collins, Colin Wilson (Walt Disney Pictures), USA, 2012, 132 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), March 12th 2012. 


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