So what are we to make of “John Carter”? A fascinating failure, as Anne Thompson has suggested? Another “Dune” that’s lovely to look at but short on narrative? Well, Francois Truffaut once wrote that fascinating failures are more memorable than safe successes. And director Andrew Stanton is nothing if not ambitious. (Google Talks Stanton Q&A video is below.)
Just look at his two great animated Pixar hits: “Finding Nemo” and “WALL•E.” They’re formidable fish out of water tales (now we realize where his inspiration came from) that risked going off the deep end in the second half. But Stanton managed to sustain our interest because the characters were so endearing, the worlds so imaginative, and the situations so stirring. They were primal experiences about fatherhood and survival.
But there were certainly speed bumps along the way. I remember Stanton telling me how he wanted to delay informing us of the tragic demise of Nemo’s mother and siblings, but that John Lasseter advised him to get it out of the way quickly to make the neurotic Marlin (Albert Brooks) all the more sympathetic. Likewise, I recall one of Stanton’s Pixar colleagues telling me that they were so worried about WALL•E leaving Earth for a more cartoony journey on the space station. Yet it coalesced into a fitting finale.
I’ve heard that Stanton originally had a much more epic script for “John Carter” to work from (you don’t hire the prestigious Michael Chabon for nothing), but was forced by Disney to truncate it for budgetary reasons. As we know, it turned out to cost $250 million anyway, so it might’ve been money well spent. Who knows? But what we do know is that Stanton is the ultimate “John Carter” fanboy, who finally got his wish to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs’ father of all sci-fi fantasies.
At Geoff Boucher’s recent Hero Complex screening, Stanton admitted that what drew him to Burroughs was the primal stranger in a strange land premise: “[You’re] reading about this ordinary guy that’s suddenly extraordinary on another planet, he’s got the coolest best friend, the coolest pet, and he’s winning the heart of the most beautiful girl in the universe, that’s like a checklist of everything you’ve ever wanted.”
Thus, despite any narrative deficiencies and an all too familiar mash-up of fantasy/sci-fi/western/sword & sandal/Biblical storytelling, Stanton does deliver the mythical goods: using all the recognizable iconic imagery and symbols as a shorthand to finally tell the tale of John Carter, the war-torn Civil War vet, who finds a cause and a new lease on life on Mars (or, rather, Barsoom). Indeed, the sequence with Carter on a violent rampage on Barsoon intercut with the painful memory of burying his wife and child is Stanton at his best.
And Double Negative and Cinesite raised their own personal VFX bars in terms of creature animation and environmental work, respectively, in helping Stanton pull off his naturalistic vision. Now Stanton has a better understanding of the hybrid playbook, much like Pixar colleague Brad Bird (“Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol”) as he moves forward with his career. And, yes, Willem Dafoe’s performance-captured Tars Tarkas provides the emotional core because the acting and animation are so believable, and the loyal lizard-like dog, Woola, steals the show also because of the elevated animated performance.
While it was difficult explaining to my two young sons beforehand that Stanton didn’t rip off “Avatar,” they instinctively responded to Carter’s first superhuman leap for joy on Barsoom along with all the familiar tropes that have infiltrated our culture ever since Burroughs introduced his iconic tale 100 years ago. Afterward, my youngest came to me and exclaimed: “So ‘Avatar ‘ is a rip-off of ‘John Carter’!”
So, in a sense, “John Carter” is a continuation of that retro vibe that Michel Hazanavicius and Martin Scorsese captured with “The Artist” and “Hugo”: rediscovering the past to reclaim the future. But in Stanton’s case, it’s obviously a riskier leap of faith. We’ll have to wait and see if “John Carter” hits his mark or if his journey ends here. Regardless, Stanton at least got the opportunity to rescue Burroughs’ hero from obscurity.