I still don’t understand the glee with which the media greeted the premature burial of John Carter. The New York Times declared it the new Ishtar after one weekend. Entertainment Weekly gave it a D, a grade they rarely give out except in cases such as Battlefield Earth and Norbit, and has continued to rag on the film since. Most confusingly, Disney announced the film as a $200 million write-off after only two weeks in theaters. How many studios will declare their own film a bomb while still in theaters? John Carter’s a punchline now. Polling and the popularity of Facebook campaigns for a sequel seems to indicate a lot of the people who saw it liked it, but with all the premature negative press, word of mouth success was never a hope for this film. How can you convince people to see something when all the advanced negative press has created a self-fulfilling prophesy? People at Disney are getting fired over it. Fair enough, at least for whoever’s idea was it to give the movie such a bland title (why didn’t they call it John Carter and the Princess of Mars, to give it context and romance and a sense of Harry Potter/Indiana Jones-style excitement?). I just pray this film doesn’t end up killing the career of the director who managed to make the honestly good movie at the center of the business fiasco: Andrew Stanton.
Stanton’s one of the geniuses at the center of Pixar, and the director of in my opinion the studio’s greatest movie Wall-E. Hearing the director of arguably the best science fiction film in recent years was going to adapt the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel that invented half the genre’s tropes was enough to get me hyped. Why didn’t the marketing emphasize the resumes of Stanton and Burroughs (or co-writer Michael Chabon, for that matter)? Rumor has it Stanton himself was responsible for the confused marketing campaign, which was based in fear that emphasizing the film’s Pixar connections would make it look too kiddy (as if the name Disney gives off a more mature vibe than the name Pixar…) and in a misguided fanboy assumption that John Carter was mainstream enough to assume general familiarity with the property (which the studio-mandated name change really hurt any chance of working; I’ve heard stories of people who had read the books but weren’t even aware this film was an adaptation of them).
OK, so Stanton maybe shouldn’t get involved in marketing. But if it was his fanboy nature that doomed the marketing, it’s that same fanboy nature which makes the film itself work. For a $250 million effects blockbuster, it’s clearly a passion project and quirkily personal. Maybe that’s what scared the rest of the industry so much about the film? That the Pixar model of perfectionism and passion for story above all else might end up overtaking live-action? That they can accept it if one of those animation guys can work within the limitations of the pre-sold sequel blockbuster model (see Brad Bird doing Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), but if Andrew Stanton’s going to work in live-action outside of that model and still get ridiculously huge budgets he’s a threat to us all? That just makes me wish that this film succeeded even more, because Hollywood’s system could use a threat. To the critics who cheered the bombing of John Carter, don’t think this is a victory just because a mega-budget action film bombed. Hollywood’s still going to make mega-budget action films, but few of them are likely to be as honest as John Carter. A failure for John Carter isn’t a victory of The Tree of Life, it’s a victory for Transformers. And when pressed to pick between John Carter and Transformers, I think I know what anyone who isn’t Armond White would chose.
It’s interesting to compare the flop John Carter with the record-breaker Avatar, which James Cameron has stated was inspired by the Burroughs Barsoom books. In many ways Avatar is the more polished film, perfectly structured where John Carter can occasionally bog itself down in explaining too much or not enough (and needless to say Avatar’s 3D is far superior to the post-production 3D work on John Carter). But do you even remember who the characters were in Avatar? As fun as that film was, it didn’t stick with me in the slightest. With John Carter, I know that Lynn Collins’ performance as the beautiful scientist-warrior-princess Dejah Thoris will stick with me (even if, alas, the constraints of the PG-13 rating could not allow the most faithful depiction of her, um, attire). Ditto Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton’s motion capture work as Tars Tarkas and Sola, the two of the warrior Tharks who maintain a family connection and have thus developed empathy where their peers have not. And Woola, whose design has been Disneyfied but his bad-assness remains intact even as his adorability has increased. As for John Carter himself, I found him to be the weakest part of his own book series, kind of Gary Stu-ish and consistently upstaged by the fascinating alien happenings surrounding him. Stanton’s deepened the character, looking at how his time as a soldier has affected his attitude and worldview (and fortunately minimizing the book’s unfortunate implications of having a Confederate soldier as the big hero). Taylor Kitsch is generally better off when throwing out one-liners than getting into the seriousness of the character, but when he single-handedly faces off against an entire army of Warhoons as intercut flashbacks reveal a past trauma he has tried to bury before, I bought it. Awe-inspiring moments like these show this big budget production to be a labor of love for Stanton and Chabon. Ignore the negativity, and you may be awed as well.