Andrew Stanton is a filmmaker I admire so much. He nailed it when he brought Finding Nemo to the big screen. He did it once more when he made a quasi-silent film in Wall-E which I found, later on, is a great love letter to Hello Dolly. But When he made John Carter, that was when I saw a new side to Stanton that blew me away. He not only challenged himself by trying to make a live-action film but managed to take a story from the mind of Edgar Rice Burroughs and bring it to the big screen. This story is very complex. It is science fiction before Star Wars so it may seem off-putting but it draws you back in after much contemplation and re-watch opportunities.
It dawned on me when Stanton mentioned how similar animation and live-action are. Animation requires computers for costume design, stunts for moving characters, lighting, makeup/look of characters, voice acting for actors, movement of lips for dialogue, effects, sound effects, visual effects, sets, locations, and more. The director makes sure everything serves the right standards to the director.
For live action, the same concept except that there are people from many departments that are assigned to help the film come to life. I am sure it was an interesting transition.
John Carter is a war veteran who doesn’t want to fight. Colonel Powell tries to recruit Carter to fight some Apaches and Carter doesn’t feel like it. He wants to be left alone and live his life in some sort of peace. After some escape after being arrested, Carter gives in and goes on the mission. The mission ends badly and Carter is transported to Mars. He has no idea until later that he meets a princess who would make Leia smile with pride. He also noticed that his body mass is affected on Mars and is agile and can run far better than any normal human can on Mars can, or the alien creatures called Thaarks. It takes some getting used to but he finds some allies like Tars Tarkas and Sola.
Carter becomes drawn into a conflict that requires him to utilize his military training. He wants no part of it. We see why Carter wants not part of any war. Carter is a broken and lost man. Dejah Thoris gets through to him over time. I mean, I would have no choice if someone as stubborn, driven, smart and sexy as Dejah was trying to break through my walls of feelings. Carter becomes a changed man. It also doesn’t hurt he meets the cutest alien dog sidekick.
It was refreshing to witness Taylor Kitsch trade in his football from Friday Night Lights for superpowers on Mars. He shows many layers as a lone wolf finding purpose again in a conflict across the stars along with finding love again. I had a crush on Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. She aged like fine wine in 2022. I was entranced by her warrior-like spirit as Dejah Thoris. She is committed to resolving the ongoing conflict on Mars. I admire her resolve.
What I enjoyed about the film are the stunning visuals. The look of Mars and the alien natives called Thaarks are unqiue and well-crafted. I found it pleasant that they mistake John for his name Virginia, thinking his place of origin is his name. The way it is pronounced is comedy gold. I found it fascinating seeing how much effort it took to bring the Thaarks to life with the motion capture technology. Thaarks are tall and have four arms, so Willem Dafoe who played Tars Tarkas had to wear stilts to stimulate the massive creatures. Dafoe is always a win. He can slip into any role with ease. I almost had nightmares seeing him crush his return to the dastardly Green Goblin role in No Way Home. Tars Tarkas is a mentor of sorts to Carter as he shows Carter what he is up against and the pair slowly become allies over time.
I remember the teaser trailer as very intriguing. I somehow mistook it for a Prince of Persia sequel for a second. Disney released that film in 2010 and Dastan and Carter have a similar look. The blue visuals felt like it was a dead giveaway. It was a teaser with many hints of what was to come. The second trailer was more epic and upbeat. When I finally saw the film, I was blown away. I enjoyed it, but I felt the film was incomplete. I finally got the chance to listen to director Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo) narrate his time on the film on the audio commentary.
I had an epiphany. I have marketed the wrong movie. The first trailer had me thinking this was going to be a film of wonder, magic, and suspense. The next trailer led me to believe that this film was going to be an action-packed non stop adventure all the way. The film mostly dealt with a human named John Carter who wanted to be alone because he felt alone. He is forced back into the action and ends up in another world where he meets aliens and a woman he comes to care for. We learn more about the conflict between man and alien. As Stanton was talking, it dawned on me this PIXAR superstar was telling a movie akin to PIXAR but in live action. He was telling a human story with amazing characters. We see John Carter of Earth become John Carter of Mars. The trailers did not convey that and such a marketing strategy led to its downfall.
I felt bad we never got a sequel. The movie did not do well at the box office. I listened to the Maltin on Movies podcast featuring casting director, Sarah Halley Finn. She recalled casting for Guardians of the Galaxy and was nervous about the film. 2010 saw the not successful Prince of Persia. 2011 saw the box office failure that was Green Lantern. Then along came John Carter and then in 2013, The Lone Ranger. James Gunn was under a lot of pressure. But in the end, it worked out. The risk erupted into many rewards.
Anyway, other factors led to John Carter’s downfall. This film was under a lot of pf pressure following the less than successful releases of Conan the Barbarian and Cowboys and Aliens in 2011. Pirates of the Caribbean made a billion worldwide but reshoots on that film meant Carter had to make a lot more at the box office to recuperate.
No reason to panic.
The next reason was the title change. Tangled managed to bounce back from this. The original title of that film was Rapunzel Unbraided, which changed to Rapunzel then to Tangled. There was a discussion that a princess in the title would dissuade audiences from going to see the film. That is code for boys. I found this assessment asinine. Someone could call the past several decades.
A Princess of Mars is what John Carter is based on. It was changed to John Carter of Mars to appeal to a “larger” audience. I mean I get it. Personally, I would see it regardless, but I understand trying to market a film based on a 100-year-old book.
However, the 2011 Mars Needs Moms film did not do well in theaters, so Mars in the title had to go as an effort to protect their investment. Stanton met the studio halfway by having the film be titled John Carter, but at the end of the film, Carter earned his true name; John Carter OF MARS. For years the JCM logo drove me nuts until I finally had an epiphany.
There was also a lack of merchandise opportunities for the film. I mean who wouldn’t want a cute 6-legged alien dog and a badass 4-arm alien, a Prince of Persia look alike, and a stunning princess? There was an amazing TED Talk Stanton gave which was effective to a point, but there was early negative press before the film was released that didn’t help the cause.
After the film’s release, many industries have spoken up about the film stating the film’s demise was due in part to the marketing and poor leadership at Disney. I have to credit Youtubers Filmento, SuperMakki, and Joblo Originals for doing a deep dive into this film. I will say Dominic West, Lynn Collins, Bryan Cranston, and Taylor Kitsch have spoken highly of the film over the years and support Andrew Stanton for fighting for his vision as best as he could. It warmed my heart to see Lynn Collins retweet a post about Carter and show her love for that film. It brought a smile to my face to hear Kitsch speak highly of the film while promoting The Terminal List. I got emotional when Andrew Stanton attended Comic Con in San Diego and shared the synopsis of the two films that would have been.
I love this film. I love the score by Michael Giacchino. I love the fact that Spy Kids alum Darryl Sabara shows up in this film. The sad part is that this is not the first time a filmmaker has a vision for a compelling story and the studio doesn’t fully support the filmmaker and makes rash decisions and the results prove costly. I believe Josh Trank, the late Richard Donner, M Night Shyamalan, and Zack Snyder could relate.
John Carter would have been the first step into a larger world of possibility. The good news is that Frozen and Marvel’s The Avengers seemed to offer a silver lining to Disney. But it also allowed Disney to be in the right place at the right time to buy Lucasfilm later in 2012. A wise move indeed.
Dune came out in 2021. It was met with critical acclaim and awards glory. Denis Villeneuve blew it out of the park bringing Frank Herbert’s novel to life. The real kicker is that John Carter was released as a novel in 1912. Dune was released decades later. Carter is more or less likely the birth of the sci-fi novel genre. I am happy Dune got its due. I can’t help but wonder if Andrew Stanton should have been given that level of glory and praise.
But I am happy he got to direct an amazing sequel to Finding Nemo and got to play in Hawkins Indiana. I am happy he is proud of the film. I know that people of all ages will come to love and enjoy the world of Barsoom both literally and cinematically. There is so much to love about this masterpiece. Stanton weaved a tale about a coming-of-age story of love, hope, perseverance, and fighting for what is right.
Enjoy the show.