On paper, this project had just about everything going for it. It was adapted from the enduringly popular adventure stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon (who also contributed to the screen story of Spider-Man 2) had a hand in the script, and director Stanton was responsible for two of Pixar's most beloved films -- Finding Nemo and Wall-E. Throw in an impressive budget to make the picture's magical creatures come to life, and everything would seem to be in place for an old-fashioned rollicking good time at the movies.
However, what's onscreen is a complete mess.
John Carter stars Taylor Kitsch as the title hero, a veteran of the Civil War whose wife and child have been killed. After refusing to help the U.S. military fight Apaches, Carter finds himself mysteriously transported to Mars (or Barsoom, as the natives refer to it). The various tribes of Barsoom include the aggressive Zodangans, the technologically advanced Therns, the human-like Heliumites, and giant green creatures known as Tharks. All four of these factions seem to be in a constant state of war with each other, and the most recent event in their ongoing struggle finds the Therns giving a powerful weapon to the Zodangans. Thrown into the middle of all of this, Carter tries to find his way home and in the process strikes up a flirty relationship with Heliumite princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).
In an attempt to keep audiences aware of the multiple motivations of the characters and races, nearly every line of dialogue in the movie explains something to us. It's an exposition-heavy film, which makes it impossible for the characters to develop beyond two-dimensional archetypes that reach way back to the cliff-hanger adventure serials of the 1930s. That wouldn't be a problem if this were a great thrill ride that rushed at us in a wave of excitement and fun. Instead, the tone and pacing are ponderous, the dialogue is flat, and the story itself becomes so overwhelmingly involved and intricate that it makes David Lynch's adaptation of Dune seem coherent and streamlined.
The problems in John Carter aren't just narrative; it's also an unpleasant film to look at. Mars -- sorry, I mean Barsoom -- is full of sand, and sand is one of the more difficult types of landforms to make interesting -- especially for two hours. When the dialogue bogs down in ridiculousness or tediousness, we're straining for something unique to look at, and the vast majority of the time there isn't anything there. Even the 3D effects, which are impressive in the beginning as Stanton manages to suggest seven or eight layers of depth, repel after a while because they're so aggressively busy.
Between the uninspired visuals, the narrative weaknesses, and the lack of any charismatic characters, John Carter becomes a tiring experience -- one you wish ended not long after it begins. There's nothing in it that suggests the magic or the emotional depth of Stanton's previous work. You're more likely to have flashbacks to other stillborn big-budget bores like The Last Airbender and Treasure Planet than to Finding Nemo or Wall-E. It's honestly stunning that the same director who made those marvelous films could be responsible for this one. Here's hoping that John Carter is just an aberrant misstep -- maybe caused in part by working outside the Pixar system for the first time -- and not a harbinger of Stanton's future.