Disney has a knack for producing movies that aren’t terribly demanding, but are very entertaining for kids of all ages, including grown-up ones. “John Carter,” loosely adapted from the Edgar Rice Burroughs book “A Princess of Mars,” is just such a flick. If you’re the kind of person who can’t set aside science and enjoy a grand adventure on the surface of Mars, this is not a movie for you.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran who winds up transported to the surface of Mars — which, far from being a lifeless, airless rock, is a planet home to several warring factions of aliens. Carter is found by the Tharks, who are enormous, six-limbed, green barbarians. They stay out of the affairs of the other species, keeping mostly to their own warlike pursuits and internal conflicts.
Elsewhere, the villainous Sab Than (Dominic West) has been systematically taking over or destroying the other city-states of the planet. The last remaining holdout is Helium, but when its ruler is offered a truce on the condition that his beautiful daughter, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), marries the dastardly conqueror, he accepts. Dejah flees, hoping to find an alternative solution to end the war. What she finds is Carter.
This is a movie that would not have been possible even a few years ago. It relies heavily on CGI, and because the state of the art has progressed so rapidly, it’s actually fairly easy to buy into the world the film creates, complete with giant aliens and ships that sail on light. The CGI-created creatures are sufficiently different-looking from humans that they avoid the creepy, dead-eyed look so many quasi-realistic CGI humans have, and are actually likeable.
It probably helps that director Andrew Stanton (who also co-wrote) has worked on several other CGI films, including the Toy Story movies, “Finding Nemo,” and “Wall-E.” “John Carter” is a bit more mature than those films, but it has the same sense of wonder and is a straightforward, enjoyable ride of a movie.
The pace is fast enough and the story simple enough that there isn’t really room for character development, so all that is really required of the actors shown on screen is that they interact realistically with their CGI costars and deliver their lines in a way that is believable. Kitsch and Collins handle this admirably, and if their romance isn’t terribly believable, it’s mostly the fault of the script, which doesn’t give them much to work with.
Ultimately, this film succeeds because its goals are so straightforward. This is not a political thriller, character drama, or philosophical treatise, it’s a sci-fi/fantasy action flick, designed to entertain, and it does that admirably. The action sequences are exciting, the aliens are fascinating, and although at times it’s not terribly clear where the story is going, if you have faith that it will ultimately hold together, you won’t be disappointed.