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‘John Carter’ just misses

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Adventure epic lacks spirit of source material

One of the problems with adapting a beloved literary property to the big screen is the simple truth that you can’t satisfy everybody. Like it or not, two hours of film cannot match 400 pages of novel in terms of sheer volume of description. So filmmakers pick and choose the parts that they use - making a coherent movie, sure, but also infuriating the purists. Of course, if the literary property in question is almost a century old, there’s a little leeway.

So it is with “John Carter.”

The film is based on the Barsoom series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This film is based primarily on “A Princess of Mars,” the first of a dozen different stories featuring the planet Mars as imagined by Burroughs.

It’s the story of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, TV’s “Friday Night Lights”), a Confederate veteran from Virginia who, while questing for a legendary cave of gold, accidentally finds himself transported to Mars (or Barsoom, as the natives call it). When he arrives, he quickly learns that the differences in gravity and physiology give him great strength and allow him to leap great distances.

He quickly finds himself taken in by the Tharks, the most non-humanoid of Barsoom’s races, after proving himself to the tribe’s leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe, “The Hunter”). Before long, Carter is swept into the long-standing war between the good nation of Helium and the sinister traveling city of Zodanga.

Alongside Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, “Ten Year”), Princess of Helium, and a number of other allies, John Carter must prevent the mysterious Thurns (who are pulling the strings behind the scenes) from helping the evil Sab Than (Dominic West, “The Awakening”) to marry the Princess and assume dominion over all of Barsoom.

In the Barsoom stories, Burroughs really created a sweeping, epic world – a wonderful blend of sword-and-sorcery and pulpy science fiction. The structure exists to tell a lengthy, potentially very engaging saga of one man’s adventures in another world. But could this film meet its potential with a family-friendliness-driven studio such as Disney at the helm? Would the spirit of the original survive?

Kind of.

Kitsch surprised me as John Carter; there’s a weird meat-headed amiability about him that makes him engaging to watch, especially in a sword-swinger such as this one. Do I buy him as being from late 19th century Virginia? Not really, but it doesn’t much matter in the overall scheme. He’s good with the action stuff, he’s so-so as far as romantic chemistry – dude’s going to make a lot of movies.

The supporting cast is solid. Collins is decent enough, though she feels a bit generic. Defoe is surprisingly effective as the CGI Thark leader. And West is quite good – a story like this doesn’t work without a villain who is both brutal and charismatic. He’s a suitably huge opponent for the equally larger-than-life Carter.

The Barsoom books are thick with detail; the filmmakers bring much of that detail to life. Visually, the film has moments of true excellence – the blend of medieval themes with advanced technology usually results in something striking – although there’s a blandness that may be inescapable due to Barsoom’s relatively bleak landscape. Still, it’s a lot of fun to look at.

“John Carter” is clearly intended as the beginning of a tentpole franchise, and as such is reasonably successful, but there’s something missing here. It’s a decent effort, but somehow empty. The spirit of the original is largely absent, leaving a movie that, while entertaining enough, is less than it could have been.

3 out of 5

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