John Carter — an intrepid explorer of other planets, born from the pen of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who also created Tarzan — finally has hit the big screen.
The character first appeared in a 1912 pulp magazine serial, which later was published in novel form as “A Princess of Mars.” Tarzan debuted the same year to far greater success, quickly making the jump to movies, which ranged from Johnny Weissmuller adventures to trashy Bo Derek movies, Oscar-nominated dramas and Disney cartoons.
What’s most peculiar about the new 3-D “John Carter” movie, directed by Andrew Stanton, is how much it resembles “Avatar” — and how much better it is.
Daryl Sabara plays Burroughs in a wraparound sequence aimed at newcomers, and the tale begins on Earth, where Carter (Taylor Kitsch of “Friday Night Lights”) is a Civil War veteran turned gold prospector. He stumbles across a cave and is whisked away to Mars (called “Barsoom” by its natives).
The gravity there allows him to jump great heights and distances, which comes in handy, because he finds himself caught in a civil war between two tribes of red-skinned humanoid Martians and some neutral, nomadic green Martian creatures known as the Tharks.
A beautiful princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), and a slimy villain, Sab Than (Dominic West), help him choose sides.
Chasing, escaping, fighting, racing against time — and even some puzzle-solving — follow.
Director Stanton, a familiar name from Pixar productions “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E,” makes his live-action debut, keeping the same fluidity and rhythm as in his animated classics.
Likewise, co-screenwriter Michael Chabon is most definitely an ace in the hole; the brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” and co-writer of “Spider-Man 2” knows a thing or two about interpreting pulp and comics.
The movie’s odd, minor-chord opening scene is the only thing that reveals the slightest bit of uncertainty from the filmmakers.
And even though “John Carter” looks big and expensive, it enthusiastically remains a pulp story at heart, while “Avatar” wobbled between preaching and illiteracy — and fun wasn’t even a factor.
As it speeds along, “John Carter” celebrates the concept of adventure. Viewers will find it easy to join the celebration.
John Carter ★★★
Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Polly Walker, Daryl Sabara
Written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Running time 2 hours 12 minutes