March 15, 2012

'John Carter' offers good, hokey fun


---- — Disney was hoping for an epic franchise — think "Harry Potter," "Lord of the Rings" — and "John Carter" falls short of that. That doesn't mean, however, that the high-priced sci-fi epic is a flop.

Convoluted and perhaps a little too earnest, "John Carter" is nevertheless good, hokey fun on a grand scale.

Based on the 100-year-old Edgar Rice Burroughs' pulp classic "A Princess of Mars," the film stars Taylor Kitsch ("Friday Night Lights") as the title character, a former confederate cavalryman turned gold prospector in 1868.

While having a rousing Western adventure, John Carter is magically teleported to the planet Mars (or Barsoom, as the natives call it), and things get quite a bit more strange.

The difference in gravity gives Carter super strength and the ability to leap tall buildings, both of which he'll need on a warring planet that includes barbaric 12-foot (and four-armed) aliens called Tharks.

The planet also contains its share of humanoids. The good ones live in the civilized, educated city of Helium. The bad ones live in an evil mobile city called Zodanga. Oh, and there's a race of advanced, immortal beings (Tharns) who are pulling the strings in the conflict for their own nefarious purposes.

Carter will naturally fall in with the good humanoids — and who could blame him after he gets a glimpse of Lynn Collins' ("The Number 23") Martian princess, Dejah Thoris? The princess is not only gorgeous and scantily clad, but she's brainy (a scientist!) and she wields a mighty sword.

Kitsch looks the part of action hero and turns in a solid performance, though acting takes a distant backseat in "John Carter." It still remains to be seen, however, if he can advance from teen idol to someone who can carry a movie.

Collins — who shared the screen with Kitsch in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" — has a good rapport with her co-star and makes her princess seem almost worth all the fuss.

The supporting characters include Dominic West as the evil warlord who demands to marry the princess and plots to destroy Helium. Ciaran Hinds is the good leader, while Mark Strong is the chief manipulator.

Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church lend their voices to the main computer-generated Tharks. A grown-up Daryl Sabara ("Spy Kids") plays Edgar Rice Burroughs himself, at the beginning and end of the film.

"John Carter" doesn't have any groundbreaking special effects or action pieces, but it gets the job done most of the time and shows an occasional sense of humor, too. Woola, a fast and faithful six-legged scaly dog beast, provides more than one chuckle.

Directed by Pixar ("Finding Nemo," "Wall-E") veteran Andrew Stanton, the movie is an old-fashioned, straightforward adventure. It's flawed but enjoyable.

Rental Recommendation: Do NOT rent 2009's cheesy, low-budget, straight-to-video "Princess of Mars." Instead, there's some good non-human battling in "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones." Grade: A-

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