By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Mars isn't a red planet in John Carter, but it should be angry. The fourth rock from the sun can't be happy with its name changed to Barsoom, or being depicted as an oddly Earth-toned landscape of unspellable names, shape shifters, flying metal lobsters and distant cousins of Jar Jar Binks.
Whoo, baby, where do we begin? Maybe with a math equation: John Carter = Battlefield Earth + Dune over Prince of Persia times $250 million, the reported cost of this underwhelming fantasy. After this and last year's tax writeoff Mars Needs Moms, Disney should consider another planet to pick on.
John Carter is played by Taylor Kitsch, who really should rethink that surname. John is a taciturn Civil War veteran — the losing side — whose quest to find a cave of gold uncovers a medallion, whisking him off to Barsoom, which isn't much different from the desert he left.
Before you can say "Avatar" he's knee-deep in an alien civil war between the Tharks and Jets. (Actually it's Tharks and Zodangans but I love West Side Story.) In this new gravity, John has power to leap long distances and ... well, he can leap. There's a princess to protect, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who knows the medallion could destroy Barsoom in the wrong hands, and each Thark has four of those.
Tharks are a greenish crew with tusks, spindly appendages and height- defying prosthetics, so good actors like Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church are buried in digital disguises. Tharks aren't warriors, so while Barsoom's gravity makes John stronger than five of them, it's no big deal. Most Tharks are downright ugly, so Dejah and John are lucky she's a Red Martian, looking human and sexy in tight togas.
Bad guys include Sab Than (Dominic West), who sports a power glove made of what looks like glowing spun sugar, and Matai Shang (Mark Strong, who always gets hired to play evil). Their dialogue is either bloated with mock mythology, or punctuated with snorters such as: "Let them be crushed like unhatched eggs!"
Most annoying is John Carter's scarcity of action. This much buck should buy more bang. There is John's Gladiator-style fight with a giant polar sloth and a slo-mo sequence with John creating an impressive pile of bodies, but the showdown this malarkey leads to is one leap, a sword swing and it's over.
John Carter is Andrew Stanton's first foray into live-action filmmaking, after crafting Pixar's Finding Nemo and Wall-E. Nobody denies his right to stretch, but why with this material, with his animation prowess? Walt Disney himself considered a 'toon based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' books, years before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. If Uncle Walt could see where $250 million went, he'd be madder than Mars.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.