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If you have ever lived in Orlando, you have heard the regular reports on how Disney shoots themselves in the foot on a routine basis. They have a long history of thinking that they know the mind of the American public only to be wrong over and over. They turned down doing the Lord of the Rings, not once, but twice. They were approached about doing The Hobbit back in the seventies, remember that animated film? Not done by Disney. They lost a lot of money on that decision, so they tried to compensate by making The Black Cauldron. (Remember that movie? Probably not. It’s biggest claim to fame is having a villain so creepy that Disney won’t even allow the costume in the park for Halloween.) Back in 2000, the entertainment giant knew they had it right with two huge animated films: Dinosaur and Fantasia 2000. Both were huge bombs. What saved their ass that year was a film they considered a throw away and barely advertised, The Emperor’s New Groove. I’m not saying that Disney can’t make good movies, obviously. They’ve made their fortune and reputation on exceptional animated and family films over nearly a century (that time frame becomes important in a minute here, bear with me). To say a word in their favor, the way they handled the Muppets movie last year was genius (not only the movie itself, but the promotion. Releasing numerous muppet sketches on YouTube, brilliant). However in typical Disney fashion, they don’t learn from their successes or their failures, and so this year we get John Carter, a several hundred million dollar sci-fi epic based on a series of novels (ready?) one hundred years old. Written by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burrows, the series never became a huge mainstream success like his swinging ape-man, but was ever popular among those who read such things. So what is the problem? Well, let me tell you about the film and then we’ll get into the issues.
John Carter is the story of John Carter (naturally), a soldier for the Confederacy during the civil war, now an outlaw wanted by the government seeking a horde of gold in a lost cave. When he finds the treasure, he also encounters a strange figure. They grapple and there is a flash of light. All of a sudden, Carter finds himself on the surface of the planet Mars, where the lighter gravity allows him to leap great distances (a feat he appears to master after about half an hour’s practice). He is discovered by a tribe of tall, green aliens who begin to treat him as a child but eventually make him their war chief. When Carter discovers that a race of humans exist on the planet, he gets wrapped up in their war, rescuing a princess from the hands of a conquering warlord whose actions are about to destroy the planet. Moved by his love for the princess and his adopted alien family, he forms an army to take on the oppressor.
Okay, now reading all that, does it sound a bit familiar? It should. It was a huge hit movie just a few years ago, even won a few Oscars. There’s a reason for that. James Cameron based Avatar loosely on a hundred year old story by Edgar Rice Burroughs called Princess of Mars, which happens to be the first John Carter novel (a low-budget film company even made the movie Princess of Mars, citing it as the inspiration for Avatar). So here’s Disney’s logic: Let’s take this century old sci-fi story with its since disproven scientific theory, ignore that fact that two (yes two) other movies based on the same material have come out in the past three years, and spend 250 million on it. In fact, let’s cast a virtual unknown in the lead (Taylor Kitsch is mainly known for the TV show Friday Night Lights and for playing Gambit in the Wolverine movie) and to further hedge our bets, let’s not put out any low-budget movies this year that can give us a cushion, just in case this doesn’t work (after all, Disney considers itself the infallible pope of film). Now that John Carter has bombed, Disney has to hope they’ll make up losses on The Avengers, which isn’t even their film, they’re just getting royalty money because they bought Marvel. But I digress, let me tell you what I think about the movie, as opposed to my opinion of the studio. If you can ignore the scientific theory flaws (like a man jumping a mile and a half without breaking something) and the obvious Avatar similarities, it’s a decent film. Taylor Kitsch is actually a charismatic actor and you find yourself liking him in spite of yourself. The story survived a hundred years and was copied several times because it is actually quite good, and has some clever plot devices that Cameron did not duplicate (in all honesty, the only thing he did copy was a loose idea of a story concept, kinda like writing a generic idea on the board in a creative writing class and seeing the different stories they come up with.) As a whole, it’s a good film that was poorly timed.
Final Word: Can See in Sci-Fi Action.