The first mega-tentpole of the year arrived on Friday, with the release of Disney's "John Carter," the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic sci-fi pulp hero. The film was the live-action debut of the Oscar-winning director Andrew Stanton, the Pixar veteran who brought the world "Finding Nemo" and "Wall-E," which are among the top rank of Pixar's accomplishments both creatively and financially. But in the weeks and months leading up to release, the talks wasn't of a sure-fire hit, it was of a hugely expensive film that wasn't connecting with prospective audiences. The vultures circled, and as expected, "John Carter" opened to hugely disappointing numbers at the North American box office this weekend -- $30 million in three days, less than the $1 million budgeted "The Devil Inside" managed back in January. Overseas, the numbers were a bit sunnier with $70 million coming in, but all told, the studio is far cry from the widely reported $600 million break even point for the film.
But numbers aside, for us, this is a story of creative disappointment. Stanton is an enormously talented filmmaker, and he had a top-notch creative team, including Pulitzer Prize-winning literary darling Michael Chabon as screenwriter, and, according to most sources, total creative freedom. And the film isn't a disaster -- it's rather likeable, has some neat moments, and unlike the majority of blockbusters, feels like a true work of passion. But it's also a mess. Which is curious, as Stanton comes from Pixar, a studio which has gained fame, and billions of dollars, by placing story first. Indeed, Stanton gave a TED talk on the importance of storytelling, waxing lyrical on how the form should lead towards a singular goal, a truth, with the ultimate aim of making an audience member care. However, none of that is easily evident in the final product of "John Carter." It's as though when he went into the live-action world, Stanton forgot most of what he'd learned about telling a story on screen.
Perhaps it was closeness to the material -- according to some, Stanton had dreamed of making the film for thirty years, and had a skewed perspective of the character's value, convinced that kids would come flocking at the mere mention of a "Princess of Mars" movie. Or perhaps it's simply that making a good movie is really, really fucking hard. But if you think this piece is bad, damn, you need to read this Brooke Barnes post-mortem/anatomy of a failure on “John Carter” that ran this Sunday in the New York Times when the corpse was barely cold (called tellingly “Ishtar Lands On Mars”). It’s a pretty brutal and damning article that spends a good deal of time throwing Stanton under the bus for being recalcitrant, not listening to Disney execs and generally dismissing any creative feedback/constructive criticism from anyone other than Pixar folks. It’s a fascinating read.
The exact details of what exactly went down between Stanton and Disney we may not ever completely know, but here’s 10 things we felt went completely wrong with “John Carter.” SPOILERS AHEAD.