It was always going to be a challenge to pull audiences into Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian fantasy world on the red planet Barsoom. As a kid I read and reread Burroughs' "Tarzan" and Martian novels (he published his first book, "Princess of Mars," almost a century ago, in 1917). I loved escaping into this exotic universe of warriors, princesses and six-limbed Tharks. But bringing that world to the screen was impossible until James Cameron's "Avatar" successfully brought to a new level live-action mixed with digital environments and multiple performance-capture characters.
Disney optioned the rights to "A Princess of Mars" for director John McTiernan ("The Hunt for Red October"); then producer James Jacks gave it a whirl at Paramount with Guillermo del Toro and digital techno-whizes Robert Rodriguez ("Spy Kids"), Kerry Conran ("Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow") and finally, Jon Favreau. When Paramount let go of the rights, Favreau went on to direct "Iron Man."
Watching like a hawk the entire time was Pixar writer-director Andrew Stanton, now 45, who grew up on the Marvel Comics Martian novels, and waited 36 years to grab the rights. Disney's then-chairman Dick Cook scooped them up and green-lit a $250 million feature to be adapted and directed by Stanton. (He eventually brought in writers Michael Chabon and Mark Andrews.)
“When you’re 10 or 11 years old, and you’ve discovered girls, but they haven’t discovered you yet," Stanton said at a recent Q & A, "and you’re reading about this ordinary guy that’s suddenly extraordinary on another planet, he’s got the coolest best friend, the coolest pet, and he’s winning the heart of the most beautiful girl in the universe, that’s like a checklist of everything you’ve ever wanted."
But as great a writer/director/animator as Stanton has been at Team Pixar, he's unproven in live action and he's no Spielberg, whose brand name pulls audiences to a movie. And "X-Men: Wolverine" co-stars Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins, with underused "Rome" supporting players Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy, aren't marquee movie stars who put butts in seats like Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie.
Giving Stanton, despite the credit he's due for his crucial participation in Pixar's unprecedented run of 12 blockbusters--Oscar-winning "Finding Nemo" and "Wall-E" earned $1.3 billion worldwide-- a live-action movie of this magnitude to supervise was a huge gamble. At Pixar he was a vital part of a team who were reliant on rewrites and animatics and constant changing of the story until each film played perfectly. Animation is the last part of the Pixar process.
Live action is a whole other universe. When I saw "John Carter" at its LA Live premiere, I could see so many things that might have been fixed by an experienced studio production team. For the most part, Disney let Stanton do his thing until he showed them a rough cut. The frustration is that the main story elements--gravity-enhanced jaded ex-soldier Carter (Kitsch), who can leap across the barren Barsoom landscape (Utah), his romance with spoiled Martian princess Dejah Thoris (Collins), alliance with honorable Thark chief Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) and various battles with Martian creatures and armies--work well. The best thing in the movie is his toothy pet Woola--animated, natch (see clip below). But so much also goes wrong.
For starters, the film (which gains nothing from retrofitted 3-D) opens badly in the middle of a Martian air battle, and takes far too long to bring Civil War vet Carter to red planet Barsoom. The crucial design of the green nine-foot-tall, tusked and four-armed green Tharks is misguided (too close to Jar Jar Binks), many of the large-scale air battles are murky and over-pixelated, and Collins as the Princess of Mars boasts a clearly fake Brit accent. These are fixable mistakes among many, many more.
At the after-party, Stanton explained his deep passion for the material, and said that the film couldn't have been done any sooner with pre-existing technology, or any cheaper either. He also says he relied on pre-planned reshoots (no way Disney had eighteen days in mind). He pays no heed to news reports or critics, he just tunes into his own drummer. So much so that he has already written the second installment of his planned trilogy. Only if the first film delivers a near-impossible $700 million will that happen.
Jacks argues that Conran could have done the film for half as much. Check Conran's pitch video below, which captures just the right feel for Barsoom. While cinephiles may know that George Lucas and James Cameron raided these novels as inspiration for "Star Wars" and "Avatar," the fact remains that audiences are clueless about this world. (Here's Stanton's profile in The New Yorker and more recent interviews with the LAT's Geoff Boucher and Harry Knowles; video of his recent TED Talk, "My Life in Story, Backwards" is below. )
In October 2009, incoming Disney chairman Rich Ross faced a project that was well under way, with millions already spent. And under boss Robert Iger's directives, Ross let go of many of Disney's experienced production, distribution and marketing professionals. When the studio tested the movie's "materials" --characters, title, designs--they did not play well with audiences. Burroughs' Martian novels are not as well-known as his "Tarzan" series, which fueled countless film iterations over the decades.
An inexperienced chairman like Ross--relying on a new marketing team run by industry outsider MT Carney-- didn't know how to place the movie inside the proper genre context, the male sci-fi fantasy universe. Instead the studio, with so much investment on the line, took the mass-audience "appeal-to-everyone" approach. Disastrously, in an effort to draw women, they got rid of the most commercial element of the project. By trimming "John Carter of Mars" to "John Carter," they lost Mars. (More details at Thedailybeast.)
Whatever the pluses and minues of outgoing studio chief Dick Cook, he was an ace marketer who would never have so mishandled this campaign. "John Carter" was generic: its standalone JC logo meant nothing. And as terrific as Canadian hunk Kitsch ("Friday Night Lights") is in this movie--and he's going to be a star from here, with tentpole actioner "Battleship" and Oliver Stone's drug cartel thriller "Savages" coming up--he's hardly a marquee draw at this point.
Disney then made another crucial error, opting not to promote the movie to its prime demo at Comic-Con in July, but keeping it with the Disney line-up at D 23, where the presentation bombed. You could sense the chill in the room. It just didn't feel like your cookie-cutter Disney movie.
Hollywood insider Ricky Strauss, Disney's more experienced new marketing head, came into a tough situation and started to right the ship by admitting that yes, the core target audience was male--young males, the ones who tune into the fanboy demo, who should have been targeted at Comic-Con last summer. That was a start, and sure enough, Knowles, who had been a producer on the Jacks "John Carter of Mars" at Paramount, gave the film a rave.
But the damage had been done. Iger may have wanted to break his studio away from its hidebound traditions and practices. But he did so at a cost. The write-off on this movie will be one of the biggest in Hollywood history.
A sampling of reviews, clips and trailers below:
THR: "This Disney extravaganza is a rather charming pastiche, if perhaps not one with sufficient excitement and razzle-dazzle to justify the reported $250 million production budget. Neither classic nor fiasco, the film will likely delight sci-fi geeks most of all, but there's enough here for general Disney audiences as well to generate solid box office worldwide,..If 'Avatar' had never existed, it's possible that 'John Carter' would have seemed like more of a genre breakthrough,..Although the result is quite a mishmash, dramatic coherence prevails over visual flair; the colors, skin tones, image sharpness and cohesion of diverse pictorial elements are less than stellar, although the 3D is effective, with comparatively little brightness sacrificed by donning glasses."
Empire: "Stanton has built a fantastic world, but the action is unmemorable. Still, just about every sci-fi/fantasy/superhero adventure you ever loved is in here somewhere."
CinemaBlend: "What shocks me most is Stanton’s apparent lack of command over a story that sprawls in various directions without saying much. This is a Pixar veteran whose credits include the 'Toy Story' franchise, 'Finding Nemo' and the flawless 'WALL-E.' Could he not see that he lacked a firm grip on his film’s narrative?"
TotalFilm: "If history has taught filmmakers one lesson, it’s that if you’re going to make a movie about Mars, it had better star Arnold Schwarzenegger and a lady with three boobies. Otherwise? Forget it. So, maybe the smartest thing 'WALL.E' director Andrew Stanton has ever done was chopping the words 'Of Mars' off the title of his first live action movie,..The problem for Andrew Stanton’s blockbuster adap is that, a century later, we do have 'Star Wars,' 'Star Trek' and 'Avatar.' Sadly, John Carter has come a little too late to his own party and all the other boys and girls have eaten his cake and popped his balloons,..A handsome new sci-fi adventure that feels rather familiar. Enjoyable enough while it lasts, 'John Carter' is big on ambition and disappointingly short on action."
HitFix: "I think they've fumbled the sales pitch completely, but if you're willing to look past that and go the theater, 'John Carter' is transporting in exactly the way I want my escapism to be. Richly imagined, robustly performed, and directed with the evident enthusiasm of someone who's been dreaming about Barsoom his whole life, 'John Carter' is a gem."
The Playlist: "Rarely do films meet this kind of scrutiny on the way to the theater, but given the years in development this project has been through, and the new do-or-die, go big or go home ethos that Disney currently embraces, it was perhaps inevitable. But when the lights go down, the 3D glasses go on and the movie starts, it's all about what's on the screen and unfortunately for the studio and director Andrew Stanton, "John Carter" is a mess. Strangely uninvolving and needlessly convoluted, "John Carter" spends over two hours making the case for being a franchise, without ever really becoming a movie.