John Carter is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series, the first volume of which, A Princess of Mars, was originally published a century ago. The Barsoom books inspired most of the stuff you consider to be the sci-fi canon—Star Wars, early Star Trek, Dune, even He-Man. So how does an adaptation of a 100-year-old book—one that has been relentlessly strip-mined by everyone from George Lucas to David Lynch—manage to be so goddamned entertaining?
The answer, of course, involves Pixar. WALL•E director Andrew Stanton surrounded himself with a crew of skilled visual storytellers (and a few nonvisual storytellers, too, like nerd-friendly Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Michael Chabon) to approach the characters with respect. The basic framework—a former Confederate soldier accidentally is transported to Mars, where he lands in the middle of a war between Red, White, and Green Martians that threatens to destroy the planet—is directly from the book. But rather than clinging desperately to some of the text’s pulpy quirks, Stanton streamlined the story, with Pixar’s near-perfect discipline, for a visual medium.
The pleasures are many. Mars, with its ships that travel on light and its four-armed warrior races, is endlessly beautiful to look at. (Although with the wide-screen shots of armies at war and desolate landscapes, the 3-D is more overwhelming than stately.) And Taylor Kitsch’s lovable performance as Carter, with his John Wayne cadence and his outright joy at learning that due to Mars’s lighter gravity he can leap great distances and punch with the force of a dozen men, like a reverse Superman, is the glue that holds everything together. John Carter gets silly at times (and there are a few stretches of dialogue laden with goofy names like “Tars Tarkas” and “Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium” that will elicit thunderous eye-rolls from non-nerds) but it’s ultimately a love letter to childlike wonder at the impossible made real.