With expectations to match its obscenely huge budget (an estimated quarter of a billion dollars), this long-delayed adaptation of pulp meister Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1917 sci-fi swashbuckler A Princess of Mars has every right to be a bloated, gutless CGI eyesore. What a surprise, then, that John Carter—leaden title and punishing running time be damned—is a lively, visually crafty pleasure. The story concerns the late-19th-century adventures of reclusive Civil War vet and pacifist Carter (Friday Night Lights panty-dampener Taylor Kitsch, charming but flat), who’s inexplicably transported to Mars (“Barsoom” to the natives) and reluctantly drawn into another conflict. Before you can say “Tim Riggins in space,” Carter acquires superpowers, buddies up with a race of four-armed, big green men, falls in love with the heiress apparent (Lynn Collins) of a matriarchal society, and gets a dog, more or less.
Any action-inclined moviegoer has already absorbed loads of the extraterrestrial gladiator-cum-cowboy trappings of Burroughs’s Mars series—he published nearly a dozen Carter books over 25 years. The achievement of John Carter is that it takes the elements worn to nubs by everything from Star Wars to Avatar to TV’s Fringe and makes them fresh again. Credit goes to director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo) and his co-screenwriters Michael Chabon and Mark Andrews (like Stanton, a Pixar regular), who have a clear regard for Burroughs’s pulp ethic, creaky and racially suspect as it is (the green Martians remain simple-living savages compared to the more advanced, white humanoid ones), and the smarts to infuse it with disarming, condescension-free levity.
Disney’s dedication to getting maximum bang for its special-effects buck deserves mention, too, despite the studio having spent enough here to, oh, end world hunger. Having been a Tarzan kid myself, I can’t vouch for the movie’s fidelity to its source, but if you find yourself drawn into the thing, it’s beside the point anyway.