Wednesday 18 July 2012

John Carter Blu-ray Review

This is a belated review, yet I feel an important one.

Pixarians Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) and Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) recently branched out their résumés, into the field of live-action, Bird with the fourth instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and Stanton with the Disney sci-fi epic, and highly controversial, John Carter. Whilst Bird's live-action debut was released to the critical acclaim that Pixar directors are accustomed to, John Carter was received far less enthusiastically.

Accused widely of being boring, derivative and cheesy, tepid word of mouth and poor to average reviews seemingly drove audiences away and John Carter bombed. Performing strongly overseas didn't help a poor performance domestically, and, with marketing costs and an allegedly high budget, John Carter purportedly lost Disney almost $200 million. This set in motion a chain of events that shook some things up at the Mouse House. Poor marketing that made the film seem derivative of Star Wars and Avatar, rather than promoting that this was the film adaptation of the novel that inspired both of those films, was largely blamed, but there was more to it than that. It was claimed that Stanton himself had overruled an early Disney marketing plan in favour of the eventual one, and several at the studio blamed him for its short comings. These anti-Stanton comments allegedly emerged from people at the office of Walt Disney Studios Chairman, Rich Ross. Annoyed that Ross (or his team) was pointing the finger, possibly souring Disney's working relationship with the Pixar Brain Trust, CEO Bob Iger asked Ross to step down; former Warner Bros. executive Alan Horn was then appointed to the role. An awful lot of conspiracy-theory sounding fuss over one film.

For many reasons, including my being strapped for cash and prioritising other films at the time, I never saw John Carter in cinemas - but I wish I had. Last week I bought the film on Blu-ray, and was very impressed. Not even particularly because I was going in with low expectations, I wasn't expecting a masterpiece, but this is Andrew Stanton, a two-time Academy Award winner, so, despite what reviews might say, I knew I'd enjoy it even a marginal amount. And I did. More than a marginal amount.

Unlike with Pixar's most recent release, Brave, where I could scarcely understand where people were levying their criticism, I do kind of understand with John Carter. It's unabashedly old-fashioned film feel made it seem a bit clichéd and out-of-date, some of the dialogue was a little cheesy, the acting was decent, but not stellar, and a few bits were confusing, but, all in all, it was a very good film.

The film started off on a somewhat tense note, interspersed with moments of genuine comedy and a good, brief, performance by Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston. We are introduced to the titular John Carter, a brooding, angry and lonely civil war veteran, who suddenly passes away. But not before sending for his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the novels on which John Carter is based. Upon arriving, Burroughs (played by Spy Kids's Daryl Sabara - who actually had a role in Nemo, but Stanton didn't remember when he cast him this time round!) finds his uncle's old journal; a journal that documents his unbelievable arrival and exploits on Barsoom - otherwise known as Mars.

Carter, played decently by Taylor Kitsch (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), is a hard-egg, his outlook on life soured by his past demons. Yet, when on Barsoom, he visibly changes; he literally acts differently, now capable of massive leaps and enormous strength. He soon falls in love with the planet's beautiful princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins, also X-Men Origins: Wolverine), and lends his hand to helping the plight of the people of the red planet.

The story sounds a bit derivative doesn't it? A bit like Avatar maybe? Well, the reason isn't that it is derivative, it's that the John Carter of Mars books are the books that inspired Avatar, as well as Star Wars and countless other sci-fi films and fantasies! Yet, the aforementioned poor advertising didn't convey this - although some great special features on the Blu-ray did (more on that later). So, whilst not technically unoriginal, you can easily sit there during the early portion of the film, thinking you've seen it all before.

The second half of the film, for me, is where things really took off; where John Carter really came into its own! A huge battle between John Carter and an alien race known as the Warhoons was incredibly visceral and impressive, showing off the film's amazing special effects and CGI, as well as the fantastic, real-feeling stunts - Taylor Kitsch in particular deserves praise for how well he interacts with the CGI characters that weren't there when he filmed his sections! With very resonant moments from Carter's tragic past dispersed between the huge battle, the scene also adds a sense of solemnity and emotion to the film. Another huge battle scene that stand out and engages the imagination is the arena battle with the colossal white apes. Whilst inarguably similar to the arena scene in Attack of the Clones, it is simply too integral to the overall story to miss out - and is handled remarkably well too.

Whilst Carter comes off as a bit more bland and generic than I suspect he was supposed to, Dejah was a wonderful character. Funny, beautiful, smart and a fierce warrior in her own right, Stanton and co. deserve big props for making her less of a submissive character than she is in the books, and more a fully fledged heroine. There's also a genuinely good love story between them, that, amidst all the chaos of the battles in the film, is refreshingly earnest. Willem Defoe's Tars Tarkas is another particular treat, showing how perfect the marriage of live-action and animation is in John Carter that he almost outshines his un-animated counterparts! And of course Woola, man's new best friend, is fantastic.

Mark Strong and Dominic West turn in strong performances as the film's antagonists also, but, all in all, the acting isn't phenomenal. Don't get me wrong, it's not bad - overall it's quite good even - it's just quite cheesy; then again, the acting in Star Wars has always been a bit cheesy (and the dialogue here, despite the source material being 100 years old, is a lot less forced) and that's one of the greatest franchises of all time. In fact, John Carter is oddly reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels.

As I said, John Carter is shamelessly old-fashioned and reminiscent of a time gone by, yet it's also cutting edge. As, argubaly where John Carter shines best is with its visuals, particularly on Blu-ray! The animation, the stunts and the huge set-pieces are jaw dropping. You can say what you like about Andrew Stanton's adaptation of the stories, but it's as beautiful, realistic and utterly fantastic a portrayal of Barsoom as we could ever likely have had! Without his firm grounding in animation and confidence to let almost half the film be dominated by amazingly rendered CGI characters, I doubt a real adaptation of John Carter of Mars could have been made. Also, for what it's worth, I'm one of the few in favour of the title change from the, admittedly more evocative, John Carter of Mars, as John Carter represents the title character's journey to belonging, to becoming John Carter of Mars, far better.

I have no doubt that John Carter would have looked amazing on the big screen, but it looks absolutely stunning on Blu-ray too! The vibrancy of Mars, the bright light of the desolate planet, the visceral golds and yellows of the sandy expanses, and the phenomenal rendering of the Tharks and all other creatures that inhabit it, really come to life in the format. Blu-ray is the best format for home media - that can't be refuted - and Disney produce notoriously good Blu-ray packages. The sound also is very strong, Disney's DTS-HD 7.1 surround sound means that the huge booming battles and the strong, enthralling Michael Giacchino score flood into your room; giving you the feel that you are in the movie. That has to be cited as one of the best things about Stanton's John Carter, while the characters are sometimes a little bland and the story may seem a bit unoriginal in places, the Barsoom that Stanton has created is so immersive; for huge vicarious blockbuster, John Carter really can't be beaten!

I mentioned previously that the film has some great bonus features that make this Blu-ray an even better buy; included amongst the usual fare: deleted scenes, bloopers (some of which are absolutely hilarious), were two fantastic standouts, the "100 Years In The Making" featurette, and the audio commentary track with Andrew Stanton and producers Lindsey Collins and Jim Morris. The "100 Years" featurette is everything that John Carter's marketing campaign should have been; nostalgic, grand, giving a sense of the century-old story of the books and the huge effort to finally get it to the big screen, touching on Jon Favreau's efforts to adapt the books also. It gives a huge sense of scale and really establishes this as the story that made the stories, rather than the generic rip-off some trailers portrayed it as. The audio commentary, also, is fantastic. If you didn't enjoy the film, chances are you'd still love it with audio commentary on; enlightening and showing how much work went into production, it gives you a new found respect for the film. The bonus features are a big addition to an already strong package.

As for the reasons John Carter never really caught on - aside from the marketing and word of mouth - I think it just seemed a little too "kiddy"; it was at times cheesy, and unlike Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, lacked the more adult-oriented appeal. With every large live-action Disney tentpole release, we hear 'Disney anticipate this will be their next Pirates of the Caribbean', we heard it with Tron: Legacy, we heard it with Prince of Persia, and we heard it with John Carter. The reason, though, that Disney can't replicate their success with Pirates, is that they don't seem to fully understand what they did right with it. The reason, in my eyes, is that the Pirates of the Caribbean films are not traditional Disney; directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Disney's involvement was fairly minimal. Compare that to one of the three films mentioned above, and you get a sense of what I'm saying. The very childlike magic and innocence that makes their animated films so successful is what prevents Disney's live-action films from doing so well; it makes them seem cloying and kiddy. Take 2010's Alice in Wonderland for example: a huge success that made over $1 billion worldwide. It wasn't because it was a fantastic film, it was because it was different to typical Disney - far more a Tim Burton film than a Disney film; it had a broader appeal than the more child-centric live-action Disney output. Look for Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger and Sam Raimi's Oz: The Great and the Powerful to be big hits, more like Alice and Pirates than John Carter.

I said earlier, Rich Ross has been ousted from the Mouse House, and Alan Horn is now in. Horn, whilst COO of Warner Bros., led the company while they produced huge worldwide hits, in the form of Harry Potter and Christopher Nolan's super successful Batman reboot trilogy. So, he knows how to well adapt (or lead a company to adapt) well loved, well known properties and make them winners that adults can enjoy too - in fact, there's little for kids in Nolan's Batman. Meaning Horn may be just the man to guide a John Carter sequel, if, that is, Disney's willing to take a risk on it - although if the scandalous reports are true (although Stanton seems to refute them himself) that he's making a Finding Nemo 2 in exchange for another shot at John Carter, we may see one soon anyway. Personally, I think Disney should trust Andrew. He has a proven track-record, with his films grossing over $1 billion; one "flop" is not the end of the world, it's happened to many great directors before. With the right strategy, the right guidance and the evident passion that Andrew Stanton has for the project, a John Carter sequel could be truly great!

Now, back to the film, and my verdict. John Carter may not be one for the ages, it may not be a classic on par with Stanton's previous films, but it is by no means a bad film - it's even quite a good one. Grand, visually impressive and at times touching, John Carter (particularly the fantastic Blu-ray set) is a good buy for any Disney, Pixar, Stanton, sci-fi or film fans!

Movie: 8/10
Picture Quality: 9/10
Sound Quality: 9/10
Bonus Features: 8/10

Overall Blu-ray package: 9/10

Want to find out for yourself? You can order John Carter on Blu-ray by clicking above (UK link).

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