Why John Carter Was a Non-Starter and Not a Three-Parter: Disney, Hubris, and the Curse of Mars

Thanks to Keith Hayes for reminding me how entertaining this film is.

I’ve always loved science fiction. I was born a geek. My first visit to the library as a kid (which immediately followed my equally revelatory first visit to a bakery on the same block) was science-y: a book on bats, another on dinosaurs, and the third on the solar system. I was a curious and precocious kid, so I adored the scientific process of theory -> test -> result -> repeat from the jump. I’ve always been something of a rationalist, a real believe-it-if-I-see-it sort of guy, so science and its history of wrestling understanding from the physical world we are all part of was and is fascinating to me. So, yeah, science!

On my second trip to the library, I realized that there was fiction section full of stories based on re-inagined science-y stuff that was equally amazing. Some of it was even written for a young person such as myself. As much as I loved science, I was a solitary kid with a big imagination, so narratives that featured the fantastic were my favorites, but at that point I had only found them in comic books. Until now. Like the proverbial kitten and its mitten, I was smitten with what was written and thus my addiction was born. I was a scifi guy!

From that moment forward, my childhood literary journey ran wild, from the wonderfully affordable Science Fiction Book Club, to checking off lists based on the Hugo and Nebula Awards winners, all along the way sampling the greats from Isaac Asimov to Roger Zelazny, occasionally focusing on mindblowers like Philip K. Dick and John Brunner. That’s not even mentioning all the cool, affordable paperbacks written by less familiar authors with covers by Frank Frazetta, Patrick Woodroffe, et al. that were siren calls to aficionados like me. Good times.

Some of my favorite reading materials then were serials by Edgar Rice Burroughs. He is known most famously for his twenty-four volumes about Tarzan. So famously, in fact, that the L.A. neighborhhod where Burrough’s ranch was located was named Tarzana in honor of that fictional hero. Burroughs also wrote four books for his Carson of Venus series, seven for his Pellucidar narrative that took place inside a hollow Earth, and a dozen volumes recounting the adventures of John Carter on Mars (called Barsoom by its natives). I eagerly read most of them. I even remember saving up my lawn mowing coin to order a beautiful, oversized biography of Mr. Burroughs.

The man was a master of pulp writing and, for the most part, the plots tend to repeat the same formulas. Across all the series, the hoariest of the bunch is where the love interest is trapped/kidnapped/delayed at some remote location and the whole story details our hero going from points A to B and the fantastical adventures, landscapes, characters and creatures he encounters during that journey. Even though the plot might be predictable, it was the author’s skills at wordplay and pacing and world-building that infused his work with a sort of energy that keeps them fresh today. It was a real comfort food sort of experience, a simple but well-prepared meal made from a well-used recipe.

When I was a teen in the ’70’s, the Barsoom series was reissued complete with Frank Frazetta and Richard Corben covers. I was all in. For a novel first published in 1912, it seemed to be having a resurgence. Indeed, interest in it had never really waned. Not only is the written work evergreen, but proposed film adaptations have been a thing since the beginning. There were a number of impressive but unrealized attempts to bring it to the big screen, beginning in 1931 when Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett approached Burroughs about producing an animated version for MGM. Clampett started generating rotoscoped animations drawn over real actors movements on film, and other special effects like rocketships flying out of a Martian volcano.

The execs were enthused but the test showings bombed and the project was shelved. Clampett was offered the opportunity to animate Tarzan instead but passed on it. He later speculated that MGM was at a loss on how to market the film, whether to adults for evening shows or kids at Saturday matinees, while Universal Studios had no such problems with the success of their Flash Gordon serial. If the film had been made, it would have beaten Disney’s 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to be the first American feature length animated movie. Thus begins decades of the novel remaining in development hell.

There were other attempts to put this story on the big screen:

legendary animator Ray Harryhausen expressed interest in the 1950’s.

Disney had director John McTiernan and reputed actor Tom Cruise lined up for a minute.

Paramount almost realized a dream line-up of director Robert Rodriguez and his choice of Frank Frazetta as production designer, but after Rodriguez resigned from the Directors’ Guild over their bitchiness about giving Sin City author Frank Miller co-directing credit, they were unable to employ him.

The studio later passed it on to director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Mark Fergus but let the rights to the novel lapse in 2006, so Favreau and Fergus went on to helm a little known film called Iron Man.

Soon after, Disney reacquired the rights. Pixar director Andrew Stanton, flush with his box office results for Finding Nemo and WALL-E, expressed interest and was given the film. Unfortunately as Stanton himself later confessed, he was “drunk with power” and imperiously made decisions that ended up being hardly visionary and just plain bad. He Elon Musk’d all over it in any number of ways.

The litany of errors include:

extensive live action reshoots, which , along with the promotional budget, helped maked this one of the most expensive films of all time.

badly conceived billboards, prevew/trailer reels, using Zeppelin’s Kashmir in the promos, ad infinitum in what has been labeled “one of the worst marketing campaigns in movie history” led by a new exec with no personal investment. This is after complete creative control (including the marketing) had been given to Andrew Stanton, who then proceeded to ignore good advice from the studio while running into the weeds. Part of this hubris came from his relying on his animating background too much, at one point “I said to my producers, ‘Is it just me, or do we actually know how to do this better than live-action crews do?’”

chopping off the “of Mars” from the title. No one knew or cared who this Carter character was, his last name wasn’t Wick and no one had killed his puppy. From an article in The Wrap by Drew Taylor (link in comments):

“At a meeting led by Disney’s new president of movie marketing MT Carney, who a New York Times article described as having “zero movie experience, coming from a New York marketing agency specializing in packaged goods.” She went through a list of 11 movies from the past 15 that all had “Mars” in the title – Disney’s own “Mission to Mars” and “Mars Needs Moms” (both costly duds), along with other movies like “Mars Attacks.” Chabon said that these were “movies that had in some cases had nothing in common with each other except for the fact that they have Mars in the title. Almost all of them were bad movies. So, we’re taking Mars out of title. It’s just going to be called ‘John Carter.’”

First it was development hell, the cost overruns, and now the Curse of Mars! Sigh.

not doing enough to distinguish itself from all the franchises that had ripped the story off. Of note, in the early 2000’s director Robert Zemeckis had been offered the film but said “I don’t think so, George [Lucas] has really plundered these books.” Plus there was also Dune and Avatar, so the alien world franchise was getting crowded.

the studio expecting the worst. Audience tracking data was uniformly discouraging and the studio seemed at a loss to change it. Willem Dafoe, who played the animated character of Martian Tars Tarkas, said “My recollection was that even before it was released, there were grumblings about it … everything from the name change to regime change to poor publicity. But I remember before the movie was even seen, people were counting it out.” As a side note, per IMDb Dafoe took the part “because he thought it was interesting for him to act while wearing pajamas and walking on stilts.”

In spite of a hundred-year curse against the filming John Carter of Mars, I still think it’s a solid film, great fun for all ages as expeted from Disney, and definitely worth wasting two hours on (in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to also loving David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune).

To quickly recap the film’s plot (hey, there’s an idea!): John Carter is a former disillusioned Confederate War officer (disillusioned per director Stanton’s attempt to distance Carter’s character from the Confedracy’s crappy agenda) seeking his fortune in the Arizona desert who crosses paths with Bryan Cranston, an officer who wants to re-enlist him to fight the Native Americans.

In the conflict that follows, Carter finds himself in a mysterious gold-fille cave, where he is attacked by a teleported Barsoomian and is accidentally transported to that planet. There he meets and falls in love with Barsoomian princess Dejah Thoris and is eventually enlisted in her struggle against the Therns (the same group that Carter’s cave attacker was from). Excitement and adventure follow.

If that doesn’t bring you up to speed, perhaps this concise summation from rcs0411@yahoo.com on IMDb will help:

“John Carter, a Civil War veteran, who in 1868 was trying to live a normal life, is “asked” by the Army to join, but he refuses, so he is locked up. He escapes and is pursued. Eventually they run into some Indians, and there’s a gunfight. Carter seeks refuge in a cave. While there, he encounters someone who is holding some kind of medallion. When Carter touches it, he finds himself in a place where he can leap incredible heights, among other things. He later encounters beings he has never seen before. He meets a woman who helps him to discover that he is on Mars, and he learns that some kind of unrest is going on.”

Here are some of the high points:

Barsoom is a cool world. The humans are all attractive like extras from a Cecil B. DeMille film and their tech is steampunk (those Da Vinci flying machines!)…the desert-dwelling four-armed green Tharks are quickly and well-defined and having actors of the caliber of Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church bringing them to life is a big plus…the CGI is 2012 state-of-the-art an lends itself to this spectacle.

Michael Giacchino’s score is the bomb. Ordinarily, an Oscar-winner who’s done high profile gigs like Up, Jojo Rabbit, Spiderman: No Way Home, etc. would be too cheesy for whatever artsy-fartsy fare I usually enjoy, but the way it fits the larger-than-life pulpiness of the film is perfect, like Erich Korngold’s score for The Sea Hawk or Maurice Jarre’s for Lawrence of Arabia. It doesn’t intrude at any point but it does swell and support the onscreen action in the most masterful way, following the flow of action instead of announcing it ahead of time.

Woola, John Carter’s faithful alien “dog” with its comically fast movements and big tongue Jabba-looking face, is a character that plays to Stanton’s strengths and as a result is as lovable as any Pixar creation.

the chemistry between the leads is there, even if the direction isn’t. Coming from an animation background where one has godlike powers in crafting a performance AND performer from scratch seemed problematic for Stanton and one film, regardless of the number of reshoots, was not enough of a learning curve for him to master the art of eliciting the best work from flesh-and-blood actors.

Fortunately, Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins (John Carter and Dejah Thoris) had both worked on 2009’s X-Men: Wolverine movie, with Kitsch getting cast from one particular scene in the series Friday Night Lights. Lynn Collins was a Julliard grad in her first leading role who had this to say: “Taylor and I have always had incredible chemistry. It was inevitable that we would get a chance to really explore it and work as a team.” As I mentioned before, the bond between the two is the glue that held the entire Barsoom series together, so it was great as a fan to be able to get behind the performances.

So there you have it, the saga of one the biggest box-office bombs ever (even though it did really well in Russia) and why, even though it was mostly ignored on its release, is worth you and maybe your family and maybe your friends gathering together, popping some popcorn, and firing up ye old black mirror for two hours of fun.

Thank you.

Princess of Mars
Frank Frazetta

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