Building Entertainment: The Films of the Walt Disney Studio.  John Carter

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: John CarterPrincess_of_Mars_large

Year: 2012

Source materials: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs


Budget:  $306.6 million

Box office: $284.1 million

Plot: In 1881, Edgar Rice Burroughs attends the funeral of his uncle, John Carter, a former American Civil War Confederate Army captain who died suddenly. Per Carter’s instructions, the body is put in a tomb that can be unlocked only from the inside. His attorney gives Carter’s personal journal for Burroughs to read, in the hope of finding clues explaining Carter’s cause of death.


In a flashback to 1868 in the Arizona Territory, Union Colonel Powell arrests Carter. Powell, knowing about Carter’s military background, seeks his help in fighting the Apache. Carter escapes his holding cell, but fails to get far with U.S. cavalry soldiers in close pursuit. After a run-in with a band of Apaches, Carter and a wounded Powell are chased until they take to hiding in a cave that turns out to be the object of Carter’s earlier searching, the ‘Spider Cave of Gold’.


A Thernappears in the cave at that moment and, surprised by the two men, attacks them with a knife; Carter kills him but accidentally activates the Thern’s powerful medallion, and is unwittingly transported to a ruined and dying planet, Barsoom. Because of his different bone density and the planet’s low gravity, Carter is able to jump high and perform feats of incredible strength. He is captured by the Green Martian Tharks and their Jeddak Tars Tarkas.

Elsewhere on Barsoom, the Red Martian cities of Helium and Zodanga have been at war for a thousand years. Sab Than, Jeddak of Zodanga, armed with a special weapon obtained from the Thern leader Matai Shang, proposes a cease-fire and an end to the war by marrying the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris. The Princess escapes and is rescued by Carter. Carter, Dejah, and Tarkas’ daughter Sola, embark on a quest to get to the end of a sacred river to find a way for Carter to get back home. They obtain information about the “ninth ray”, a means of using infinite energy and also the key to understanding how the medallion works. But they are later attacked by Shang’s minions, the Green Martians of Warhoon.

After the attack, Carter is captured and taken back with Dejah while Sola is able to escape. The demoralized Dejah grudgingly agrees to marry Sab Than, then gives Carter his medallion and tells him to go back to Earth. Carter decides to stay and is captured by Shang, who explains to him the purpose of Therns and how they manipulate the civilizations of different worlds to their doom, feeding off the planet’s resources in the process. Carter is able to make an escape as he and Sola go back to the Tharks requesting their help. There they discover Tarkas has been overthrown by a ruthless brute, Tal Hajus.


Tarkas, Carter and Sola are put on trial in a colosseum battle with two enormous vicious creatures, the four-armed Great White-Apes. After defeating them and killing Hajus, Carter becomes the leader of the Tharks. The Thark army charges on Helium and defeats the Zodangan army by killing Sab Than, while Shang is forced to escape and leave Mars for good. Carter becomes prince of Helium by marrying Dejah. On their first night, Carter decides to stay forever on Mars and throws away his medallion. Seizing this opportunity, Shang briefly reappears and sends him back to Earth. Carter then embarks in a long quest, looking for clues of the Therns’ presence on Earth and hoping to find one of their medallions; after several years he appears to die suddenly and asks for unusual funeral arrangements—consistent with his having found a medallion, since his return to Mars would leave his Earth body in a coma-like state. He makes Burroughs his protector, giving him clues about how to open the tomb.

Back in the present, Burroughs runs back to Carter’s tomb and opens it, finding it empty. Shang, disguised as a man with a bowler hat who has been observing Carter, suddenly appears, having followed Burroughs. As Shang prepares to attack, Carter appears and kills Shang. Carter then tells Burroughs that he never found a medallion. Instead, he devised a scheme to lure a Thern into revealing himself. Carter takes Shang’s medallion, whispers the code, and is then transported back to Barsoom.

Background: Several developments on a theatrical film adaptation of the Barsoom series emerged throughout the 20th century from various major studios and producers, with the earliest attempt dating back to the 1930s. Most of these efforts, however, ultimately stalled in development hell. In the late-2000s, Walt Disney Pictures began a concerted effort to develop a film adaptation of Burroughs’ works, after a previously abandoned venture by the studio in the 1980s. The project was driven by Andrew Stanton, who had pressed Disney to renew the screen rights from the Burroughs estate. Stanton became director in 2009, this was his live-action debut, as his previous directorial work for Disney included the Pixar animated films, Finding Nemo  and WALL-E.

Filming began in November 2009, with principal photography underway in January 2010, wrapping seven months later in July 2010. Michael Giacchino composed the film’s musical score. Principal photography commenced at Longcross Studios, London, in January 2010 and ended in Kanab, Utah in July 2010. Locations in Utah included Lake Powell and the counties of Grand, Wayne, and Kane. A month-long reshoot took place in Playa Vista, Los Angeles. The film was shot in the Panavision anamorphic format on Kodak 35mm film.Stanton denied assertions that he had gone over budget and stated that he had been allowed a longer reshoot because he had stayed on budget and on time. However, he did admit to reshooting much of the movie twice, far more than is usually common in live action filmmaking. He attributed that to his animation background.

Cast: Ciarán Hinds returns as Tardos Mors.

Taylor Kitsch as John Carter. He is best known for his work in portraying Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights.He has also worked in films such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Battleship, Savages, and Lone Survivor.Kitsch also starred in the second season of True Detective, in the television filmi>> The Normal Heart, and portrayed David Koresh in the miniseries Waco. Bryan Cranston as Colonel Powell. He is best known for playing Walter White on Breaking Bad, for which he won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series four times (2008, 2009, 2010, and 2014), Hal on Malcolm in the Middle, and Dr. Tim Whatley on Seinfeld. Cranston won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his portrayal of president Lyndon B. Johnson in the play All the Way on Broadway, a role he reprised in HBO’s 2016 television film of the same name. In 2018, he won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Howard Beale in Network at London’s National Theatre, later winning his second Tony Award for playing the role on Broadway. For portraying Dalton Trumbo in the film Trumbo, he received acclaim and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Other roles include Saving Private Ryan, Little Miss Sunshine, Drive, Argo, and Godzilla.

Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. She has appeared in True Blood, Manhunt: Unabomber, and  X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Dominic West as Sab Than.. He is best known for playing Jimmy McNulty in The Wire and Noah “Frog Face” Solloway in The Affair. His film credits include Chicago, 300, Punisher: War Zone, The Square, and Colette. West now plays the role of Dr Chris Cox in the Sky One series Brassic.

James Purefoy as Kantos Kan. He played Mark Antony in the series Rome, Joe Carroll in The Following, and Solomon Kane in the feature film Solomon Kane. In February 2018 he starred as Laurens Bancroft in Altered Carbon.He played Edward, the Black Prince in the film A Knight’s Tale, Rawdon Crawley in Vanity Fair with Reese Witherspoon and Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park. Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas. His many credits include Streets of Fire, To Live and Die in L.A., Platoon, The Last Temptation of Christ, Mississippi Burning, Born on the Fourth of July, Wild at Heart, Light Sleeper, Body of Evidence, Clear and Present Danger, The English Patient, Speed 2: Cruise Control, The Boondock Saints, Shadow of the Vampire, Spider-Man, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, XXX: State of the Union, Mr. Bean’s Holiday, Antichrist, The Fault in Our Stars, John Wick, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Great Wall, Murder on the Orient Express, The Florida Project, The Lighthouse, Finding Nemo, Finding Dory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Death Note, Tom & Viv, Pier Paolo, At Eternity’s Gate, and Togo.

Samantha Morton as Sola. She has appeared in Emma, Jane Eyre, Sweet and Lowdown, Morvern Callar, In America, Minority Report, Longford, Control, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Messenger, Decoding Annie Parker, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, The Last Panthers, Rillington Place, Harlots, and The Walking Dead. Thomas Haden Church as Tal Hajus. After co-starring in Wings, Church became known for his film roles, including his Academy Award-nominated performance in Sideways, his role as the Sandman in Spider-Man 3 and his role of Lyle van de Groot in George of the Jungle. He also made his directorial debut with Rolling Kansas.

Polly Walker as Sarkoja. She has starred in the films Enchanted April, Patriot Games, Sliver, Restoration, The Gambler, and Savage Messiah. In 2006, she received a Golden Globe Award nomination for her role in the drama series Rome. David Schwimmer as a young Thark Warrior. Schwimmer gained worldwide recognition for playing Ross Geller in  Friends, for which he received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1995. He appeared in The Pallbearer, Kissing a Fool, Six Days, Seven Nights, Apt Pupil,  Picking Up the Pieces, Band of Brothers, Duane Hopwood, the Madagascar films,  Big Nothing, and Nothing But the Truth. In 2016, he starred as lawyer Robert Kardashian in American Crime Story, for which he received his second Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie.

Mark Strong as Matai Shang. He is best known for his film roles such as Prince Septimus in Stardust, Lord Henry Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes, Frank D’Amico in Kick-Ass, Jim Prideaux in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, George in Zero Dark Thirty, Major General Stewart Menzies in The Imitation Game, Merlin in Kingsman: The Secret Service and  Kingsman: The Golden Circle and Dr. Thaddeus Sivana in Shazam! Jon Favreau as the Thark bookmaker. Favreau has starred in the films Rudy, Swingers, Very Bad Things, The Replacements, Daredevil, PCU, The Break-Up, Couples Retreat, and Chef, which he also wrote and directed. He is further known for directing the films Elf, Zathura: A Space Adventure, Cowboys & Aliens , The Jungle Book, and The Lion King.Favreau has been a presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, directing, executive producing, and starring as Happy Hogan in the films Iron Manand Iron Man 2, as well as serving as an executive producer and/or appearing as Happy Hogan in The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far From Home. For the animated series Clone Wars, he played the voice of Death Watch’s leader, Pre Vizsla. He is the creator and one of the executive producers of  The Mandalorian for Disney+.

Critical Reception:

  • Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter wrote, “Derivative but charming and fun enough, Disney’s mammoth scifier is both spectacular and a bit cheesy”.
  • Glenn Kenny of MSN Movies rated the film 4 out of 5 stars, saying, “By the end of the adventure, even the initially befuddling double-frame story pays off, in spades. For me, this is the first movie of its kind in a very long time that I’d willingly sit through a second or even third time”.
  •  Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Timesrated the film 2.5 out of 4 stars, commenting that the movie “is intended to foster a franchise and will probably succeed. Does John Carter get the job done for the weekend action audience? Yes, I suppose it does”.
  •  Dan Jolin of Empire gave the film 3 stars out of 5, noting, “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”.
  •  Joe Neumaier of the New York Daily Newsgave the film 3 out of 5 stars, calling the film “undeniably silly, sprawling and easy to make fun of, [but] also playful, genuinely epic and absolutely comfortable being what it is. In this genre, those are virtues as rare as a cave of gold”.
  • Peter Debruge of Variety gave a negative review, saying, “To watch John Carter is to wonder where in this jumbled space opera one might find the intuitive sense of wonderment and awe Stanton brought to Finding Nemo and WALL-E”.
  • Owen Glieberman of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a D rating, feeling, “Nothing in John Carter really works, since everything in the movie has been done so many times before, and so much better”.
  • Christy Lemire of The Boston Globe wrote that, “Except for a strong cast, a few striking visuals and some unexpected flashes of humor, John Carter is just a dreary, convoluted trudge – a soulless sprawl of computer-generated blippery converted to 3-D”.

Legacy: Due to the film’s poor box office performance, Disney cancelled plans for a sequel (titled John Carter: The Gods of Mars) and the trilogy Stanton had planned. On October 20, 2014, it was confirmed that Disney had allowed the film rights to the Barsoomnovels to revert to the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate. In November 2016, Stanton stated, “I will always mourn the fact that I didn’t get to make the other two films I planned for that series.”

My take: I think this movie gets unfairly bashed. Yes there was a lot of CGI, but on the whole it’s rather fun.  

Available on Disney +?: It will be available on May 2, 2020

Next Week: Enchanted </i( clone>