Originally titled "The Princess of Mars," and serialized in a pulp fiction magazine 100 years ago, this Edgar Rice Burroughs saga blends the western genre, science fiction and a sandals-and-toga fantasy. A novel approach when published, the story seems made for an era when blockbusters routinely rely on CGI effects, but by current standards Burroughs' concept is dated.
When we first meet John Carter (a serviceable Taylor Kitsch), he's an embittered Civil War veteran stripped of his humanity by his losses. Carter's sole remaining interest lies in mining a rich vein of the ore, located in an Arizona Territory cave. The film's relatively humorous opening establishes that Pixar director Andrew Stanton both admires and mocks films about the American Old West. The story is suited to this tongue-in-cheek approach, but as the story continues, the tone grows increasingly serious.
Soon enough, Carter is transported to Barsoom, better known to Earthlings as Mars. Here, the planet's low gravity affords John superhuman strength, along with ability to perform the best high jump, not to mention long jump, in the solar system. John is quickly spotted by Tars Tarkas, the 9-foot-tall leader of the Thark warrior tribe played by Willem Dafoe, bringing an admirable motion-capture performance despite an extra set of arms and the mountain-goat tusks protruding from his mandible.
Elsewhere on Barsoom, domination of the planet is contested by two, red-skinned humanoid groups. One of these is led by a puppet ruler, Sab Than (Dominic West), gifted with the technology to wipe out the other red-skinned faction. Proclaiming it is the only path to peace, Than demands to marry the opposition's princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).
Meanwhile, Carter, treated as both a captive and a pet, knows nothing of such intrigues until circumstances oblige him to save the princess and defeat her pursuers using his superior strength and agility. A force of nature, Carter has become accustomed to following his own moral compass, but this encounter starts him on the road to finding something worth fighting for.
The melodrama might be intolerable, rather than passable, if not for the marvelous creatures envisioned by Burroughs and fleshed out by the CGI animation department. Aside from the Tharks, Barsoom is home to a domesticated dog-substitute that looks like a horse-sized dinosaur-salamander cross. Amusingly, one of these imprints upon Carter, following him everywhere.
Other creatures include the beasts upon which the Tharks ride through the arid desert - a rounder, reptilian version of a camel.
For gladiatorial games the warrior tribes keep white apes - awesome monsters bearing little resemblance to primates.
Did I mention the Therns? Worshiped as mythical gods by Barsoom's residents, they are bald-headed, humanlike monks that are very real indeed and not at all what they seem.
Yes, the boys' adventure story creeps into every crevice, but what are today's blockbusters if not overblown boy adventures?
Because Burroughs wrote many sequels, also likely to be adapted, girls may be glad to know that Dejah Thoris is the strongest character in the story, and that she's sure to return in spades, or perhaps, in hearts.