In 1881, Edgar Rice Burroughs receives a telegram from his Uncle John Carter, a former Confederate Army Captain from Virginia, but when he arrives, he finds Carter already buried, unembalmed, in his mausoleum, which only opens from the inside. The lawyer explains that Burroughs inherits everything, and he must read Carter’s private journal.
Flash back to 1868, Arizona Territory, where Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is arrested for conduct unbecoming but is recruited to fight Apaches. He and Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) hide in the so-called Spider Cave of Gold. An alien Thern materializes and attacks Carter with a knife. Killing him, Carter activates the Thern’s medallion and finds himself on Barsoom, which we know as Mars. Bred under Terran gravity, Carter has super-powers on Barsoom. He is captured by the green four-armed Tharks and their Jeddak leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe).
On Barsoom, the cities of Helium and Zodanga have been fighting a war for a thousand years. Sab Than (Dominic West), the Jeddak of Zodanga, with the help of the wizard Shang (Mark Strong) plans to end the war by marrying the Princess of Helium Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). She escapes and is rescued by Carter. They travel to the end of a sacred river with Tarkas’ daughter Sola (Samantha Morton) looking for a way to send Carter back home. They learn about the powerful Ninth Ray but are attacked by the green Martians of Warhoon.
Helium’s airships fight them off, but Dejah is forced to marry Sab Than. She gives Carter the medallion that will return him to Earth, but he seeks help from the Tharks to overthrow Zodanga. An injured, deposed Tarkas and Carter are thrown to the great white apes in the arena. Carter kills the apes, overthrows the usurper, and becomes leader of the Tharks. The Zodangan army invades Helium. The Tharks join on Helium’s side and win. Sab Than is killed and Shang escapes. Carter becomes Prince of Helium by marrying Dejah, but Shang appears and sends him back to Earth.
He searches for clues to the Therns’ presence on Earth, hoping to find another medallion, and finally learns something in an archaeological dig in the Orkney Islands. Back in the present (or actually 1881) Burroughs reads that Carter’s body is threatened by Therns. Burroughs runs to the tomb and opens it. The body is gone and a bowler-hat-wearing Thern attacks him. Carter appears, kills the Thern, and takes its medallion. Carter had faked his own death to attract the Thern. After appointing Burroughs as his tomb’s protector, Carter returns to Barsoom and Dejah Thoris.
The film is based on A Princess of Mars, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912—the first of 11 Barsoom novels serialized in the pulp magazine The All-Story in 1917. The movie was released in 2012, the Centennial of the book, directed by Andrew Stanton, written by him and Michael Charon. Films of the book had been attempted or created since the 1930s, but most failed. Walt Disney Pictures green-lighted this one because they had the screen rights from the Burroughs Family and Pixar had the necessary technology to create the exotic creatures, cities, and ships. The score was written by Michael Giacchino of Pixar.
An animated serial attempted by director Bob Clampett of Looney Toons had approval from Burroughs himself in the Thirties, using rotoscopes to create human movement, which existed in 1935. Footage of the eight-legged Thoats was produced, but in 1936, lack of interest from American film exhibitors cancelled the project. Ironically, the Flash Gordon serials recorded the same year by Universal were a great hit. If A Princess of Mars had been released, it would have been the first American feature-length animated film instead of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Ray Harryhausen was interested in the 1950’s, but a live-action film on the subject was not attempted until Star Wars changed everything, mostly because the technology was not up to snuff until George Lucas came along. In 2005, an attempt was made by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller using the techniques of Sin City, and Jon Favreau wanted to do a version using the technology of Planet of the Apes, but Paramount focused on Star Trek, so attention turned to Iron Man. It was finally made in 2012. The special effects were praised, as well as the music and the action scenes, but the acting and story were largely panned. It was actually one of the great box-office bombs and the planned sequels never happened.
The film cost too much, did not make enough money, and the head of Disney resigned. It tested well with audiences but failed in the marketing. Fans of Burroughs, and I’m not the only one, didn’t know it existed. It was panned by critics, called charming but cheesy, and though the visuals were applauded, the plot structure was deplored. When the team was filming in Utah, they found a 60-foot-long Sauropod skeleton. The rights are back in Burroughs Family hands again, who still want something good to be made. Willem Dafoe took on the role of Tars Tarkas because he thought acting in pajamas on stilts would be interesting. Dejah’s wedding dress and crown had 120,000 Swarovski crystals attached by hand. It’s hard to spot, but she has a Mickey Mouse tattoo.
In the book, Carter and the natives are all nude, which would have been interesting, but we don’t know why oviparous females should be so well-endowed, except that Frank Frazetta liked both his female and male subjects to be extremely curvilinear. As for me, though I was bored by the Cowboys-and-Indians part at the beginning, I hardly noticed the clunky bits because I was so enthralled by the aliens. My credentials: I once owned the entire works of Burroughs, including all the Mars and Tarzan books, in the paperback editions with Frank Frazetta’s illustrations on the covers, until they were destroyed in a flood. I was so in love with seeing John Carter, Dejah Thoris, Tars Tarkas, and all the other creatures that Burroughs created that I could not find it in my heart to criticize the movie’s faults. We all have movies like that.