AN OPEN LETTER TO ANDREW STANTON
Review by Mark Tucci
Dear Andrew Stanton,
It amazes me how much pre-release hoopla has been made over your new movie JOHN CARTER, and not in a good way. For all the negative articles that littered the internet, I would have thought you had waltzed into Disney studios with heavy firearms and held key studio executives for ransom.
Why else would so much negative ink be spilled regarding your passion-project had you not somehow duped one of the largest movie studios in Hollywood into giving you $250 million dollars to make a movie that’s been languishing in development hell for the better half of 75 years, and then failed to deliver the typical, bombastic, over-the-top, plot-devoid, idiotic, 2-hour toy commercial / happy-meal tie-in for a safe, familiar product?
Was it too much for these reviewers and audiences not to be treated to the typical popcorn movie fare they’ve come to expect lately? Have we fallen that far as a movie-going society that everything we see must fall into that same bucket of expectations, and when we’re suddenly treated to something different and out-of-the-ordinary, we rebel against it and secretly hope for it to fail? Is it job security? Do the risk-averse studios fear they might have to change their green-light policies if something not based on a known property is somehow successful? Ah well, better to pan it beforehand then, lest we’re proven wrong.
My condolences to you, Andrew, and the rest of the audience members like me, who long to see great throwback spectacles like JOHN CARTER. If the early returns are any indication, the negative press and botched marketing campaign may have condemned us to the realm of wishful thinking, should we hope to see something so wondrous and original ever again. Instead, we’ll be cursed to endure more lack-luster creations based on board games, children’s toys, bad teen novels and increasingly obscure comic heroes. Memorable characters will take a back seat to more explosions and wiz-bang effects, and any semblances of narrative will seem like it was spit out of a random story-generating computer.
That most reviewers complained of getting lost in the details of JOHN CARTER’S plot is testament to the fact that movie-going audiences are getting ever more stupid. Having read this complaint on many a review, I was prepared for a confusing mess. What I witnessed, however, was far from that. I saw a science fiction movie that was both rich in detail and layered with plot. Did I see the same film so many others said they couldn’t follow? Was I biased and/or better informed having read the books as a kid? I asked my wife, who also saw the film and had no familiarity with the 100-year-old source material. She followed the story just fine, and couldn’t understand where that negative thread had come from. It bothers me that this has become a frequent complaint with your movie, Andrew. I fear it will only further relegate movies toward the lowest, most simplistic form of story structure, or eschew it altogether in favor of a higher effects budget. Indeed, one need only look at some of the more recent big-budget summer movies to see this is already becoming a trend. Really, how hard was it to understand this film people? I know the trailers made it look like a mindless action flick, but it’s not. I’m sorry you couldn’t waltz in 10-minutes late with your face full of popcorn and your butter-stained fingers endlessly fumbling over your cell phone, and not be able to figure out what’s going on. It’s called attention. If you pay it, you’ll get it.
I know I used the word “original” up there earlier. I can already see the Steves and Kathys of the world pig-headishly objecting to that, falling all over themselves to scroll down to the comments section to voice their complaint. I’m sure they’ve skipped on down, not even bothering to read the rest of this, but I wanted to thank you, Andrew, for taking the time to realize something original on the big screen. Going to see JOHN CARTER is like seeing history. It’s original in that it allows moviegoers the chance to see the origins of just about everything they’ve come to love in pop culture over the past 100 years. Upon the dusty plains of Barsoom we get to see the birth of Superman. We understand the lineage to Flash Gordon, and we see the inspiration for “Star Wars”. That these characters and movies have all borrowed heavily upon your source material for decades shouldn’t deter anyone from seeing it. It doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, and it certainly doesn’t deserve the vitriol of uniformed bloggers and dismissive reviewers who fail to appreciate the historical value and connections your movie’s main character has to the very things they often hold it up against. JOHN CARTER is the true “Star Wars” prequel – by definition and by principle. Without him, there could be no “Star Wars” fanboys to endlessly argue JOHN CARTER’S derivative nature (do you see the irony there?) It’s also original in that this is a world we’re seeing for the very first time. Most of today’s movie-going audiences will not have read the books. They’ll have no idea or anticipation as to what the world of Barsoom holds. Everything must be created and built up from scratch. That’s both a tall and challenging order. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for you, Andrew, to convince Disney to move forward with a project that many viewers would undoubtedly not be familiar with. It has none of the built-in audience and pre-sold expectations most other films have these days. There are no toy tie-ins, no video-game tie-ins, no rabid teen fanbase, no former TV show ties, and no big name marquee movie stars, just a 100-year old series of pulp novels and a few lost comic books from the 1970s. The fact you were able to get it made at all, much less to the degree that you did, speaks volumes.
“Big deal, the same thing can be said about “Avatar”,” Kathy says. To which I must point back to the fact that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ JOHN CARTER also heavily influenced “Avatar”. Again, without JOHN CARTER, there would be no “Avatar”. Show a little respect and appreciation for history. Like “Avatar” and “Star Wars”, JOHN CARTER brings to life many new creatures, characters and settings that simply weren’t technically possible to achieve even a few short years ago. Barsoom is a fully realized environment. And while JOHN CARTER might not have delved as deeply into the culture or the flora/fauna like “Avatar” did for Pandora, it’s still a wondrously imaginative place. Again, that comparison doesn’t make the experience of this movie any less enjoyable.
“Yeah, but so what? All this rhetoric doesn’t make it a good movie,” Steve says. “I read the reviews. Most of them said the movie sucked.” Well, I saw your movie, Andrew, and I disagree. Maybe I saw something different than everybody else, but I liked what I saw.
I liked that you took your time with the story and the characters. I liked that you spent time in 1800s New York and Arizona providing insight and background into the main character before getting us to Barsoom. I loved the Tharks and the incredible job you did pulling them off. George Lucas should take a serious lesson from you. You’ve managed to create some incredibly detailed and believable characters with the likes of Tars Tarkas, Sola and Woola. If Jar Jar Binks even dreamt of being half as realized and likeable as Woola was, he should wake up and delete himself.
I liked that you used real sets on real locations and didn’t shoot everyone in front of a giant green screen (another lesson George should learn from you). I loved how you were able to seamlessly integrate all those CGI characters into those real-world locations and make them look like they belonged there. Sure, we’ve seen it tried before, but I don’t think ever done this well. Yeah, “Avatar” did a great job, but in Pandora everything was CGI with the real-world elements composited in. You went the opposite way, which managed to make everything look that much more real.
I liked the fact that Dejah Thoris wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty and wasn’t the typical whiny damsel you so often see in these movies. I really liked the music, too. Michael Giacchino’s score evokes the same wonder and excitement of the great swashbuckling Hollywood adventure films of yesteryear. The great white ape and Warhoon battle scenes were fantastic, but above all, I really liked the ending. For once we’re not treated to the typical Hollywood ending we all see coming a mile away. For once the ending of a movie actually works. For once we have a film that perfectly closes the loop on itself in a way that is both emotionally satisfying and credible, and not at all forced, obvious or overblown like so many other movies we see. It may not be the ending that everyone wants, but it works perfectly.
“You’re just biased because you’re a fan. We all know you loved the books and have been waiting for this movie for years,” Steve retorts. That’s true. Like you, Andrew, I’ve been waiting for this movie for a long time. And though you did an excellent job realizing this incredible world on the big screen, it wasn’t a perfect film. But who says it has to be perfect for you to enjoy it? What movie is ever perfect? Yeah, some of the dialogue and exposition is a little stilted, but come on; it’s way better than anything in “Phantom Menace” and that didn’t stop people from seeing it. Besides, I can’t displace the fact that it’s based on pulp fiction novels from the early 1900s. You can’t be true to that kind of source material that old and not come off sounding a little silly. That’s what gives this movie a lot of its charm. You know, I’ll often hear viewers scoff at critics who’ve given bad reviews to movies they want to see. “So what,” they say. “I don’t go to the movies to think or to be blown away by powerful acting and a well-written script, I go to be blown away by the spectacle of it. I go to be entertained.” Well, if only measured by those small standards, Andrew, your movie succeeds quite admirably. This is a highly entertaining film. Why then are so many people buying into this bad buzz and avoiding it? Could it be the marketing, perhaps?
Actually, the biggest complaint I have about your movie is its marketing (big surprise, huh?) I could lament about the campaign for pages on end, but I won’t. Anyone who sets their expectations based on those trailers has no idea what they’re in for. Summarily, those bloggers and reporters out there whose reviews were written based on those expectations missed the finer points of this movie as well. The film has some real heart to it. There are some wonderful moments of humor and also of loss. There’s excitement, but also sadness. There are fantastic battles but also great romance. That the marketers saw fit to excise any hint of the romantic nature of this film bewilders me, especially coming from Disney. For dog’s sake, this movie fits Disney’s MO perfectly: there’s a beautiful princess who has a father but no mother. She’s strong willed and opinionated. She refuses to wed the man her father promised her to. She runs away and falls in love with a scrappy newcomer / commoner. And it’s all based on a novel called “A Princess of Mars”. I can’t see how or why they overlooked that, and they’ve managed to do your film a disservice by only targeting it toward 17 year-old boys. With all those comparisons being done to “Star Wars”, I’m surprised no-one’s made the connection to “Aladdin”.
Regardless, what you managed to pull off though is about the best I could ever have hoped to expect. There were a million different ways this could have been done wrong, but you somehow managed to make it work. Even for a live-action film released under the Disney brand (something I’m always wary of) it managed to satisfy me. It doesn’t feel like a 2012 movie. Sure it’s got all the bells and whistles of one: plenty of CGI special effects and it’s in 3D and all, but watching this movie made me feel like I was back watching some of the more memorable movies of my youth. JOHN CARTER is a great throwback to films like Planet of the Apes (the original 1968 version) and Spartacus (the 1962 film). Indeed, it certainly evokes the feel of both those films, with a little bit of “Lawrence of Arabia”, a pinch of “Flash Gordon” and even “Clash of the Titans” (again, the original 1981 version) thrown in as well. You just don’t see films like that getting made very often anymore.
I must say that I am disappointed by the reception and the general reviews your movie is getting, Andrew. I think it deserves better. I was only a few years younger than you were when I first discovered the Martian tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Like you, I have fond memories of these books as a kid, and sat up many nights reading about the adventures of John Carter and the incredible beasts of Barsoom. I’ve followed the lengthy saga this movie has taken to the big screen, and I’m hopeful we’ll get to return to Barsoom again in future films. But it seems like everyone out there is hoping this movie will fail. My wife warned me not to get my hopes up too high because she didn’t want me to be disappointed if it wasn’t successful. But after reading a number of interviews with you, Andrew, I came to the realization that it didn’t matter to me if the movie was a hit or not. It didn’t matter if it would spawn additional sequels or spur new generations of readers into becoming fans. It didn’t matter if there weren’t Thark action figures or video games or countless other merchandise intrusions into popular culture. What ultimately mattered to me was after 30 years of waiting, someone like you got this movie made, and I finally got to see it. There may not be another, but I enjoyed this one. It lived up to my expectations as a fan and as a moviegoer. While the lightsaber fetishists might disagree, I think it was better than any of the Star Wars prequels, and certainly better than most of the similar slam-bang action extravaganzas I’ve seen recently. If that’s not true for anyone else, then I guess I must ultimately thank you, Andrew Stanton, for making this movie just for me. I think it was money well spent.
Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Release Date: March 9, 2010
Run Time: 132 Minutes
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures