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The Wrong Guy Resigned from Disney Studios

July 3, 2012

John Carter of Mars was, in film parlance, a bomb.  It underperformed and heads rolled.  The head of the studio took the ax because, even though it was in production when he came on, he didn’t kill it when he could.

The guy who should have been fired was the marketing for the truly horrible ad campaign.

John Carter was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first character.  Rendered in raw, wonderfully pulpy swaths of outrageous imagination, 100 years ago, John Carter was all the rage, his adventures spanning 11 novels.  His next character, Tarzan, was written when Burroughs was a more mature writer.  Tarzan endures.  Everyone knows the jungle king, but only we diehard pulp fans remember John Carter.

The ad campaign was developed by a geek like me.  Because he was deeply immersed in the character, he assumed the name John Carter would reach deep into the guts of the ticket-buyers everywhere.  He created a billboard approach in which the typography of the title reveals itself.

When my wife and I watch trailers (often my favorite part of movies and her least favorite.  When I managed a theater in college, I ran two hours of just previews and packed the house for each viewing, so I’m not the only one), we have a simple formula.  We watch the trailer and say “yes” or “no.”  When the John Carter of Mars trailer showed up, we both said, “huh?” and I knew who John Carter was.  Such reveals, where you don’t know what is being scribed, should have an ah-ha moment.  When the words finally become clear, energy should run through you, not confusion.

Later trailers showed bits of the movie, but because the director didn’t want to ruin the movie for viewers in the way the clippy trailers of Star Wars ruined it for him (because we all know that ad campaign didn’t work), he instead went with obscure clips that said “epic” when I wanted “pulp.”

I didn’t see it in the movie theater.  That says something.  If I don’t see the movie of a childhood hero in the theaters, the ad campaign really blew chunks.

I did see it the other day on DVD.  And loved it.  Yes, the guy playing Carter was stiff as a board, there could have been a bit more humor to make it the grand adventure that it wasn’t in the books, but probably should have been here (Carter is a haunted, reluctant hero, so he shouldn’t be funny himself, but the situations he was in could have been.  Don’t get me wrong, there were some great bits of humor, but a little more would have helped the pace.  Instead they went with the Hero’s Journey and this actor wasn’t strong enough to pull that off).  While some of the effects were great, Carter’s strength was a little hokey (cute scene when he first lands on Mars, though).

Okay, let’s talk about his strength.  Attributed to greater bone density and understood by the audience to also have an element of lighter gravity to it as well, the portrayal here was uneven.  Sometimes he could jump 20 feet, sometimes 300 feet.  And where strength really shows itself isn’t in the big things but in the small things.  Everything would be fragile.  That could have been more fun.  He should also have been more “bouncy” as the moon walkers were, but to be fair, they stuck with ERB version, 60 years before we walked on the moon.

I think what I like about this so much is that it captures the pulp and the intellect behind the pulp.  Pulp fiction writers were smart as well as outrageous and it often showed.  Burroughs played with deep, archetypal themes in his books, and this did a great job of pulling those out.

John Carter of Mars was a great combination of Star Wars, Dune and Tarzan.  It had some flaws, sure.  It was still a great movie, no matter what silly critics say.  This should have been a strong performer,   When I heard that it was being made, it thought to myself, “Self, if this is good, we might be seeing a Doc Savage movie done soon.”  Well it was good, but Doc isn’t going to come out of obscurity because of it.  At least my son is discovering the Doc Savage books….

One directorial choice that was spot on: clothing the Martians.  In the books they were starkers.  And the Red Men were red skinned; I preferred the red tattoo markings on tanned people rather than a monochrome look.

I wish I’d seen it in the theater (though Charli said she wouldn’t have liked it on the big screen, though I don’t know why.)

See if you haven’t. J

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