- - Thursday, March 8, 2012

John Carter” is directed by Andrew Stanton, the Pixar wiz behind lovingly crafted animated wonders “WALL-E” and “Finding Nemo.” Like those movies, “John Carter” offers plenty of computer-generated spectacle — a mobile city crawling along the Red Planet’s sandy surface, Victorian flying ships and six-limbed white apes. But what “Carter” lacks is heart. Instead, it has other body parts in mind, namely title-star Taylor Kitsch’s abs, and love interest Lynn Collins‘ legs, neither of which are computer generated but which are as spectacular as any effect.

There is much to look at in Mr. Stanton’s take on “John Carter,” but less to consider, and even less to care about. A big-budget riff on summer-blockbuster space opera that is so blatantly deferential it sometimes borders on satire, “Carter” repackages Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp hero as an epic adventurer in the mode of classic silver screen moneymakers. It’s a by-the-book hero’s journey, with a story that appears to have been written using Joseph Campbell mad-libs.

Actually, a nonsense fill-in-the-blanks game might be more comprehensible than the impenetrable mess of mythic mumbo-jumbo, which involves a millennium-long civil war on Mars, a warrior race of lizardlike Martian natives, and a shadowy consortium of manipulative intergalactic overlords who have mastered numerous mystical powers but not the ability to regrow hair.

The shiny-skulled leader of this final group is Matai Shong, played by astonishingly prolific actor Mark Strong, whose big-screen villain appearances have now become so frequent as to suggest that Hollywood’s casting agents are attempting to meet some mandatory quota. With his effortless ability to project inner drive and confidence, Mr. Strong has the quiet, mildly moody aura of a malevolent CEO — a faceless suit who sees existence mostly as an arbitrage opportunity.

Here, he plays a sort of cosmic corporate raider — the leader of the Therns, a powerful immortal race that skips from world to world in order to manage and profit from civilization’s decline. Shong, who can shift his appearance to whatever form is most convenient, is the vulture-capitalist villain that Newt Gingrich imagines Mitt Romney to be, but on a galactic scale.

His efforts on Mars are thwarted by John Carter, a former Confederate soldier transported (via magical amulet) to the planet, where he immediately runs into a proud and tough four-armed race known as the Thark, whose leader, Tars Tarkas, bears the craggy voice of Willem Dafoe.

With long brown hair and scraggly beard, Mr. Kitsch quickly becomes the savior of the Thark, leading them to freedom on their home world. There’s a princess (Miss Collins) involved, and a cute Martian puppy creature. If this sounds familiar, it should: Think “Avatar,” or “Dances With Martians.”

Technically, “John Carter” marks Mr. Stanton’s live-action debut, but so much of the movie is animated that it hardly counts. The multitude of cartoon creatures and sets are beautifully and intricately imagined, but never seem real. As with the story, the design is weightless and forgettable. Mr. Stanton has crafted a fantastic world, but provided no reason to go there.

★★½

TITLE:John Carter

CREDITS: Directed by Andrew Stanton; screenplay by Mr. Stanton and Mark Andrews

RATING: PG-13 for epic fantasy violence

RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS