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story.lead_photo.caption Once on Mars, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) finds that the planet’s relatively weaker gravity has given him power and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.

— John Carter 70 Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Samantha Morton, Dominic West, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong Director: Andrew Stanton Rated: PG-13, for intense sequences of violence and action Running time: 132 minutes

It may be hard to believe but Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Han Solo and even the Navi in Avatar owe an enormous debt to Capt. John Carter. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ tales of a heroic Confederate cavalry officer who kicks whatever Martians have for posteriors were enormously influential when they debuted in magazines 100 years ago.

It’s too bad that Burroughs’ ideas don’t seem quite as fresh now that others have outraced Carter to the big screen. Now that we know what the surface of the Red Planet looks like for real, it’s not quite so fun.

Part of the problem is Burroughs’ writing itself. He is best known for giving the world Tarzan, and he could create memorably exotic worlds that existed only in the pages of his tales. His characters weren’t quite as interesting, especially Carter himself.

The novel upon which John Carter is based, Princess of Mars, is told in first person, which helps a reader leap into Mars with Carter. In the movie, however, he needs a lot more personality because he’s on screen throughout the story. Director Andrew Stanton and his co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys) give Carter some more back story and motivations.

Unfortunately, all of these attempts at giving him depth are undone by the handsome but uncharismatic Taylor Kitsch (TV’s Friday Night Lights). Kitsch looksgreat shirtless and can recite dialogue, but his bland visage gets lost in the otherworldly environment he wanders through. One wonders what a young Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood, who could play cynical loners in their sleep, might have done with the role, even if they didn’t have Kitsch’s sculpted pecs.

The captain is on the run from hostile Apaches when he finds himself transported to Mars. He literally leaps into a feud between two chiefs (voiced by Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church) of a race of people who stand 20 feet tall and have multiple arms. While he might be dwarfed by the inhabitants he encounters, Carter’s muscles and bones are used to Earth’s stronger gravity, so he can clobber his bigger opponents if he gets a clear punch in.

He also encounters a race of beings who look a lot like people, but one of their leaders, Sab Than (DominicWest), has a weblike glove that can destroy cities with beams of light (so that’s where Lucas got the idea for the Death Star!). Sab Than insists on marrying a rival city’s princess (Lynn Collins) or he will use his glove to level the town.

She doesn’t want to cooperate and tries to get the reluctant Carter to join the cause. Despite all the intrigue, the battles and the betrayals aren’t that interesting. JohnCarter is Stanton’s first liveaction movie, and it has none of the warmth, charm or wit of his cartoons Finding Nemo and Wall-E.

True to the source material, the most likable thing in the movie isn’t a human. It’s a hippo-size, doglike creature that follows Carter everywhere he goes. Perhaps Stanton felt more at home with the CGIs than he did with the actors. In fact, with all the otherworldly action,an animated film might have been more engaging.

Unlike fellow Pixar alumnus Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol), Stanton doesn’t have a knack for dealing with flesh and blood performers. It also doesn’t help that most of the creatures look like castoffs from Star Wars and Avatar. Sadly, Stanton doesn’t have much of an eye for 3-D either. The film looks the same when viewed with one eye or two.

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 03/09/2012

Print Headline: Too little, too late

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