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MOVIE REVIEW: 'John Carter' flawed but still very fun

In this film image released by Disney, Taylor Kitsch is shown in a scene from "John Carter." (AP Photo/Disney)

In this film image released by Disney, Taylor Kitsch is shown in a scene from "John Carter." (AP Photo/Disney)

John Carter (PG-13)

3 out of 4 stars

Although he will forever be associated (and justly revered) for "Tarzan," novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs' greatest literary triumph was his "Barsoom" series featuring lead character John Carter. For the last 75 or so years, studios and filmmakers have been toying with the idea of a full-blown feature based on the books and -- to their collective credit -- all backed off recognizing that the technology available at the time wouldn't service the source material adequately.

One hundred years after the publication of the first "Barsoom" book, writer/director Andrew Stanton has finally delivered what many have been anticipating for a long time. "John Carter" is the first of what will likely be many installments in what could turn out to be the most popular, lucrative and acclaimed sci-fi franchise since "Star Wars."

The sole or co-writer of nearly half of the entire Pixar back catalogue and a director of a few of them (most notably "WALL*E"), Stanton was an ideal choice to helm "John Carter" -- his first live-action production. With more homage than outright pilfering, Stanton culls from "Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Gladiator," 1940s era serial cliffhangers and yes -- even schlock 1950s sci-fi -- and delivers an engaging, humorous, slightly overlong and sometimes erratic thrill ride. This is the very definition of a "popcorn" movie.

With a premise that is still slightly ahead of its time, Burroughs' first installment in the "Barsoom" series ("The Princess of Mars") is an eclectic grab-bag containing a slew of ingredients that shouldn't work as well as it does.

While searching for gold in Arizona, former Confederate Army officer Carter (Taylor Kitsch) -- successfully escaping a Union posse -- gets in the way of a trio of bald, Yoda-ish dudes (led by Mark Strong) who've come from who knows where looking for who knows what for who knows why. In the blink of an eye, the surly Carter finds himself on Mars (or what the inhabitants call Barsoom) and, thanks to thinner air and lighter gravity, can jump quite high and very far, although his learning curve mastering this proves to be slightly awkward.

Carter's amazing physical feats and odd appearance immediately catches the attention of Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), a green (is there any other kind?) Martian that is far from little. In fact, Tars is about 11 feet tall and because of their language barrier, he thinks Carter's name is Virginia. This tiny miscommunication turns into the movie's long running joke that surprisingly never grows old.

Tars' clan is kind of at war with a race of human-looking folks who are fond of tattoos, branding, feathers and metal breast plates. The bald guys are either trying to perpetuate the war or prevent it; we're not sure. There's also a faction of prissy malcontents -- sporting Roman haircuts and leather kilts -- that figure into the mix along the way.

After a spectacular, if dizzying battle sequence that finds Carter aping both Batman and Superman (and maybe even Tarzan), he ends up saving Dejah Thoris (the molten-hot Lynn Collins), a princess who is the marital pawn in a peace deal made by her father Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) and the shifty Sab Than (Dominic West, appropriately loathsome).

Paying close attention to the concerns of the female demographic, Stanton and his co-writers devote much of their attention to the possible future coupling of Carter and Thoris which, like that of Han Solo and Leia and many other space-age romantic entanglements, is equal parts combative, cooperative and PG-13-level lustful. It also helps a great deal that Collins and Kitsch (a cross between Johnny Depp and Josh Brolin with significantly more muscle mass) have chemistry to burn.

Is the movie perfect? Not even close. It is, however, enormously fun and often very clever. Why, all of a sudden, can Carter speak English and have Martians understand him? Stanton and company make it plausible, believable and funny. They also find a way to work in Edgar Rice Burroughs as a character -- and it's original and impressive.

The filmmakers end the movie in a manner that offers significant closure while still keeping the idea of a sequel possible, plausible and even desired. We genuinely want to know what happens next to these characters, which is far more desirable than force-feeding us a second sub-par story we could care less about than we did the first time around. (Disney)