In theory, John Carter
should be the perfect type of movie to share with your movie-loving children.
Based on a timeless novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter whisks audiences through the galaxy to the red distant, where a classic anti-hero begrudgingly helps settle an alien conflict waged between warring species.
The story, which dates back to 1912, inspired such filmmakers as George Lucas and James Cameron as they toiled away on Star Wars and Avatar – two films that continue to impact our industry to this day. And the director, Andrew Stanton, has been a cornerstone at Pixar Animation Studios, contributing to the landmark Toy Story series and directing two of my favorite Pixar films: Finding Nemo and WALL-E.
That doesn’t mean, however, that John Carter’s an open book for kids of all ages, or that Stanton has pulled his punches in finally bringing Burroughs’ story, A Princess of Mars, to the big screen. So, with Disney about to release this anticipated sci-fi epic into theaters, lets figure out when you can watch John Carter with your kids.
Red Flags: Stranger In a Strange Land
We have to tiptoe here, which usually is the case when we’re focusing the When Can I Watch column on a film that’s hitting theaters. Sure, I can go on and on about Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
(which also owes a great deal to Burroughs’ source material) because you’ve probably already seen it. Since few of you reading this have had the chance to check out John Carter
yet, so I’ll do my best to discuss it while dancing around specific, plot-ruining details.
We’ve dabbled heavily in science-fiction since the column’s start, discussing everything from Real Steel
’s boxing robots or Marty’s trip Back to the Future
to Lucas’ adventures in a galaxy far, far away. And each time, we mention that parents need to be a good judge of what their kids can tolerate when fantasy flies in the face of rationality. You likely know by now how powerful your child’s taste for extraterrestrial storytelling is, so use that as a guide. Because when sci-fi opens the doors wide to imagination, it can be magical. But when it fosters violence, it often sets off Red Flags.
Take note about John Carter. The main character in Stanton’s film, as portrayed by Taylor Kitsch, is a short-tempered Civil War veteran, a “born fighter” who’s prone to attack. The story transports him to Mars where he finds himself in the middle of an even larger war, this one between species jockeying for control of the distant planet.
As a result, John Carter’s populated with strange creatures and has multiple sequences of military-style combat. Most are on par with what you’d see in a video game -- bloodless, digital, chaotic -- though one noticeably brutal sequence finds our protagonist singlehandedly taking on an army of villains as he simultaneously flashes back to the moment he had to bury his family who presumably were killed during the Civil War. Though artfully paralleled by Stanton, the sight of John digging graves for his wife and children is too much for young kids to process. They also might be disturbed later in the film by a shot of Carter slicing his way through a killer beast, only to emerge covered head-to-toe in blue blood.
Again, this is sci-fi territory, so some parents attempt to write it off as so far-fetched their children can create the distance between story fantasy and actual reality. John Carter isn’t a brutal movie, but it can be cruel in spots, with a sullen hero who spends most of his time wishing he wasn’t there. The vibe might turn your kids off.
Then again, they also might dial into the wonder of the journey, and we’ll touch on the highlights in the Green Lights section.
Green Lights: Defying Gravity
Stanton, who previously helmed Finding Nemo and WALL-E for Pixar, attempts to inject adolescent awe into John Carter’s mission to Mars … at least, when it fits.
As mentioned, this is movie about warring tribes, but Carter’s first steps on the Red Planet will have your kids cheering. Because of his light bone density, Carter bounces like Tigger across Mars’ barren surface. The effect is extremely digital (it might be the largest “hiccup” of John Carter, at least from a technical standpoint). But the 12-year-old in the audience who doesn’t care about seamless green-screen will be enthralled as Kitsch springs around Stanton’s massive sets.
Kids also might not notice the presence of a strong-willed, self-sufficient female character in Lynn Collins’ Dejah Thoris … so be sure to point it out to them, because powerful female characters are largely non-existent in big-budget blockbusters of this type. For that alone, Stanton and his team should be commended.
Another topic worth discussing with your kids is the whole “stranger in a strange land” notion that powers Edgar Rice Burroughs’ source material and Stanton’s film. It’s a common concept used in sci-fi, and we’ve picked it apart when talking about movies like E.T.
Open up a dialogue with your kids about how they’d react if they were dropped in a strange situation with few familiar faces to turn to. Pick their brains about the design of the various creatures they’ll see in John Carter,
and talk to them – again – about what they think regarding life on other planets.
Would they expect to find multi-armed, lizard-like creatures? Dog-related roly-poly beasts who can run at the speed of light? An interactive map of the solar system that stretches the length of a massive cave? Because all of those imagination-stimulating elements can be found in John Carter, but you have to hack through too much exposition and science-fiction combat to unearth them. And that’s why …
Andrew Stanton’s John Carter is best suited for kids age 13 and up. And really, it was the vicious sequence of Kitsch burying his family (back home) while he slaughtered an army of aliens (on Mars) that solidified the number for me.
The lengthy film often bogs down in alien politics, creating too much time and space between action set pieces. And even when the action comes, it’s rarely as mesmerizing as, say, Avatar or any of the Star Wars movies (yes, including the prequels).
And Carter, himself, is a sullen anti-hero – an angry, self-centered fighter who’s pulled into battle and realizes he’s quite comfortable there. Last year, Disney’s expensive, animated Mars Needs Moms suggested audiences aren’t interested in Mars-based entertainment. The studio’s equally expensive John Carter might confirm that theory.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.