The strapping, titular hero of Disney’s upcoming John Carter, a big-budget science-fiction epic due in March 2012, has braved the battlefield of the Civil War, but in the best of the four extended scenes from the film shown to fans at the studio’s D23 Expo in Anaheim this past weekend, he faces an even greater threat: a group of green, 12-foot-tall, four-armed aliens ready to shoot down a perceived invader like Carter. In the clip, Carter (Friday Night Lights’ Taylor Kitsch), a military veteran suddenly transported to Mars, tries to engage with Tars Tarkas, a member of a Martian warrior race called the Tharps (Tars is played in a motion-capture performance by Willem Dafoe, who had to walk around the film’s scorching desert set on stilts with motion-capture cameras surrounding his face). Carter, keeping a close eye on Tars’ more trigger-happy Tharp companions, tries to explain to the non-English-speaking stranger that his name is “Captain John Carter, of Virginia,” which leads to Tars mistakenly calling him Virginia.
In this and another scene in which Carter tries to evade Mars’ version of a dog only to have the slobbering, loyal creature catch up with him at every massive leap (the human soldier benefits from Mars’ lack of gravity), director and co-writer Andrew Stanton brings the same funny stranger-in-a-strange-land sense of dislocation he brought to Pixar’s animated masterpiece Wall-E. Stanton appeared in person at the Expo, as did stars Kitsch, Dafoe, and Lynn Collins, who plays Mars royalty and eventual Carter love interest Dejah. (Funnily enough, though Dafoe’s famously creepy mug couldn’t be more different from Kitsch’s handsome movie-star looks, both actors sported the exact same buzzed-in-the-back haircut at the Expo, a fact they merrily joked about.)
Stanton enthusiastically explained his passion for Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of John Carter of Mars novels, which the film is based on, saying that when he was a teenager, “my girlfriends would call them my romance novels.” In an even more endearing moment, Stanton compared the drawings of Carter he would doodle as a young man with those co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon drew in their youth.
Stanton’s evident love of the material indicates John Carter is in the right hands, though one of the four D23 clips fell totally flat—a romantic scene between Carter and Collins’ Dejah marked by stiff expository dialogue one would never expect from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Chabon (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). It may end up playing better in the context of the finished film, but the lack of chemistry between Kitsch and Collins recalled an unflattering Disney adventure that the studio probably wishes its D23 followers has already forgotten: last year’s flop Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
John Carter opens March 9, 2012.
Check out two new pieces of concept art from the film that Disney debuted at D23: