‘John Carter’: 1912 hero rebooted for 2012

John Carter is looking pretty buff for a 100-year-old. Edgar Rice Burroughs, who invented Tarzan about the same time, dreamed up Carter for a Martian adventure story published in 1912, and the character endured for fantasy and sci-fi fans ever since.

“John Carter” is Disney’s fling at bringing this well-worn hero back into the mainstream. It’s not an animated film, although the 3-D, heavily-digitalized production might contain more animated images than live-action ones.

As a special-effects extravaganza, “John Carter” provides more zing than “Clash of the Titans,” but falls short of the “Avatar” benchmark. Otherworldly gaudiness and hordes of alien warriors can’t entirely cover up the lack of a truly compelling story line.

Carter is played by Taylor Kitsch, fit star of “Friday Night Lights.” A Civil War vet on the lookout for gold in the Southwest, Carter is astrally projected (or something) to Mars after an encounter with a mystical object in a cave.

Of course the Martians don’t call it Mars; they call it Barsoom, in their own language. Carter falls in with a group of Jar Jar Binksian creatures and gets caught in a planetary war.

Romance awaits, of course, in the form of the Barsoom princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who’s looking rather fit herself. She needs no help in the sword-wielding department, but she does like this Earthling who might help save the planet.

“John Carter” is directed by the experienced Pixar-maker, Andrew Stanton, who did “Wall-E,” and among its screenwriters is the novelist Michael Chabon. Yet the storytelling feels uncertain, as though overwhelmed by the whirling computer-generation gizmos and the crazy Barsoomian names.

The actors barely register, and some of them (Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton) aren’t recognizable because they’ve been rendered as Martian creatures, although their voices still come through.

Combine the lack of a clean through-line with the slippery unreality of the images, and you’ve got a movie that struggles to really engage. But, hey, some of those images are cool, and filled out with nifty steampunk gear, and in the final act, “John Carter” simplifies its story into a satisfying ending.

Edgar Rice Burroughs managed to squeeze a few sequels out of his Martian chronicles. Disney? Somehow I don’t think so, especially when the effort looks as laborious as it does here.

“John Carter” (2 stars)

A laborious, digital-heavy take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 100-year-old Martian adventure story, with Taylor Kitsch as an Earthling projected to the red planet. Some of the images are gaudy and fun, but the storytelling never gets itself into a truly compelling gear, and the actors are lost in the spectacle.

Rated: PG-13 for violence.

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Metro, Pacific Place, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.

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