Over on AICN, there’s a piece by Nick Soapdish who attended the Thursday night press preview of John Carter in London, and his reaction to what he saw and heard at the screening is worth breaking down.  If you want to just read his article in peace, go to: Nick Soapdish attends UK Press Event for John Carter.  Meanwhile here it is, broken down into chunks, with some thoughts and reactions interspersed.

First, the intro from Harry:

Hey folks, Harry here… We don’t have long to wait at this point for JOHN CARTER… Frankly – I’m tired of clips and just want to see the entire thing. I am concerned about the aesthetic criticism that the film will draw based upon the Coliseum scene – as being ripped off from ATTACK OF THE CLONES, when anyone with eyes and knowledge accused Lucas of wantonly ripping off Edgar Rice Burroughs for that scene as soon as we all saw it.

But that’s the empowerment bitching of an educated geek that sees source material in non-adaptations – when it is just being repurposed without a real admitted nod. A lot of the look of the Star Wars Prequels was lifted from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ JOHN CARTER series. That said – to adapt JOHN CARTER for a modern audience & not realizing from the get go that there’s going to be tens upon tens of millions of viewers that the second they see that scene is going to think… STAR WARS rip-off… well, it was something that when we were attempting to make this property at Paramount, we were constantly mindful of. Really hope folks realize that this property is the Rosetta Stone of modern Sci-Fi-Fantasy, that John Carter was the inspiration for SUPERMAN. That it predates almost everything that fans have grown up with. But I will admit – that Disney’s lack of discussing the history of the property, has left a viewership that hasn’t become educated on this material. I highly suggest reading PRINCESS OF MARS before this movie hits. It’ll get you right where you should be before seeing the movie. And who knows, you may read 4 or 5 of the books, that is how it tends to work on people. You can’t just read one.

To be sure, the coliseum scene is troubling on many levels and it’s worth talking about. I have no doubt that it’s well done, and I’m how deeply the instant recognition of it from Attack of the Clones goes once you get beyond the core sci-fi audience. And theoretically at least, that core audience is already aware that Lucas ripped that scene off from ….Edgar Rice Burroughs. So …. I’m not sure the kerfuffle over this in the geek community is as big as it is made out to be here. But ….. this line resonates: “Disney’s lack of discussing the history of the property, has left a viewership that hasn’t become educated on this material.”

Disney has, in fact, steadfastly mentioned “based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs” in all their official press — but they haven’t (yet) done much to get people to understand what that actually means, and how that imbues the property with an integrity that Joe Audience who just sees a CGI-laden trailer may miss. There are seven weeks to go — and during that time I genuinely believe that Disney will get the messaging right on this.

One evidence that they are beginning to move on this theme — note that Harry in his intro says “this property is the Rosetta Stone of all modern sci-fi and Fantasy” — folks, that’s a brand new line that has been adopted by Disney and was used by Disney in their press introduction on Thursday, and in the materials they put out. It’s been picked up by a number of those reporting on the press event — and one hopes it’s the beginning of Disney “educating” the viewership on the heritage of the property — a property that has been “strip-mined” by everyone from Lucas to Cameron, making it all the more important for the potential audience to understand that this is the source, not the ripoff.

Nick Soapdish then picks up with his report, explaining that the Thursday presser included the screening of 5 clips from the film.

[[MILD SPOILER WARNING.  There are no true spoilers in here unless you have a hair trigger for spoilers, in which case, YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.]]

Stanton’s Sense of Humor on Display in the First Clip and Third Clip

The first clip was of John Carter who had been captured by a Civil War Army General. It’s hard to describe the clip in real detail, but it was very funny and had a touch of an Indiana Jones like character. The gist was he kept attacking/escaping his captors and a quick cut after each attempt lead to him being put in a more elaborate restraining device then the last one. I told you it was hard to describe!

I have not heard this detail previously, and I find it intriguing. The one viewer I’ve spoken to who saw a test screening said it was filled with humor throughout …. and this description depicts a scene that is wholly created by Stanton, and which clearly is funny; is visually funny (important for the international audience); and reveals the character of John Carter. I like what I’m hearing about this scene — and it helps me get a better sense of Stanton’s signature on this material. (And Burroughs, by the way, used plenty of humor in his books, so it’s not out of character even though Princess of Mars, ERB’s first effort, is not long on comedy.)

In the third clip, John Carter has been kept chained to a wall with the rest of the Martian babies in a massive cave. He is being guarded by a Barsoomian Dog named Woola who is sleeping. As John Carter leaps to escape, the dog has beaten him to his landing spot. As John Carted tries to escape, the dog always gets there first thanks to his amazing speed.

I can see this and imagine the playful type of humor that it represents — and how it also helps establish the character of Woola. I was more than a little skeptical of Woola when I first saw him — but as I have studied it more carefully, I’m convinced Woola is a major asset to the box office potential of the movie, one that will pull in what I would call “Wall-E Tweens and Families” …..this is reassuring evidence that this will be the case.

Fourth Clip Gives Insight into how Stanton is Using the Dead Wife/Child Aspect

The forth clip involves John Carter, Woola and Dejah Thoris, the princess of Helium riding on Thoats, a Barsoomian type of horse as they are being attacked by a rival army. John Carter says he can’t let this happen again, and sends of Dejah so he can delay the army by attacking them first. As he draws his swords ready for combat and the fight begins we get flashbacks to his life on Earth and seeing him come home from War with his home burnt to the ground and his wife found dead inside. The footage carries on going from the war on mars to Johns past on Earth and him digging a grave for his Wife and burying her. The end of this scene showed him being overcome by the rival Martian army.

In ERB enthusiast circles, Stanton’s decision to burden John Carter with a dead wife and child on his conscience (in the book he was unattached) has been the subject of much debate and a surprising amount of impassioned resistance. My position has been that I think he needed to do something to give John Carter the “character arc”, as modern day reviewers will absolutely excoriate any film-maker that dares attempt a movie in which the main character doens’t have one. This at least shows Stanton making good use of the device he has chosen, turning a major action set piece which could be just that — an action set piece (ho hum) into something that at least sounds like it is emotionally charged and character driven. I still don’t love the choice of giving Carter a dead wife and child …. but this helps.

The final clip – coliseum scene – is worrying

The final clip was an arena fight and had John Carter chained to the ground with a Martian who I believed was Tars. They were fighting two giant white Apes. This scene looked like a direct copy of the arena fight in Star Wars Episode 2 -Attack of the Clones. This is the only scene that left me a little worried about the films reception when it gets released in March. However, they didn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining, it really looked great.

This hearkens back to Harry’s intro. I hope Disney is listening — and will do the necessary “inculation” against charges that this is a ripoff of AOTC. It’s not hard to accomplish and there are 7 weeks in which to do it.

In Closing, Two Concerns – Well Articulated

So all in all, the Film looks great. Much better then I was expecting. I have two reservations. The first is Disney’s track record with live action films of late, especially Sci-fi. Admittedly, John Carter is just as much a Fantasy film as it is Sci-Fi. But I am worried it will end up like Tron Legacy. A great film that doesn’t do as well at the box office as it deserves. The fact there has been no merchandise and poor promotion thus far means I am worried it to will not do so well.

The second is the claims of copying other films. The book is about 100 years old and nearly every sci-fi film has drawn inspiration from (or stolen) themes and ideas from these stories and like I mentioned in my review of the last clip that when people see that scene they will think Star Wars. I hope that audiences are able to realise that John Carter was the original, and is not trying to copy other famous sci-fi films.

I can’t argue with either of these concerns. But thus far the universe that is aware of the film is still a small subset of the universe that will become aware of it between now and March 9. Disney has a tremendous amount at stake, and this gives me hope that we are going to see an increasingly artful campaign that quels the “ripoff” claims and positions the film in a way that gives it at least the minimum opening weekend it needs to then go on and perform over the long haul. Stanton can deliver a film with “legs” …. but even with legs, the opening weekend sets the whole chain in motion and if that weekend is too low, legs won’t save the day.