Would it be awkward to say that the box-office bomb that sucked $250 million out of Disney's pockets and touched off a regime change in its management ranks is ... only pretty good? I say "only" because it's not the disaster some feared (or hoped) it would be, nor is it a game-changer, nor an unrecognized classic. The culprit was the terrible marketing: an incoherent ad campaign that didn't give the flavor of the film; cold-footed focus-grouping (the of Mars was dumped because of this); and some of the blandest and most forgettable promotional art of any movie in recent history.
But hidden inside this tasteless gift wrap was a genuinely good film, if also a bit overstuffed. Confederate soldier Carter mistakenly teleports himself to Mars and is plunged into a multi-front struggle between various factions trying to seize control of it, but his bullheaded stubbornness and a little superhuman ability picked up along the way — along with a four-armed friend voiced by Willem Dafoe — help him save the day and win the hand of a Martian princess. Not that she needs any saving herself, which is fun to watch.
Adapted from a number of Edgar Rice Burroughs's seminal pulp fantasies — themselves an influence on everything from Star Wars to Guin Saga* — JC contains about fifty percent too much plot for its own good, but also doesn't make the mistake of simply lumping everyone into "good" and "evil" camps and letting them take a whack at each other. It's 3 hours of movie in a 2-hour bag, but in the end it plays out better than you might expect — and the way the movie ties itself back into Burroughs's own life mythology is, as a friend of mine used to say, dash clever.
* which, now that I think about it, will never get filmed no thanks to this film stiffing bigtime.