**1/2 John Carter (2012)
Disney’s John Carter seems to have divided critics right down the middle. About half of them hated it calling it, among other things, bloated, dreary and humorless while the other half seem to have been won over by its delirious combination of wonder and chaos. As you might expect, the weekend action audience John Carter was obviously intended for, gave it generally positive reviews, but it quickly fell off people’s and interest waned inside about a week or two. In a nutshell, it’s a film with moments of inspired pulp grandeur followed by passages of plodding monotony. At its best, John Carter is thrilling and refreshingly old-fashioned, but it simply can’t sustain this energy over 132 minutes. Everything they got right ends up slightly undermined by the film’s annoying pacing tics and editing missteps. If ever a movie felt like it needed fewer cooks in the kitchen, it’s this one. There’s a point around the middle of the film that feels an awful lot like they misplaced a reel and it takes more than a few scenes to get your bearings back. There’s a good, perhaps even a great movie buried in here somewhere, but the final edit Disney released isn’t it. At times, John Carter feels like a George Lucas movie, with all the good and the bad that that implies.
This entire production seemed doomed from the get go, but it really got weird in the week after it was released. The media called John Carter a colossal flop, and suggested it was likely to be the most expensive fuck up in Hollywood history. Disney announced that same week that it would likely have to take a $200M write down on the production and then fired a host of senior Mouse House execs’, including Disney Studios’ big cheese Rich Ross. What’s fascinating about this production however, is it wasn’t an outright misstep in concept or execution, but rather an epic failure in the one thing Disney used to get right almost all the time – marketing. For a company that grew into one of the global entertainment brands through a combination of media savvy and marketing prowess, Disney’s last decade has been an unmitigated disaster and John Carter was apparently the last straw.
Even before its theatrical debut, articles sprang from every corner criticizing the inept lead up marketing campaign. For reasons that continue to elude nearly everyone, the original title John Carter of Mars was nixed by Disney’s now-unemployed marketeers because, apparently “viewers don’t like Mars, or indeed science fiction, very much” …really? Avatar anyone? Add to that a series of disappointing trailers and even worse TV spots and John Carter of Nowhere in Particular had the makings of a monumental financial face-plant before it even debuted… and this isn’t the first time in recent memory that Disney has dropped the ball marketing some of their better films. In 2008, the Disney animated film Bolt was a financial disappointment, earning just over $100M in what was a banner year for animated features. Blue Sky’s Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! raked in $154 million, DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda $215 million, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa $180 million, and Pixar’s WALL-E took $223 million. All of them outperformed Bolt, a movie every bit as good as most of them and it happened because the marketing was lazy, the trailer was poorly put together, and the marketeers pushed Miley Cyrus’ name, whose character Penny isn’t even one of the lead characters. The same marketing miscues occurred on other Disney films in recent years as well – Tron Legacy, The Princess and the Frog, American Dog and Winnie the Pooh to name a few.
Even Disney’s own marketing department must be aware that the name “Disney” alone turns lots of people off and it’s particularly acute for those who hate “that” part of Disney – the crass side of the company that’s all about Hannah Montana and the schlock on the Disney Channel. Perhaps tellingly, is turns out that Rich Ross ascended to the Disney Studios throne directly from the Disney Channel, which might also explain why they chose to release John Carter under the Disney banner (where it was virtually guaranteed to lose part of its intended audience) instead of on Touchstone, the studio banner Disney uses to release their more-adult productions. Who knows? At the end of the day, John Carter received a critical-drubbing that the film, the director Andrew Stanton and the likeable cast didn’t likely deserve because it’s actually a pretty good fantasy film that suffers from an awful prologue and some dreadful editing. The casting is pretty good, but truth be told, Taylor Kitsch is a little flat in the lead. I think this might be the last major motion picture that he will anchor for the foreseeable future (unless Oliver Stone’s Savages, which releases in July, ups Kitsch’s star meter substantially).
And here’s the capper to this bizarre production … John Carter didn’t lose any money in spite of Disney’s best efforts to submarine their own film. Despite grossing only $79M domestically and all the negative press, John Carter actually made bucketfuls of money in the foreign markets. Its worldwide theatrical gross sits at $285M, not a lot of money for something that cost $250M to make, but it’s hardly Heaven’s Gate either. Add the home video sales in and John Carter is an earner, albeit not to the degree that Disney had hope for.
To make Disney and John Carter even harder to love, the release of the film on DVD and Blu-ray has a 28 day rental blackout window introduced to combat the erosion of studio profits at the hands of Netflix and Redbox, mostly in the U.S. We find ourselves kind of caught in the cross-fire on this one and most indie rental stores have just ignored the blackout window and put John Carter on their shelves. Because this isn’t really our kind of film anyways, we’ve decided to just pick up a couple of copies when it releases for rental on July 3rd.