John Carter and Company: Hype, Expectation, Forgiveness


Andrew Stanton’s latest film John Carter is the talk of the town. It cost somewhere between $250 and $300 Million and it didn’t actually make that much money on the opening weekend – at least in the U.S. There is hope that it might become a slow grower and eventually make back its budget, but in the industry’s eye, it can be considered a flop. Many critics also didn’t like it. They felt it was all over the place storywise, campy and simply not interesting enough.

It’s a misjudgment, however, to think that nobody liked John Carter. For one, I liked it, even though my best friend didn’t. I sided with Matt Zoller Seitz and the other half of the critics (on Rotten Tomatoes) who forgave the film its faults and its crappy marketing and simply let themselves be entertained.

The film’s opening weekend controversy, to use a big word, got me thinking. Thinking that maybe forgiveness is the only way to deal with films like John Carter, that it should be the sentiment with which we enter the theatre and which we should dial up when we review the films in our heads later on. Why? Because a film of the John Carter kind will never ever please us, if we’re not prepared to forgive.

First of all, what do I mean by “the John Carter kind”? I’m talking about films that come with attached baggage from three sources: 1. expectations from those that know and love the source material; 2. expectations toward a director with a certain credibility or track record; and 3. hype generated by the singularity and finality of the event, supported by marketing.

The three criteria are certainly true of John Carter. Many people love the source material, they have read the books as teenagers (I haven’t). Andrew Stanton is a respected director, who created Finding Nemo and Wall-E, among the more unconventional Pixar-Films (and two of its Oscar winners). And the long list of trials of bringing John Carter to the screen for twenty and more years certainly also made the fact that it finally happened very momentous.

So with all that expectation (and the amounts of money mentioned in connection with the movie), could John Carter do anything else than fail? Yes. It could have been a Lord of the Rings, a Dark Knight or an Avatar, tentpole films of the last ten years that somehow managed to meet the expectations set in them, were lauded by critics and audiences alike – despite obvious weaknesses.

But what if we forget about the expectation and the money for a moment? What if we forgive Andrew Stanton his major error of trying to tackle a property that is clearly something that you might enjoy as a child but raise your eyebrows at, when you’re an adult. In all seriousness: John Carter is not a bad movie by a long stretch. It’s heaps of illogical fun with charismatic leads. It builds a rich world that for all its preposterousness feels somehow believable. And it sustains several mysteries for much of its running time. People were willing to forgive Avatar its cheesy exoticism and enviromentalism (and possible racism). They were willing to forgive The Return of the King its many endings and endless battle scenes. I am willing to forgive John Carter its convoluted story and superficial worldview – and just enjoy the movie.

And I hope that forgiveness will be on my mind, when The Avengers roll around soon.

Andrew Stanton on the Hollywood System

Andrew Stanton is my favourite director from the Pixar stable for several reasons. The first one being, of course, that he made my two favourite Pixar films, Findin Nemo and Wall-E. But there is also something about his personality that I like. He seems a little bit more honest and candid when he talks about the work he does, without John Lasseter’s grandfatherly, all-knowing attitude and Lee Unkrich’s pasted-on smile. He is the only Pixar person I know who has talked openly about the effects of all that great work at the Pixar dream factory consuming your private life, for example (there may have been others, whose interviews I didn’t read. Feel free to correct me in the comments).

In a recent interview for his next (and first live-action) film John Carter, which looked boring at the first teaser and appears ever more exciting the closer its release gets, he talked to /Film about the challenges of working outside Pixar, in the live action studio system. Once again, his observations are quite interesting, if a little high on Pixar praise, which seems to work without the Hollywood unions:

It’s interesting to see the system and how the live-action system works. It’s based on a lot of things that maybe made sense in the day or decades ago or are holdovers from the studio system. It’s unionized and there’s a lot of rules that don’t make a lot of sense logically. Pixar has none of that. I realize that one of the reasons it’s Nirvana is that we didn’t realize how a movie was made and just used — god forbid — logic. We figured that if we made a movie the way it should be made, that was the way they were being made. Our system is very logical and we keep improving upon it. We criticize ourselves and we have post-mortems every movie to improve the system.

Out here, nobody questions the system. It’s just the way it is with all its faults and everything. We don’t have unions. Steve was very smart. He said, “Let’s give them why there was unions. Let’s give them great healthcare. Let’s treat them extra special and there’s no reason to have that.” There aren’t these weird byproduct rules that actually cause problems in one area when they think they’re helping another. We have a very clean system, Pixar. After you’ve worked in that, it becomes very obvious how things should work and very obvious how things don’t work the right way here. I get a little frustrated at the haphazardness of it.

The world of moviemaking, since the studio system broke down — and this is my guess — lives and breathes off of triage. It lives off disaster planning. People feel comfortable in the disaster. “Oh! I know how to deal with this. This is chaos. Somebody’s on fire. Let’s run and get an extinguisher.” That is not Pixar. Pixar is planning to avoid every disaster possible.
(Emphases added)

Read the full interview over at /film.