John Carter Taylor
Credit: Todd Wawrtchuk/D23 Expo

Disney has a lot at stake with its upcoming sci-fi adventure John Carter (out March 9, 2012), so it made sense that the studio spent a considerable amount of time Saturday touting the film at the D23 Expo in Anaheim, Calif. Although the big-budget movie is based on the seminal Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the source material isn’t particularly well known beyond geek circles. Also, since Burroughs’ books influenced such pictures as Star Wars and Avatar, Disney’s John Carter ironically runs the risk of feeling derivative.

In person to convince us otherwise were director and Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) — who’s making his live-action debut with the film — and cast members Taylor Kitsch, Willem Dafoe, and Lynn Collins. The JC team showed us not one, but four clips. Details (and minor SPOILERS) after the jump:

First, a brief intro. The titular character of John Carter is a former Confederate captain (Kitsch) who, shortly after the end of the Civil War, is inexplicably transported to Mars. There, due to the planet’s weaker gravity, he finds that he has superhuman strength and can jump dozens of feet into the air. (He also discovers that he looks pretty darn good with no shirt on.) But John Carter is not alone on Mars…

Clip #1: John wakes up in the Martian desert. While investigating his barren surroundings, he’s spotted by a pack of Tharks — a warrior race of green Martians who are nine feet tall and have four arms. The Tharks open fire on John, causing him to take his first Martian leap. John goes soaring into the sky — a feat so impressive that the Tharks’ alliteratively named leader Tars Tarkas (Dafoe) urges his comrades to stop shooting. Tars walks up to John, and the two engage in an amusing introductory conversation. (Tars’ dialogue is initially subtitled.) John introduces himself as “Captain John Carter of Virginia,” and Tars mistakenly thinks his name is Virginia.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

We were told that the footage was a work in progress, but I came away with two observations. One, I wasn’t really buying John’s gargantuan leaps. Then again, maybe their clumsy appearance was intentional, as John is just discovering his newfound superpowers. Second, while the CG animation of Tars Tarkas was a tad cartoonish, Dafoe’s performance came through beautifully. It’s a motion-capture performance, and Dafoe was required to wear stilts so that he’d appear nine feet tall to his co-stars. Stanton asked the crowd: “How would you like to [shoot] in the desert in 100-degree heat while wearing gray [motion-capture] pajamas on stilts?”

Clip #2: John has been taken captive by Tars and is chained to a wall in the Thark nursery. (He’s surrounded by a bunch of sleeping baby Tharks, which are pretty cute, as far as Tharks go.) Upon noticing a large creature approaching, John manages to break out of his chains. The creature winds up being Woola, a Martian dog that resembles a big lizard with 10 legs. John quickly jumps away from Woola, but no matter how far John leaps, the lightning-fast Woola manages to catch up. This becomes a sort of “fetch” game that Woola enjoys immensely, as Woola chases John from one spot to the next. Behaviorally, Woola could be a cousin of Dug the dog from Pixar’s Up, as he exhibits the same inherent eagerness to please his master. No word yet if Mars is home to any squirrels.

Clip #3: In the least interesting of the four clips, we meet Dejah Thoris (Collins), a humanoid princess from the Martian empire of Helium. Dejah is about to go through with an arranged marriage to Sab Than (Dominic West), a prince from a rival tribe. John urges her to reconsider the marriage. However, Dejah wants John to stay on Mars and help bring peace to her planet. John, on the other hand, intends to return to Earth. Dejah gives John an artifact that she says will transport him back to Earth. Sab Than then barges into the room, and John has disappeared — although it’s unclear if he has actually teleported back home or not.

It’s not really fair for me to judge a scene that clearly occurs well into John Carter, especially since we haven’t seen how the film develops the romantic relationship between John and Dejah. But I wasn’t detecting much in way of chemistry between Kitsch and Collins. Again, though, this is based on just a snippet of footage, so I’m going to give Stanton and Co. the benefit of the doubt for now.

Clip #4: John and Tars have been sentenced to death in a gladiatorial arena. The former is chained to a rock, while the latter appears to be wounded. In a battle reminiscent of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the Tharks release a massive, furry, six-legged beast called a “white ape.” John initially manages to evade a few of the white ape’s attacks, but an impatient Thark who’s watching the fight soon issues an order: “Release the other one.” The scene ended there, with the audience wondering how John and Tars could possible defeat two white apes.

Read more:

John Carter
  • Movie
  • 132 minutes