Sure, everyone knows Tarzan, but how many people were clamouring for a movie all about Edgar Rice Burroughs’ other hero, the Earthman gone to Mars John Carter? Well, me. But I’m also the same guy who went nuts when Valerian came out.
The first book in the adventures of this character — A Princess of Mars — came out in 1917 and was followed by a total of eleven novels. As early as 1931, Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett got Burroughs’ approval to make a John Carter movie and worked with teh writer’s son John Coleman Burroughs to create rotoscoped animation that was quite realistic. After showing the test footage to film exhibitors in 1936, the movie was cancelled as they believed that the idea of men on Mars was too outlandish for small town audiences. Keep in mind that the very next year saw Flash Gordon play theaters and become a huge success. If Clampett had succeeded, he would have beat Snow White and become the first full-length animated film.
Ray Harryhausen wanted to make this film in the 50s and John McTiernan and Tom Cruise tried in the 80s, but technology was never at the right level to make a movie that could capture the look and feel that the novels promised. There was an attempt to make the movie with Robert Rodriguez and John Favreau as well; when the latter fell apart, Favreau moved on to start the MCU with Iron Man. He did voice a Tharg bookie in this film, as he was excited that it was getting made.
Andrew Stanton, who directed the Pixar films Finding Nemo and WALL-E was able to convince Disney to get the right back from Paramount and that he could make John Carter into a franchise. Stanton then went on to pretty much shoot the movie twice, consulted animation experts instead of those who made live action movies and ignored marketing advice. There was no way he could have won, however. The movie needed to make $600 million worldwide to just break even, an amazing number that only sixty-three movies have been able to achieve.
The movie lost Disney more than $200 million and cost the studio’s head Rich Ross his job. He’d already cancelled a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remake and cut the budget on The Lone Ranger, yet gave this movie all the money it wanted and a $100 million budget on top of that.
How could a movie like this fail? Was it because using Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” in the trailers made it seem old fashioned? Did the original Star Wars like ads not reach moviegoers? Did fans of Burroughs even know this was in theaters? Or are properties like The Shadow, Green Hornet and The Phantom — and John Carter — no longer well-known?
The actual movie is, charitably, a mess. It’s a gorgeous looking one, though, with fully realized Tharks and the world of Barsoom. It also strangely has Burroughs himself in the film as a character and starts with the bad guy getting a superweapon instead of introducing us to its hero.
We’ll never get to see Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars, sadly. This film bombed on such a nuclear level that probably no studio will ever make another John Carter film. Don’t tell the Burroughs estate, who got the rights back and want to make another go of it. Hey — it took 79 years of development to make the first one.