D23 Expo lets Taylor Kitsch, Willem Dafoe make a case for ‘John Carter’

My first D23 Expo piece looked at the animation presentation that opened the three-hour event on Saturday morning, and I wrapped it up at the moment that John Lasseter left the stage to an explosion of confetti and the distribution of cupcakes.

As people started opening their cupcakes and eating them, Sean Bailey took the stage.  Bailey is the president of production for Walt Disney these days, and he opened by acknowledging what had just happened.  “I have no baked goods.  Sorry.  I have no pastries.  I hope good movies will do.”  Just like Lasseter and Ross, he started by talking about how much Disney means to him, and he quoted a famous Walt Disney statement.  “I do not make films primarily for children.  I make them for the child in all of us, whether we be six or sixty.”  That statement, when it works, is the appeal of the Disney brand, and it’s incredibly important to their identity as a studio.  These days, I’d say Pixar is the best example of that philosophy, but it’s also a real motivator for the people running the live-action side of things, and looking at the slate of films they brought to promote, I’m curious to see which of these hit that sweet spot most accurately.

I wish I had a better reaction to the “John Carter” presentation.  I still hope that the film itself, taken as a whole, will win me over, but for now, I remain nervous.  Part of the problem is something that would be an issue for anyone making the movie, and that’s simply that the original novels have been so wildly strip-mined by other filmmakers that it’s almost unavoidable that this will feel like it’s been ripped off by a dozen different movies, when it really works the other way around.  How do you escape that feeling of familiarity and still stay true to what Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote?  Andrew Stanton and Jim Morris were on-hand to talk about the film, and Stanton showed the Frank Frazetta image that first drew him to the material as a young teenager:

He’s correct when he says that more people know that image than know the actual books.  They screened the trailer for us, and Stanton talked about how that trailer “perfectly captures the tone of the film.”  The books are 100 years old at this point, and like “Conan,” they got a second life in the ’70s thanks to comic book adaptations and paperback reissues.  Stanton talked about how his two main collaborators in figuring out how to tell the story on film, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, and he showed drawings that all three of them had done as kids of John Carter.  I was impressed by how good the Andrews illustration was, but I’m more impressed that these guys all still have their childhood artwork.  Moving every couple of years as a kid has left me very disconnected from the mementoes of my own developing interests as a nerd, and that makes me sad.

He talked about the process of finding his cast, and how impressed he is by Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins as John Carter and Dejah Thoris.  He talked about how Kitsch plays Carter as a broken man, damaged by the Civil War.  He also talked about how Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton play two of the main Tharks in the film, eight-foot-tall green creatures with four arms.  Dafoe plays Tars Tarkas, and Morton plays Sola.  It was important that the actors be allowed to interact as actors, and so Stanton came up with a crazy costume/rig for the Thark actors to wear, and Stanton joked about pitching the idea to his actors.  “How would you like to be in the desert in 100-degree heat in gray pajamas on stilts?”

Kitsch and Dafoe joined Stanton onstage to talk about the film, and Kitsch talked about what an honor it is to play the character.  The film starts with Carter on Earth at the end of the Civil War.  He’s lost everything… his home, his family, his desire to live, and he becomes a recluse, heading west to find a place to be alone.  He ends up in a cave that somehow transports him to Mars, and the first clip they showed us was taken from the first few moments after Carter wakes up on this new planet.

The clip began with John waking up.  He walks out, looks at this harsh desert landscape, and finds a raised area topped by a strange patterned rock platform.  Inside the rock, there’s a sound, and we see what Carter doesn’t, a nest full of eggs that are just starting to hatch.  He looks around, puzzled.  “Where the hell am I?”  We see someone find something of John’s in the sand and following his tracks, even as he starts to realize something’s going on inside the platform, the eggs continuing to hatch these weird, wet little green Thark babies.  A group of adult Tharks come riding in quickly, and John reacts by jumping a ridiculous distance thanks to the different gravity on Mars.  He ends up face-to-face with a Thark that’s just as startled as he is.  John finds himself surrounded by the Thark warriors, and one in particular approaches him, dropping his weapons, all four hands open and up.  The first exchange is subtitled as Tars and Carter try to identify themselves to one another.  Tars seems to think John Carter’s name is “Virginia” at first, but they start to figure it out, leading to Tars asking John to “jump again like you jumped before.”  It looks very “Dances With Wolves,” and it’s played pretty straight.  Dafoe talked to the crowd about playing the Tharks as a warrior race in decline.

Stanton introduced the next clip, in which Carter has been captured and imprisoned in the Thark nursery.  He’s asleep with a number of tiny Tharks curled up against him for warmth, and he’s awoken by a calot walking into the room.  Calots are domesticated Martian animals, and they’ve chosen to play Woola, this particular calot, as a big friendly family dog.  He’s a fat-headed monster with a giant scoop of a mouth filled with row after row of teeth, and when John Carter tries to jump away, Woola runs after him, so fast he’s a blur.  No matter where John jumps, Woola’s right there waiting, ready to play.  Woola is ferociously ugly, but endearing in his behavior, and I have a feeling Woola will end up as a favorite part of the film for audiences.

Stanton talked about the relationship between Dejah and Carter.  She’s a Martian princess scientist warrior who falls out of an airship during a battle, which is how she meets John.  It’s his first air battle, and she’s extremely good with a sword, which intrigues him immediately.  The next clip involved the two of them just before Dejah’s political wedding is about to take place.  He goes to see her in her private chambers, and she’s already dressed for the ceremony.  “You look beautiful,” he tells her, and it’s obvious there’s a lot going on between the two of them that they can’t really address.  “Don’t marry him,” he pleads.

“Give me a reason not to.  Will you stay and fight for healing?”  She continues to challenge him, basically pleading with him.  “We have a saying.  ‘A warrior may change his mettle, but not his heart.'”  She can see that he still wants to leave, so she gives him a phrase to repeat that will transport him back to earth.  As he starts to repeat after her, someone shows up at her door, determined to get in.  John finishes the phrase just as the door gets kicked in, and armed guards come in and ask if she’s alone.  Dejah looks at the spot where John was.  “Yes,” she replies.  “I am alone.”

They asked Dafoe what it was like to play a nine-foot-tall man, and he got that big shark smile of his and said, “It’s freakin’ cool.”  Stanton talked about how hard the FX artists were still working to make the world of the film feel gritty and realistic, and then introduced the last clip of the day.  I guarantee that most film fans are going to see this next scene and at least fleetingly think of “Attack Of The Clones.”  It’s just unavoidable.  Carter and Tars are both sentenced to death, and they end up in an arena, both fighting a giant White Ape to try and survive.  It’s energetically staged and imagined, and John’s ability to jump to escape is hampered because he’s chained to the ground.  As he and Tars fight, pissing off the White Ape in the process. 

Just as they start to get a handle on it, someone calls out, “Release the other one!”  And on that “oh, no” moment, the footage ended, wrapping up one of the most important clips packages of the day for the studio.  The studio has somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 million wrapped up in “John Carter,” and they’ve got to convince the ticket-buying public that this is going to be a new experience, something more than just a collection of set pieces that have already been ripped off for other films.  I’m very curious to see how the various Pixar filmmakers do as they try to jump to live-action, and for Stanton, this is incredibly important.  He’s convinced Disney to go all-in on this one, and it was a key part of Saturday’s event.

Next up, I’ll have a look at the latest collision between Tim Burton and Walt Disney as well as a very strange-looking new piece about wish fulfillment and Jennifer Garner.  And no, it’s not a rebootquel to “13 Going On 30.”

“John Carter” arrives on Barsoom and in theaters , 2012.