Boy, did the marketing execs at Disney blow it on this one. From the trailer (and the hype), you’d think that John Carter is a Clash-of-the-Titans-meets-Avatar war movie, stocked to the gills with aliens fighting each other in epic battles. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But what if you were told it’s actually a super-fun (and often funny) tale of a stranger-in-a-strange-land, with just enough romance to make it a (gasp!) really solid date movie? …along with aliens fighting each other in epic battles, of course.

But there it is.

The first live-action feature from Pixar mainstay Andrew Stanton (Wall*E, Finding Nemo) tells the story of a former Civil War captain (Taylor Kitsch) who trips on a portal that whooshes him through space to land on Barsoom (Mars). Once there, he finds himself smack in the middle of a global battle between the cities of Zodanga and Helium. There is life on Mars, after all, and it comes in both human form (‘Red Man’) and four-armed, ten-foot-tall alien form (‘Thark’).

At times it feels like John Carter has more subplots than there are creatures that inhabit the planet, but at its most base level, it’s the story of an Earthman who is enlisted to save a faraway world. And, of course, he falls for the beautiful native princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).

Along the way, he also meets a wide assortment of other characters, the most notable of which is a hippo-like creature that moves like Dash from The Incredibles but has the mannerisms of man’s best friend.

As for the alien life, the Na’vi-like Tharks (which thankfully begin speaking English relatively early on) are all the products of motion capture, with the likes of Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Haden Church providing the movements and the voice.

Stanton has crafted a simply amazing journey. The set pieces are epic in their grandeur, and he successfully takes movie magic to a whole new dimension (though the 3D isn’t needed and doesn’t add much). But the love-story subplot is just as fun to watch. Collins and Kitsch are perfect together, and Stanton wisely knows to bring things down a notch when it’s needed.

The biggest complaint is with the long-winded adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of novels. It seems that Stanton, fellow Pixar vet Mark Andrews, and novelist Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys) wanted to try to fit all eleven volumes of Burroughs’ tale into one 130-minute movie. From an entirely-too-intricate prologue through to the overly complex political history of Barsoom, the trio could have benefitted greatly by having a fourth person give the script a look, red pen in hand.

But none of that stops John Carter from being a truly entertaining thrill ride/romance overall, despite what you might think from the trailer.

It’s not quite out of this world, but it’s darn close.

4/5 stars