In dire need of a cinematic sugar rush? Look no farther than Disney's blockbuster offering "John Carter," a fantasy extravaganza brimming with eye candy. Fortunately for viewers, the film is directed by Pixar sensation Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo," "WALL-E"), and the visual effects are, literally, out of this world.
Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' groundbreaking novel "A Princess of Mars," the film represents a coming-out party of sorts for "Friday Night Lights" rebel Taylor Kitsch (Kitsch also headlines the sci-fi actioner "Battleship," due out in May). Although he made an impression on the big screen as the card-wielding mutant Gambit in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (2009), "Carter" marks his first big-budget leading role, and he handles the spotlight well.
Kitsch plays the title character, a Civil War-era cavalryman from Virginia who is whisked away to Mars courtesy of a mystical amulet. Carter's agility and strength are heightened by the planet's unusual gravity, but he has trouble finding his footing early on and is captured by a band of tribal Martians called Tharks. The Tharks are an odd-looking breed -- tall and lanky with four arms and protruding tusks -- and their leader, Tars Tarkas (voice of Willem Dafoe), is eager to learn more about Carter's skills.
Meanwhile, a war is brewing among Mars' more human-looking denizens. A power-hungry soldier (Dominic West as Sab Than) is taking the fight to the land of Helium in hopes of conquering it and marrying its battle-ready princess (Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris). Than is backed by the mysterious Matai Shang (Mark Strong of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), an arcane being with dubious intentions.
Carter quickly finds himself in the middle of the conflict, while a romance begins to percolate between Thoris and him. Strap on your 3D glasses -- it's going to be a wild ride.
The production design by Nathan Crowley ("Batman Begins," "The Dark Knight") is stellar throughout, as costumes and set pieces are consistently exceptional. The array of colorful characters is reminiscent of "Star Wars." Woola, a dog-like creature Carter befriends, is particularly enjoyable. Kitsch gives a decent performance but seems to growl his dialogue, while Texas-born Collins offers a British accent that doesn't seem to fit on the Red Planet.
Tars Tarkas, Sab Than, Dejah Thoris, Matai Shang (dizzy yet?): The odd names and titles tossed about become incredibly confusing. The picture also drags at times, and at least 20 minutes could have easily been left on the cutting-room floor. The film relies heavily on its visual elements, so it's a boon that this portion is so stunning. Fans of HBO's "Rome" will also get a kick out of seeing actors Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy together again (they played Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, respectively).
"John Carter" pays a nice homage to Burroughs and honors the novel while falling neatly alongside other Disney escapades such as "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Prince of Persia." It might not be the healthiest dose of eye candy, but it certainly satisfies.