Sometimes you can fool yourself there's some justice to box office results. Movies like Green Lantern crash and movies like Inception rake in the bucks, and it feels like maybe there's a supreme being out there, looking out for us. And then something like this happens: The Lorax is the year's biggest hit thus far, and everybody's dancing on John Carter's grave.
This is why we're all peasants in the kingdom of hacks.
Top image: Nathaniel R./Film Experience
So it's basically official at this point: John Carter had a perilous drop in its second weekend in theaters, disappointing all those of us who hoped it would turn out to have "legs" due to good word of mouth. Meanwhile, The Lorax is breaking box office records right and left. Of course, John Carter is a hit overseas, but that won't save it.
John Carter is not a great movie, and The Lorax is not a terrible movie. John Carter has huge moments of brilliance and some absolutely terrific direction and storytelling from Andrew Stanton, mixed in with a lot of stuff that feels shoe-horned in and goes nowhere. In fact, Carter is an overstuffed mess. Meanwhile, Lorax is on the low end of mediocre — it has some fun moments too, but it takes the lazy, boring choice at every turn. (The Onceler? He's a bad guitar player who tries to sell Thneeds by busking. Sigh.)
But even still, John Carter is a much, much better movie than The Lorax, by many orders of magnitude — even once you take into account that they're different genres, made for different audiences in different formats. They're both movies, and they both set out to tell a story about a hero who goes on a journey and finds himself. It's hard not to picture Andrew Stanton, maker of Finding Nemo and Wall-E, looking at The Lorax and saying, "I was beaten by THIS?"
In particular, John Carter is a better book adaptation. The Lorax takes everything that's interesting about Dr. Seuss' original book and smothers it in blandness — or actually removes it. (There are only like three things that happen in the actual Seuss book, and they include the boy's journey through the grickle grass to find out why the Lorax was lifted away. The movie has no grickle grass, and the boy's motivation for finding the Onceler is much blander.) Meanwhile, John Carter has the opposite problem — it really tries, it struggles valiantly, to do justice to Edgar Rice Burroughs' book, to the point where it becomes almost as incoherent as Burroughs. But John Carter does mostly succeed in translating what's great about Burroughs to a relatable, comprehensible motion picture.
They're both incoherent — but The Lorax is incoherent and mindless, while John Carter is incoherent and often brilliant.
And it's the difference between a labor of love, and a piece of packaging. Everything about The Lorax feels like it was carefully calculated to sell fast-food value meals and SUVs and crap. You've got your Taylor Swift for the tween girls and your Daily Show comedians for the twentysomething slackers, and your Betty White role for all the hipsters who fetishize Betty White, and so on. Even the digs at evil corporations feel, ironically, like bland corporate product. Meanwhile, despite the fact that John Carter is based on source material that movies have been stealing from for 100 years, it feels really weird — almost obstinately deviant. Stuff like Carter being a former Confederate soldier prospecting for gold, and the Martians killing their own unhatched eggs... it's just kind of messed up.
And yes, John Carter fails at half the things it tries to do — but it succeeds splendidly at the other half, and the overall effect is often really neat. Versus a movie that aims low, and just barely manages to pull off total mediocrity.
That's really the crux why it's so dispiriting to see The Lorax crushing John Carter into the dirt — we don't need any more bland, completely disposable movies that you forget as soon as you walk out of the theater. Even for kids. Maybe especially for kids. Our children deserve better movies than this. The more evidence mounts up that successful movies play it safe and challenge nobody, the more we're going to be deluged with boring crap.
And that's really the bottom line — John Carter is a fun movie. Even when he's meandering around the temple or trying to puzzle out the secrets of the Ninth Ray, and the movie feels like it's losing its sense of direction, it's still fun. It's fun, in a way that The Lorax never quite manages. That's the thing here — I'm not saying movie audiences should eat their spinach or anything, because John Carter is a much more fun, entertaining, amusing movie than The Lorax. And it has better characters, especially Carter himself and Tars Tarkas.
To be fair, both movies have forgettable villains and totally weak love stories. I couldn't tell you what's the deal with Mark Strong's "teleporting albino" character, or why he doesn't just kill John Carter on the numerous occasions when he has an opportunity to do so. And meanwhile, the tiny corporate overlord guy in The Lorax never even thinks to have Ted locked up for breaking the law, which would solve all his problems. And the love stories in both movies are so tacked on and boring that it's hard even to think of anything to say about them.
But at least John Carter has a compelling hero, even if he doesn't get to face any interesting villains. Along with everything else Edgar Rice Burroughs inspired, he was the wellspring from which our cartoons and animated stories spring. John Carter was one of the first cartoon characters. And the movie does a good job of giving John Carter a real heroic arc, like when he decides to stay on Mars and help save the Tharks and Dejah's people. Meanwhile, The Lorax leaves you with the impression that if Audrey wanted to see the last tree on Earth burned to the ground, Ted would bring the matches. I picture an alternate cut of the movie where Ted and Audrey make out in front of a burning forest. Our heroic stories need to celebrate actual, you know, heroism.
But what's really sad is when you look at the Rotten Tomatoes pages for The Lorax and John Carter. Among "top critics," The Lorax has a 48 percent fresh rating, and most of the reviews I've seen have been pretty respectful. (Except for the New Yorker, which says "The badness of the picture is a shock," and the New York Times, which called it "a noisy, useless piece of junk.") And critics pretty much piled onto John Carter — among "top critics," it's at 35 percent fresh, with people outright gloating about how expensive it was and how much it falls short. It's like there's a collective agreement that The Lorax is too big and too much of a mainstream juggernaut to call out — but the herd decided it was okay to feed on John Carter.
And that's really the saddest thing of all — that everybody piled on John Carter, a decent but flawed adventure movie, and gave a free pass to the plastic monstrosity that was The Lorax.