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John Carter: A Disney Prince of Mars

It looks like John Carter didn’t make enough of a splash at the box office to justify a sequel. To tell the truth, I am more than a little disappointed, because I actually enjoyed the cheesy throw-back charm of a science-fantasy epic that didn’t feel the need for irony or wry self-awareness. However, it’s interesting to look at the movie as part of the Disney canon, and measured against the big Disney films released over the last couple of years (and planned through the end of this one). John Carter seems to fit alongside Tron: Legacy as part of a concentrated effort by the studio in recent years to shift away from their traditional “princess”-orientated features and to produce movies aimed at boys.

Boys are from Mars...

When people hear the world “Disney”, they tend to immediately think of the “princess” archetypes the company has given us. We think of classics like Snow White or Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or The Little Mermaid. Even in films that feature male leads or both male and female leads – for example, Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast – we still think of the princesses involved, characters like Jasmine or Belle. Even after decades of producing live-action feature films, and breaking box office records with films like Pirates of the Caribbean or Alice in Wonderland, we still tend to associate Disney with that sort of classic animation.

However, over the past decade or so, we’ve seen the company realign its corporate priorities, trying to disassociate itself with those iconic animated princesses, and embrace a more masculine audience. For example, a lot of people speculated that Disney’s purchase of Marvel was intended to give them a hook to attract a young male audience to their output:

I think they have a boy need. They seem to do very well with little girls, but not so well with little boys. Especially since they neutered characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to turn them into corporate icons, more or less they’re safer–they’re not shown with pistols or anything. [Marvel] gives them boy-related content.

In fact, it seems that Disney can’t wait to exploit that young male audience. While Paramount had a producing deal with Marvel up until The Avengers, Disney paid good money to distribute the gigantic superhero team-up film.

Our boys over there...

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. Several of Disney’s other multimedia decisions can be traced back to that desire to attract young males to their brand, including the development of Disney XD, a cable television channel that aims to be “boy-focused, girl-inclusive”:

“We realized that a true headquarters for boys has been missing from the marketplace,” said Anne Sweeney, co-chairwoman of Disney’s Media Networks division. “There is a huge opportunity here to super-serve boys the way that Disney Channel has girls.”

What’s interesting, though, is the shift in the theatrical releases from Disney themselves. In the past five years, Disney has produced a significant number of theatrical animated films, from Bolt to Winnie the Pooh, but it’s interesting to note that very few of those fit the traditional Disney “princess” model. Arguably only The Princess and the Frog and Tangled qualify, being adaptations of classic fairy tales with strong female characters, musical numbers and the other trappings.

What a tangled web we weave...

Indeed, even Tangled itself is a bit of a controversial example, with Disney radically overhauling it in order to tone down the more girl-friendly elements of the film. They even changed the title, believing that boys were unlikely to see a movie entitled “Rapunzel.” The introduction of the character Flynn Rider was included in order to give young boys in the audience a character relate to:

Disney hopes the introduction of the slightly bad-boy character will help it tap the broadest possible audience for Tangled, emulating the success of its corporate sibling, Pixar. Pixar’s movies have been huge hits because they appeal to girls, boys and adults. Its most recent release, Up, grossed more than $700 million worldwide.

Speaking of title changes, I wouldn’t be too surprised to discover that Disney had vetoed the title John Carter: A Princess of Mars just because it involved the word “princess.” In fact, Disney have cancelled their production of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and it’s telling that their next animated feature will be Wreck-It Ralph, set in the world of video-games. After all, young boys do like video games.

Game on!

While all this has been happening in Disney’s corporate structure, we’ve seen the company adjust its live-action output to reflect these changed priorities. In the public imagination, it seems that Disney animation might still be the realm of the famed “Disney Princess”, I think that we’ve seen the emergence of a male counterpart in the studio’s live action output, at least since the release of the original Pirates of the Caribbean film.

Will Turner, Sam Flynn and John Carter all follow the same archetypal hero’s journey, often mirroring the journey taken by their animated female counterparts. All three are characters who find purpose in another world: Will Turner as a pirate instead of a blacksmith; Sam Flynn within his father’s virtual reality; and John Carter on Mars. All three end up finding love at the end, much like the standard “Disney Princess.”

Disney attempts to combat movie piracy...

Indeed, like the lead character in Tangled or Cinderella herself, all three male heroes even find themselves to be royalty by the end of the film. Will Turner is the son of legendary pirate “Bootstrap Bill” Turner, a well-respected pirate; Sam Flynn is “the son of our maker!”; and John Carter ultimately marries into Martian royalty (“lost in our world, found on another”). In the first two cases, the heroes discover that they have inherited something they never thought they had.

I’ll concede that I find this slightly strange, because I had assumed that Disney would consider the “secretly royalty” plot point to a generally female fantasy. Then again, it is an essential ingredient in the original of any number of iconic male fantasy characters. Luke Skywalker was, after all, secretly the son of Darth Vader and heir to the Empire; although Return of the Jedi ended with Luke rejecting that title while embracing his father. Harry Potter, the poor and abused little boy with a horrible foster family, turned out to be the son of two powerful and well-respected wizards.

One of those great father-son moments...

There are other interesting overlaps between these new “Disney Princes” and the “Disney Princesses” of old. While the female characters would typically receive advice and guidance from older or magical characters (the fairy godmother archetype), it seems that the male equivalents are more likely to find themselves surrounded by tricksters and characters who exist in a more symbiotic relationship.

While Cinderalla or Sleeping Beauty might not have had anything to offer their mentors, it seems important that these new Disney Princes give at least as much as they receive. Sam Flynn learns about the virtual world from Cora, but he also teaches her about humanity (and shows her her first sunrise); John Carter learns about Mars from Tars, but teaches Tars about the power of love; Will Turner discovers his heritage through the manipulative trickster Jack Sparrow, but is crucial to Sparrow’s plans.

Don't have a Clu...

Given how rigidly the characters generally adhere to the classic “hero’s journey” as exemplified by Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, it’s fascinating that Disney tends to eschew older mentor figures for their characters. Coming closest to the Obi-Wan archetype, Jeff Bridge’s Flynn might display zen-like wisdom and intimate knowledge of the system, but Sam’s decision to disobey him and make a run for the portal spurs the plot to life. The older statesmen of Mars are presented as ineffective as compared to John Carter. The older characters in Pirates of the Caribbean, whether pirate or navy, are typically portrayed as misguided or out-of-touch.

All this discussion of the new generation of “Disney Princes” does ignore a slight elephant in the room. After all, Disney’s most successful feature film in recent memory was a live action production, but it didn’t feature a male lead. Well, at least not nominally. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland opened pretty huge, breaking March box office records and even surpassing Avatar’s 3D debut. Despite the somewhat muted critical response to the film, it’s easy to forget just how successful the project was, and it featured a female lead character with a very clearly female name.

No (m)Alice aforethought...

Now, of course, it’s very possible to argue that the film made several very obvious attempts to pander to the young male audience. As much as Mia Wasikowska might have used the central role of Alice to launch her career, the advertising focused very heavily on Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. In fact, one could argue that he’s far more than just a supporting player in the feature film, with a significantly expanded role as a would-be revolutionary.

It’s also possible to argue that Alice succeeded by playing to masculine fantasy. Instead of Alice engaging with the residents of Wonderland and exploring, it seemed that she was trapped within something akin to a war, which she resolved not through her wits, but by dressing up in a suit of armour and swinging a pretty big sword around. I’m not alone in thinking that Tim Burton’s vision was seriously lacking in “wonder”, removing a lot of the whimsy that made the original story so appealing.

Spotting a gap in the market...

Still, it’s hard to argue that anybody at Disney would embrace such criticism in the wake of such a dramatic box office haul. In fact, I’m sure that Disney executives will be quick to point to that sort of violence and the presence of a strong male character as the ingredients that allowed Alice in Wonderland to “cross over” to the necessary male demographics to become such a ridiculous success. I can’t help but wonder if it was the success of Alice in Wonderland that spurred Disney forward with John Carter, another hundred-year-old cult fantasy book released on movie-goers in March.

I don’t know, this is all just speculation and observation. Still, I can’t help be feel a little dejected at how Disney are so firmly fragmenting the market. I feel old-fashioned and nostalgic, but I remember growing up with all those classic Disney films, and loving them. It didn’t matter that they were about girls, they were well-told and engaging stories, and they appealed to a young boy regardless of the gender or archetype of their lead character.

Does anybody "get" Carter?

A Prince and Princess of Mars...

I can’t help but feel there’s something a little too cynical in this calculated paradigm shift. I know I’m out of touch, and that Disney are merely trying to change to reflect a rapidly-changing market. I accept that this is a reality of corporate business, and part of me salutes them for being willing to make the necessary changes. Still, another part of me is sad to believe that it’s taken for granted to young boys will grow up without seeing films like Bambi or Fantasia.

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8 Responses

  1. I am so pleased you like it. I think the 10 stories about John Carter and his family have worn well, given that they were first published by Edgar Rice Burroughs 100 years ago and pre-date his Tarzan stories. For me, John Carter is the daddy and grandaddy of Luke Skywalker, Superman and I was pleased that Disney kept the gentleness and the mystery of the original stories. Of course, Disney studios like things that make animals into people who speak.Great post! PS: PLEASE make them make a sequel. Thank you.

    • If only I could force them to make that sequel, Greer, if only I could. I just hope this finds an audience somewhere, because it has cult sci-fi classic written all over it.

  2. I had a great time watching this and couldn’t figure out why critics had their knives out for this thing.

    I am really beginning to dislike the box-office oriented writing of most film blogs these days.

    • Yep, I feel the same way. But it’s not only that. It’s the “dagger” mentallity, where it seems that it’s more interesting to trash something than it is to actually engage with it, and that any attitude beyond cynicism or snark is completely unwelcome. It seems that film journalists spend so much time looking to attack the big studios, and are so gleeful about it, that it sort of sucks a lot of the joy out of the movie-going experience.

      I liked John Carter. The budget doesn’t affect that. I did not like Transformers. The budget doesn’t affect that either. I think you should see John Carter because it’s a bold cinematic risk that is exactly the kind of film people attack studios for not making (it’s unconventional, it isn’t directed by a focus group, the director had complete freedom) and it just seemed so hypocritical for the same people who condemn big-budget pictures for being too “safe” to lash out at this big risky venture. Of course it was news and of course it turned out to be accurate (it’s a $200m write-off), but what really bugged me was the fact that so many journalists and commentators seemed to be enjoying attacking it.

  3. Hi Darren. I like your article, and a lot of the points you made. I loved John Carter and watched it twice and I, too, can’t figure out this schadenfreude among the journalists and reviewers – it’s like, if the film doesn’t star an already established actor, or doesn’t tow the same old lines, it isn’t worth watching.
    John Carter does a lot of things differently, especially putting its male and female leads on an almost even keel – rare to see that happen in Hollywood films nowadays (and, hence, it especially worries me that so many people are knocking this film). It, in some way, tries to connect the old Disney to the new one, with both the Disney Prince and Princess going on a journey and attempting to find new lives for themselves and their world.
    In conjunction to your comment about the title of the film – the film was originally titled ‘John Carter of Mars’, but apparently, and this is only something I’ve read, Disney dropped the ‘of Mars’ because they were worried females wouldn’t want to watch a film with the word ‘Mars’ in it. That kind of thinking is the reason why they’ve got minus $200 mil in the bank.

    • Really enjoyed Lestat’s comment. Remember – all we believers in John Carter need to get a sequel is to have mega DVD sales. Most of the people who will love this do not go to cinemas. Therefore, we have real hope (and I wish on a star and pray for Tinkerbell and those things too) and we can get over those negative critics!

    • Thanks Lestat, I’m glad we both liked it. And I though the decision to drop mars was based on the observation that films with mars in the title – Mars Needs Moms or Mission to Mars – didn’t make a lot of money. I’d suggest there were deeper reasons for that (neither was especially good), but that’s how studios make decisions.

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