Sunday, March 25, 2012

Andrew Stanton's Women

Why so many bad reviews? John Carter was great—I thought so, at least. If you're planning on seeing any Hollywood movies this month, I recommend this one, especially since its been struggling at the box office and Disney could use the dough. Wait, I take that back: Andrew Stanton could use the dough. This was, from where I stand, Stanton's fourth great movie in a row, and it wasn't even distributed by Pixar. It's an even more impressive transition from animation to live-action than Brad Bird's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol last winter, also a good flick, but I'd say with John Carter Stanton has pulled off an even greater feat: he's made me a believer in action/fantasy epics again (after being disappointed by some high-profile losers, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time being one of them). And contrary to what the majority of the critics are saying about John Carter ("less is more!"), I would argue that, in this case, less is definitely not more. Filmmakers like Stanton need to command a lot of space—a lot of depth of field—to tell their stories, and therefore any critic who snipes "too much!" is being unreasonable. Disney granted Stanton a $250 million budget and, bless his heart, he has put every single cent of that budget to good use.

I want a sequel, too. I want to see more of these characters, especially since it will give me a good excuse to read those Edgar Rice Burroughs books (which, had I read them beforehand, might have led me to appreciate Stanton's film even more). This is not one of those director-for-hire Disney 3-D hackjobs like Tim Burton's atrocious Alice in Wonderland; no, this, despite being a big-budget studio flick, was also a very personal project for Stanton, who not only directed it by co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon (who, after this and Spider-Man 2, is officially the best writer in the business when it comes to adapting adventure serials to the big screen). That John Carter is not doing very well at the box office right now cannot be due to the quality of the film (which is superb) but more to, well, its vague title and its even vaguer ad campaign. Perhaps it's also because the film's big-named, Academy Award-nominated stars (Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Thomas Hayden Church) mainly provide the voice talents for the CGI characters, whereas the two lead roles are played by two young unknowns: the charming Taylor Kitsch (yeah, weird name, I know) as John Carter of Virginia, and the pleasantly surprising Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium.

Studying Collins' performance, I began to notice a trend in Stanton's work: his recurring use of strong, ambitious female characters in each and every one of his movies. They are always like the men: energetic idealists who want to make a difference in their lives, have adventures, go somewhere, be somebody. They have dreams. They have passions. They even have goofy fantasies, and the first time I noticed something unusual about the Dejah character was during the sequence in which she first meets John Carter, after he rescues her from a death-defying fall (one of about three in the movie—yes, I counted). While Carter sets her down and then springs up into the air to return to the action in the sky, Dejah is down on the ground, staring up at him while Carter's allies, the Tharks (a race of Green Martians with tusks on their faces), begin swarming around her. Looking up at Carter with stars in her eyes, Dejah squeals to the Thusks, "You may take me prisoner!" That's her way of saying, "I want to bang that guy, like, right now."

But Dejah is not merely one of those Disney princesses who fangirls over a handsome man. She's good with a sword, is capable of taking care of herself, inspires Carter to fight for what he believes in and gripes at the thought of her father (Ciaran Hinds, in an inspired casting choice) reducing her to the role of a good wife in an arranged, politically-motivated marriage to some hawkish douchebag. She'd rather be with, support and—this is key—be able to fight side by side with a man she actually loves and admires, all of this delicately conveyed by Lynn Collins in a free-spirited performance that is one of the movie's most unexpected surprises.

Also, she's incredibly easy on the eyes. Um...

Stanton seems to have thing for Disney princesses with attitude. You'll remember that in A Bug's Life (1998), his first film as a director (though in actuality he co-directed it with John Lasseter), Stanton characterized Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as an insecure princess who wasn't sure if she was ready to be queen yet, but then drew inspiration from a plan by Flik (Dave Foley) to rally her colony against pillaging Grasshoppers by mounting the construction of a giant bird. Atta also had a younger sister, Dot (Hayden Manetierre), who made every effort to help Flik and Atta in an attempt to expedite her maturity in the time before her wings grew.

Another subversive female character in John Carter is Sola (voiced by an unrecognizable Samantha Morton), a Thark who becomes one of Carter's sidekicks purely by accident. She begins as the runt of the female Tharks—the only one without a baby to take care of—given the humiliating task of tasking care of the "white worm" Carter by Sarkoja (Polly Walker), the bitchiest of the Tharks' mothers. Because she has no children, Sola realizes her life is meant for other things, and she not only begins to join Carter in his pursuits, she also begins following the example of her father, Tars (voiced by Willem Dafoe), who wants to keep her out of harm's way but is proven wrong when she herself tells him how committed she is: "Your blood flows through me."

A similarly fiercely-committed heroine in Stanton's filmography is EVE (Elissa Knight) in WALL-E (2008), who constantly reminds WALL-E (Ben Burtt) that she has to complete her "directive" before she can move on to anything else. And after her "directive" is fulfilled, she is instrumental in helping WALL-E bring the humans back to Earth, as well as shaking WALL-E back to life just when it seems he's been deactivated for good. It is even implied that she and WALL-E will be instrumental in making Earth a great planet again.

Stanton, likes James Cameron, is one of those wise mainstream Hollywood filmmakers who not only loves, appreciates and understands the women in his films, but makes them equal to the men; as the Nostalgia Chick once commented on Cameron's women, "The girls are actually there. They don't make a big deal out of being female; they don't hold their ovaries in triumph whilst they kick @$$; they just happen to be female and find themselves in these ridiculous situations, whatever they might be... they're well-written because they're people first, not ladies. And I think that's the best way to see more of the same: write people. Not tokens."

That, I believes, describes Stanton's work to a T, and might even apply in some ways to arguably the most famous female protagonist in Stanton's work: Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), the Blue Tang fish in Finding Nemo (2003) who suffers from short-term memory loss but nevertheless proves to be an invaluable influence on Marlin (Albert Brooks) in his quest to find his son. Although Dory is severely lacking when it comes to memory, she still has her instincts, and still possesses the ability to sense when a situation has gone right and when her life has actually started to make a difference in someone else's, as summed up in this, the film's most beautiful speech:

"Please don't go away. Please? No one's ever stuck with me for so long before. And if you leave... if you leave... I just, I remember things better with you. I do. Look: P. Sherman, forty-two... forty-two... I remember it, I do. It's there, I know it is, because when I look at you, I can feel it. And—and I look at you, and I... I'm home."


  1. Once again we are in agreement Adam. I didn't give it my highest ratings, but still thought it solid and an exceedingly fine entertainment for all sorts of reasons. You've brought up the defense here marvelously, and I hope that down the road it will be seen far more favorably. Great study of Stanton here!

  2. I completely agree with you. John Carter was a very enjoyable popcorn movie, and I had no problem following the plot or staying engaged with the characters. It's such a shame it got slammed so badly and never got a chance to pull in all the people who would have enjoyed it, too, if they just gave it a chance.

    Andrew Stanton is one of the great talents of the industry, and I hope history vindicates this movie and he adds on to his list of hits with Pixar.


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