(CNN) — We all know Tarzan, but Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first literary creation, “John Carter,” not so much. In fact, Carter’s only previous movie credit is 2009’s “A Princess of Mars,” starring Traci Lords (Antonio Sabato Jr. was Carter).
In this mega-budget Disney sci-fi romp he’s played by “Friday Night Lights” discovery Taylor Kitsch as a kind of Buck Rogers prototype. This “John Carter” is a 19th century Virginian ex-Confederate captain who seems mildly perplexed to be transported from an Arizona cave to Mars, or Barsoom, as the locals call it.
The geology — and the atmosphere — are not so different from where he came from, but Carter is bewildered to find he seems to have forgotten how to walk; the gravitational pull is so much weaker on Mars, he spends several minutes flopping about in the dirt. It’s the kind of purely visual gag that is former Pixar director Andrew Stanton’s forte, a reminder of the slapstick interstellar mayhem he brought to “WALL-E”, and a welcome early signal that he’s not going to let “John Carter” succumb to the stuffy allegorical earnestness of “Avatar.”
This is a movie comfortable with its own absurdity. At the same time, Stanton’s not going for camp, either — there’s not even the faintest trace of Freddie Mercury’s “Flash Gordon” style mock rock operatics in Michael Giacchino’s symphonic score (more’s the pity).