(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).
With its Victorian flying machines, Western fixtures and archaeological fascination with runes and ruin, "John Carter" is a curious mash-up of antique pulp and cutting edge CGI spectacle -- though that isn't such an unusual combination these days, when digital effects increasingly take us away from the realism that dominated movies for the latter part of the 20th century. It's not a trend that critics seem particularly happy about, but more and more our blockbusters are assuming the imaginative freedom that you find in animation.
Filmmakers are bending the laws of physics just for the joy of it.
When John Carter has finally found his feet he realizes he can leap great distances in a single bound -- there's literally a spring in his step. As superpowers go, this one smacks more of Looney Tunes than Marvel (even though it's enough to encourage Barsoom's three warring tribes to think he might tilt the balance one way or the other).
Elsewhere, Stanton's design seems under the spell of the enchanting anime movies of Studio Ghibli master Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away," "Howl's Moving Castle"): There's an insatiable city that moves like a crab on legs that pump away like oil wells, a blue-tongued dino-dog scuttles after Carter at the speed of a cannonball and scheming mystical spirits shapeshift at will.
Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton are among the actors impersonating the film's most compelling creations, the Tharks: giant green vertebrates with boar-like tusks, four arms and a penchant for cruel and unusual punishment.
Stanton and his co-writers Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chabon create a reasonably coherent and absorbing alien anthropology for the Tharks, but the humanoid tribes are generally less interesting, with the partial exception of Lynn Collins' Helium princess, Dejah Thoris, who is permitted to be self-centered and deceitful as well as feisty and intelligent (and never once speaks in a high-pitched squeak).
Mind you, it's not all good.
The movie's plot construction is rickety; the opening is needlessly confusing, and the heavies' political machinations didn't make much sense that I could see. Yes, too, it's another movie pitched overwhelmingly at teenagers. Whether they're prepared to take innocent hokum at face value we will know soon enough, but for all its flaws this is an altogether more idiosyncratic and personable blockbuster than your typical corporate popcorn fodder.