Old joke: "When was the Golden Age of Science Fiction?" Answer: "About 11 or 12."

And that, in fact, is exactly when Andrew Stanton -- who would himself mint gold as director and co-writer of the 2008 sci-fi animated feature "WALL-E" -- became enamored of the pulp-fiction adventurer John Carter of Mars, hero of the new Disney movie "John Carter," opening March 9.

"It makes complete sense to me that as an 11-year-old nerdy kid, I would fall in love with that story, no matter when it was written," says Stanton, 46, speaking by phone, of Edgar Rice Burroughs' pre-Tarzan series. "It's about a normal guy who suddenly, just for being himself, becomes extraordinary when he goes to a new place -- where he's best friends with the coolest guy, he's got the coolest pet and he's fallen in love with the most beautiful woman in the universe. That's a checklist of everything an 11-year-old nerdy kid could want."

A similar sort of childhood imprinting holds for the movie's co-star, Willem Dafoe. Though his often dark and anguished roles -- Sgt. Elias in "Platoon," Jesus in "The Last Temptation of Christ" -- may seem at odds with his being in a Disney film playing a 9-foot-tall, green, four-armed Martian, "It's probably thanks to Disney that I'm an actor," he explains over lunch at a Greenwich Village restaurant. "Because I remember when I was a kid, some of my first imaginings came from those early animated movies and sitting on my belly playing the records over and over again, doing the voices and acting things out. I remember that so well. There's a certain kind of pleasure in coming around to Disney."

He does so in the motion-capture, CGI role of Tars Tarkas, chieftain of the Martian species called Tharks. Noble but excitable, Tarkas finds novelty value in John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a former Confederate soldier transported to the planet that the Tharks and two warring humanoid factions call Barsoom. There, thanks to "the lesser gravitation and lower air pressure on Mars," as Burroughs put it, Carter can leap prodigiously and has amplified strength -- which helps him aid Tarkas against a pretender to the throne and rally the Tharks to embattled humanoid princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).

"It's a special way of performing," Dafoe allows of motion-capture, the technology that devolved Andy Serkis to star as chimp Caesar in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Aside from having been ensconced in a stilt-like mount to reach Thark height, he says, "You have this huge battery pack on your back, you've got a camera on your head, you have these lights that simulate the tusks but also light your face for the camera, and sometimes you have arm extenders so you can give the animators the proper dimensions. But you know, what's funny is your impulses are just as always: You're trying to accomplish things in each scene, and these are just what you've got to do them with."

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Technology did have to catch up with filmmakers' ambitions for the Carter canon -- which began with Burroughs' first published short story, "Under the Moons of Mars," in the February 1912 issue of the pulp magazine The All-Story, and continued through "Skeleton Men of Jupiter" in Amazing Stories, February 1943.

MGM scrapped plans for an animated feature in 1934, following test footage by "Looney Tunes" animator Bob Clampett. In the 1950s, Ray Harryhausen tried and failed to obtain movie rights for a version incorporating stop-motion animation. A mid-1980s Disney attempt by director John McTiernan and star Tom Cruise never materialized, nor did Paramount projects from 2002 to 2006 with Robert Rodriguez ("Spy Kids"), Kerry Conran ("Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow") and Jon Favreau, who'd go on to direct "Iron Man."

"They just kept falling apart," Stanton says of those earlier projects, "whether over budget or creative , I don't know. Favreau had gotten really far on it, but things fell apart on the final budget."

When Carter fan Stanton heard about the rights being available again, "I proposed it to Disney, and once we got it and it was official, the first person to call me was Jon Favreau, which was really sweet. And he said, 'Look, I'm really bummed I never get to do it, but I'm happy it's going to you guys if it's going to anybody and I only have one request: Can I be a Thark?' Absolutely!" Stanton gave Favreau a motion-capture cameo as a Thark bookie.

So what odds would that bookie give "John Carter"? Audience-tracking numbers have been iffy, according to trade reports, and period-film pulp heroes have had a mixed record in movies; for every Zorro and Conan success comes a Shadow or Doc Savage flop.

The critical issue, Stanton believes, is overcoming "an assumption that you have to make it relevant to today. I fell in love with a book that was 64 years old at the time I read it, so that told me what I loved were ideas that were timeless and mythic. It would be like saying, 'Oh, I like "Moby-Dick," but we'd better put a battleship in it.' "

Maybe so. But whatever the film's fortunes, we'd bet there's an 11-year-old out there who's going to start dreaming of Barsoom. Or at least Dejah Thoris.

 

100 years of space adventure

 

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BY FRANK LOVECE, Special to Newsday

 

Andrew Stanton first met John Carter in comic books: Marvel Comics' 28-issue "John Carter, Warlord of Mars" (June 1977-Oct. 1979). "That was my gateway," he says. "I went through the comics so fast I immediately wanted to know the source material and went straight to the books."

Those began with the 1917 hardcover "A Princess of Mars," which collected the original six-part "Under the Moons of Mars" that ran in the pulp magazine The All-Story (February-July 1912). Similarly serialized novels continued through 1936 ("Swords of Mars"), followed by a couple of reprinted short-story collections. Ballantine Books brought out paperbacks starting in 1963.

For children, there was both a Whitman Big Little Book and a similar Dell Fast Action book in 1940. A United Feature Syndicate comic strip -- written by Edgar Rice Burroughs and illustrated by son John Coleman Burroughs -- ran from Dec. 7, 1941, to April 3, 1943.

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Long before Marvel, John Carter appeared in some of the earliest comic books: Dell Publishing's "The Funnies" #30-56 (May 1939-June 1941). Dell again in the 1950s, Gold Key Comics in the 1960s and DC Comics in the 1970s also published John Carter stories.Since 2010, Dynamite Entertainment has published "Warlord of Mars," and it has an upcoming spinoff starring Dejah Thoris. And Marvel just published a five-issue adaptation of the original novel.

And who could forget -- scratch that -- who can remember the 2009 direct-to-DVD "Princess of Mars," starring Antonio Sabato Jr. and Traci Lords?