Though the story has influenced other productions, been made into comic books, and at least considered as an animated feature in the 1930's, it has never had a decent movie made of it (the 2009 HBO production was low-budget and badly acted). Though "purist" fans may not agree, I think Andrew Stanton's film has finally done the books justice.
The movie is probably a guilty pleasure for many critics. I get the impression from the reviews I've read, that the reviewers liked it, but feel they must criticize it as trivial, or too much like other movies, or lame in plot, or shallow in the acting. Star Wars was criticized in much the same way, and I suspect this movie will be similarly popular with audiences and spawn a sequel or two.
Burroughs wrote action-adventure and that's what his John Carter books deliver (as do his Tarzan books). He wrote the first book in 1911 and uses a lot of 19th century plot devices--a noble main character with indistinct origins (Carter is basically immortal), lots of mysteries introduced but never resolved (at least not in the first three books), characters with agendas that are never fully explained (the therns), women as rescue objects, and plot frames. His prose is less eloquent than the 19th century standard, but is still more so than most current novels and is easy to follow. The books are a good read, but don't look for deep themes in them. Burroughs wasn't trying to be Mark Twain.
Andrew Stanton's movie does a good job of bringing out the ambiance of the books. Barsoom is a big, red, rocky desert with enclaves of vegetation and flowing water, but no oceans (except for one underground, but that's in the books). The Barsoomian technology is based the explotation of the properties of specific levels of light waves ("rays") that power their great flying crafts. Stanton brings this to life with airborne vessels that are a cross between tall sailing ships and dirigibles with wings. His vision of indigenous Barsoomian life is a fair representation of Burroughs' vision. The basic animal form is with six limbs as seen in the Tharks, the dog-like Woola, and the white apes. The fluid coordination of the Thark's four arms is a triumph of digital effects.
What I found most compelling in the books is the plot frame (or frames, depending on how you look at it). The widest is that of Edgar Rice Burroughs (writing himself into his story--another device from 19th century novels) telling his "uncle" John Carter's story from a manuscript penned by Carter himself. Carter's manuscript includes a frame of his prospecting in the old west and being chased by Apaches to his apparent death in the cave. He is later restored to his body in the cave and similar processes send him to Mars and back throughout the books. So there is the frame of Burroughs' care of Carter's body on earth and storytelling, and the frame of Carter's life on earth, trying to get back to Mars. Stanton depicts these frames in the movie to good effect. He actually expands on them to the point that the first minutes of the movie are basically a western that morphs into a space fantasy.
The movie has also garnered some criticisms of the lead actors.
Taylor Kitsch is said to be too dull and monotone in his portrayal of John Carter, but I didn't get that at all. He's physically right for the part and he expresses himself in a low-key way, as you might expect from a model warrior. And he was believeable as a cowboy and as a Martian warlord. He even showed some vulnerability that's missing from the books.
Lynn Collins has been criticised as "too serious" in playing Dejah Thoris. I thought she did a great job at adding a cerebreal depth to a character that might be played simply as a space babe.
All I can say about Willem Dafoe's performance as Tars Tarkus is that it worked. This animated character was taken beyond just being a "creature" by his conflicts between duty and fatherly love--in the books as well as the movie. The blending of animated characters with live actors has gotten so good, that I didn't even think about it in this movie.
As for the meat of the story (books and movie), it's about warrioring. Mars is the red planet named for the classical god of war and Burroughs makes it the setting of unending war. Outside of the frames, the story is countless scenes of groups fighting with swords and guns from thoat-back, from airborne ships, and from waterborne crafts. Carter is constantly falling into traps that he must fight his way out of. And fight he does, as the consumate warrior, taking the defense of his adopted city of Helium and its princess as his cause. He is noble, with a sense of justice, and totally loyal and devoted to Dejah Thoris and their family. Even so, it's obvious that John Carter's prime motivation for fighting, is the love of it.
And so, while I enjoyed the fun of this movie and the books, there is still the part of me that doesn't like the glorization of warfare. Even in drama, the line is fine between the warrior and the brute. The difference is usually based on the motivation for fighting. Defense of home and family is admirable and, at times, necessary. Conquest for the sake of empire, is always wrong, and is simply murder.
John Carter touches these mitigating themes only lightly, if at all. But I think they're implicit in any work that deals with war and the way of the warrior. Burroughs' story doesn't go that deep. It wasn't meant to, but it remains a classic in the action-adventure genre. Keeping that in mind, I highly recommend the books and Andrew Stanton's movie.