Having struck cross-generational gold with Wall-E and Finding Nemo, director Andrew Stanton's live-action debut is his biggest risk yet. It's a $250m one, based on books he's loved since childhood and starring a relative unknown (unless you're a Friday Night Lights fan) in the lead role. But while I-told-you-so vultures have been circling John Carter for a while, Stanton opens the 2012 blockbuster season by proving that there is still life on Mars.

A homeless Civil War veteran haunted by heartbreak, John Carter (Kitsch) is in Arizona, looking for gold and trying to stay one step ahead of the US Cavalry, who want him back in uniform and fighting the natives. After one very close call, Carter hides out in a cave - the next thing he remembers is waking up in the middle of nowhere. It looks like the Arizona desert, but something has happened him. His physical prowess has gone into overdrive and he can now jump huge distances. And he'll need every bit of strength he can muster, because Carter isn't in Arizona anymore; he's in the middle of another warzone. This one's on Mars, where rival races are fighting over a dying planet and one man can make the difference between salvation and annihilation.

Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the character of John Carter turns 100 this year and is seen as one of the granddads of the fantasy genre - the man who paved the way for Star Wars, Avatar, decades of summer movies and libraries of sci-fi books – even Noah Wyle's character in ER was named in honour of him!

Such a pedigree doesn't come without problems: for today's seen-it-all-before punters, the innovator could be labelled the imitator and with a release schedule that includes The Hunger Games, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, it could find himself a long way down their viewing priorities. However, young boys who see Stanton's passion project should be anxious to know more, and many adults will also put Burroughs' books on their to-read list.

As expected, there's CGI galore here, but Stanton has also cast his movie wisely and worked with Pulitzer winner Michael Chabon on the script. There are heavyweight thesps like Willem Dafoe (voicing and motion-capturing an eight-foot tall alien), Samantha Morton (ditto), Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong and Dominic West, while leading man Kitsch does a good hero and his off-screen friendship with co-star Lynn Collins ensures chemistry on it.

In-between the (red) dust-ups - which bring to mind swords and sandals epics and the Tatooine sequences from Return of the Jedi - viewers will get plenty of talking and backstory, meaning the film moves a little slower than they may expect at times. As for the wow/whatever factor that is 3D, it doesn't feel as jarring and bolted-on here as you get on some other movies, and it's testament to the storytelling that you actually forget about the process a lot of the time.

Stanton has put his heart and soul into this and the ultimate validation for him would be a sequel. But that's down to that other all-powerful race of beings, the rulers of the box office - you.

So, in the best tradition of Saturday morning serials... to be continued.

Maybe.

Harry Guerin