Thursday, June 5, 2014

Super Mario Bros

(Note: This post originally appeared in the comments of the excellent film criticism website The Dissolve, as part of the commentariat's ongoing Lovefest series, where commentors write a defense of little-loved movies that they still enjoy. I hope you all enjoy!)

Mario is one of the most recognizable pop culture figures of all time. It’s estimated that, as of 2014, more people recognize Mario then Mickey Mouse. He holds a huge amount of cultural cache, and through his name Nintendo owns a media empire, spanning across a huge library of games (of almost every genre), cartoons, comics, toys, and pretty much anything you can think of.

To me, part of the reason why Super Mario Bros: The Movie is so special is the fact that it takes this incredibly well known character and, instead of giving us what we expect from him, presents him in possibly the weirdest way imaginable. Mario may be spread out in almost every possible direction, but I don’t think that anybody expected his titular movie to be set in a dystopian parallel cyberpunk dimension ruled by dinosaurs that look like people. The directors of the film, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, had previously helped create Max Headroom, the trippy late 80s British series set in a similar setting. It shows throughout the film, and Dennis Hopper’s King Koopa even bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Headroom.

But why? Why take a character who, at the time, was most known for running through castles and saving princesses and put him in a setting like that? To answer this, I think we need to ask ourselves two questions. First, what makes a good video game adaptation in the first place? In my mind, there have only been four movies that I consider to be successful adaptations of video games, discounting films like the Pokemon movies that already relied on established characters from their television adaptations. Including Super Mario Bros., they are 1989’s Sweet Home, 2001’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and 2012’s Ace Attorney. What differentiates these three films from Super Mario Bros. is the fact that all of the games they are based on are very much plot heavy. The Ace Attorney games are practically novels, and the Resident Evil series has been noted for it’s heavy cinematic influence since it’s first game. Sweet Home is a bit of an outlier, but director Kiyoshi Kurosawa supervised the production of both the game and the movie, so it has a strong connecting thread between both properties.

That leaves us with Super Mario Bros., the only film that highly deviates from the plot of its original game. Of course, the long-standing rule of adaptations is that they don’t have to follow the exact plotline of the original as long as they capture the spirit of the original. Does Super Mario Bros. do this? Yes, with aplomb! In fact, I would argue that through the changes implanted in the movie, the film captures the spirit of the original Mario games far better then it would if it was set on the background of the traditional kingdoms and dragons setting.