Saturday, June 6, 2009

Super Mario Bros.

Two of my passions in life are video games and movies. For some reason, though, these two great tastes have a history of not tasting great together -- whether it's games based on movies or movies based on games, the end product is usually not very good, at best. It's almost as though the two forms of media are different and stories created for one medium can't easily be adapted to the other. But they keep trying, and this phenomenon is endlessly fascinating to me.

In that vein, I'm embarking on a new project: I shall attempt to watch every movie based on a video game (or at least all of them that I'm able to obtain), and I will report my findings here. In practical terms, this means I'll be watching a lot of crappy movies. That's okay, because I kind of like bad movies, but who knows, maybe a gem or two will sneak in there. And maybe, just maybe, we'll learn a little something about ourselves.

And what better place to start than the infamous Super Mario Bros.? To the best of my knowledge, this was the first feature film based on a video game, and the game upon which it's based is one of the most successful and influential of all time. The film was not as successful or influential. Time magazine called it one of the top ten worst video game movies -- a claim I find somewhat dubious considering what's come out since (I guess we'll find out over the course of this feature). Mario fans were not pleased because the movie deviated so far from the games, and non-fans were like, "what the shit is this?"

I saw Super Mario Bros. in the theater upon its release in 1993, and my primary complaints were that the Goombas were too tall and Luigi didn't have a moustache. I still stand by those complaints, but the movie has actually grown on me since then. Sure, it takes a lot of liberties with the characters and story of the Mario games, but it's not as though the games were known for their compelling narratives in the first place, and the world the movie presents is interesting enough in its own right.

The premise, as explained in the first two minutes by pixelated cartoon dinosaurs and Dan Castellanetta doing a cheesy accent, is that 65 million years ago a meteorite hit the earth, and while in our world this event killed all the dinosaurs, it also created a parallel dimension in which they survived and eventually evolved into creatures that look exactly like humans and speak English but are actually reptiles. That dimension is now a totalitarian dystopia ruled by the crabby despot Koopa, who deposed the benevolent king some time ago. To protect their infant daughter and some magical rock, Princess Daisy, the queen dropped her off on the steps of a church in Brooklyn (in our dimension) shortly before being killed, and Daisy was raised as a human.

In the present day, Daisy meets the struggling plumber brothers Mario and Luigi Mario. Luigi is immediately smitten with Daisy, so when she gets kidnapped and dragged into the other dimension by Koopa's goons so that he can use her to merge the dimensions and rule both worlds, the Marios follow and (spoilers!) eventually rescue her and overthrow Koopa (and as an added bonus, the Marios' unscrupulous plumbing rival gets turned into a chimpanzee in a suit).

So the story is nothing to write home about, but I think this is somewhat made up for by the texture and attention to detail in the world the movie presents, particularly if you're a Mario fanboy. The movie takes familiar ideas from the games and twists them in all sorts of interesting ways, like turning Toad into a street musician/political prisoner and Big Bertha (the giant red fish that can swallow you whole even if you're big (nmiaow)) into a large woman who tosses armed grannies off balconies. The Mario Bros. get their amazing jumping abilities from special mechanical shoes called Thwomp Stompers. Snifits drive garbage trucks, Bob-ombs wear Reeboks, and a Super Scope becomes a de-evolution gun. Plumbing, pipes, and mushrooms also figure prominently. Some of these interpretations may be a bit silly, but at least they're creative, and you can't accuse them of just cashing in on the Mario name with a generic action movie. Not everything works, but I give them an E for effort.

The downside is that the story is kind of a mess and the characters pretty flat, but again, that's true to the source material and I wasn't really expecting anything more, so it's hard to get upset about that. But the pace is quick, the setpieces are varied, and there's a whimsical score (as in music, not high score! ha ha because it's a video game movie, get it) and some funny lines.

It may not be great, but I think Super Mario Bros. is actually a cut above many of the other live-action kids' movies of its era in many ways. Its main problem is just a matter of expectations: if you go in expecting a faithful adaptation of the game, you're probably going to be disappointed (and it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect that, considering the movie's title). I'm not sure whom this movie was made for, but I think it's safe to say that it wasn't the majority of the people who saw it. But if you go in with an open mind, I think you'll find a fairly enjoyable "live-action thrill ride" that doesn't deserve the heaping helpings of scorn it continually receives. (It also helps if you're ten years old.)

Next time:
Sutorīto Faitā Tsū Mūbī
Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie)

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