Video games have not always proven to be the finest movies. In fact, the relationship is almost perfectly inverted. The better the game that inspires the film, the worse the film turns out.
When we were young and naive in the early days of the 90s, we didn’t know better than to shrug and forgive, even after industry-wide jokes like the Super Mario Bros. in 1993. People can make mistakes, we thought. We hadn’t yet seen Transformers. We didn’t truly understand Hollywood. Today, we’re a little smarter than that. We hope.
A History of Failures
We know that we should be suspicious of movies based on video game properties. We know that, if it’s a Resident Evil movie, Milla Jovovich will do improbably stop motion gymnastics while shooting evil monsters right in their brain parts. Expectations have generally cooled, after multiple abortive attempts to capture the magic of the latest gaming hit on the big screen, several years after the peak of the property’s popularity and including about a third of the things that define the inspiring game. There’s no shortage of terrible video game adaptations. And whether Sonic or Detective Pikachu is labeled the Bad Movie About the Anthropomorphic Mascot of a Popular Video Game Franchise, we can at least know that the eventual loser will be far from alone.
Infuriatingly, this film, the poster child for a ruinously bad video game adaptation is in fact still considered canon. Of course, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Waluigi’s uncircumcised member is also a proud member of the official Nintendo Brand Mario Universe lore, for some reason. So maybe we have greater respect for the “story” of the Mario games than the creator’s do.
After all, there was hardly anything like a cohesive narrative across the first few games. They were more like retellings of the same story than some kind of extended universe. But that’s what made the Super Mario Bros movie such an exciting film. It represented the confirmation by Hollywood that video games were a big deal, and an amazing film might have touched off a generation of clever adaptations of classic games.
But it was not to be. The film barely scratched the bottom of the feet of our expectations, and it established a triumvirate of terrible video game adaptation harbingers.
1. Pointless, Awful Details
The movie answered some of our questions, like “What’s Mario’s Surname?” Mario. His name is Mario Mario. And his brother is Luigi Ma… you know what, never mind. Apart from ruining the canon, the film famously offered some of the grosser scenes in video game adaptation franchise history, really leaning into the whole “plumber” part of the Mario routine. Which, let’s be frank, is definitely the least important part of the MCU: the Mario Cinematic Universe.
In fact, Mario only became a plumber in Super Mario Bros. by accident. Mario’s job was typically assigned based on the game he was in: in Donkey Kong, Mario was a carpenter; owing to Super Mario Bros. many sewer pipes, he’s a plumber. So the basis of the film wasn’t exactly A Song of Ice and Fire.
The models and creature design fails to deliver even more spectacularly. For a game with tons of fantastical elements, Super Mario Bros the movie roundly failed to deliver on any of the charm or heart found in the video games. The creature designs have absolutely nothing in common with the in-game models, putting turtle-shaped Koppas in giant red greatcoats like Russian oligarchs. Topping that wreck with a Q-tip of a noggin was just adding insult to the already fatal injury to the film’s credibility.
2. Needlessly Convoluted Story
It didn’t really help that that Mario lore was paper-thin, to begin with. Let’s consider the amount of “narrative” in the first Mario game. Most of the storytelling actually happens in the manual, which old school gamers will remember often contained not only crucial gameplay guides, but additional features like story documents or concept art. This was before a story was something every game needed to have, you see. There was a time, hard though it may be to believe, when we didn’t need to know the individual dark desires of each Angry Bird.
The story for Super Mario Bros. can be summarized with the manual text:
One day the kingdom of the peaceful mushroom people was invaded by the Koopa, a tribe of turtles famous for their black magic. The quiet, peace-loving Mushroom People were turned into mere stones, bricks and even field horse-hair plants, and the Mushroom Kingdom fell into ruin.
The only one who can undo the magic spell on the Mushroom People and return them to their normal selves is the Princess Toadstool, the daughter of the Mushroom King. Unfortunately, she is presently in the hands of the great Koopa turtle king.
Mario, the hero of the story (maybe) hears about the Mushroom People’s plight and sets out on a quest to free the Mushroom Princess from the evil Koopa and restore the fallen kingdom of the Mushroom People.
You are Mario! It’s up to you to save the Mushroom People from the black magic of the Koopa!
So, some turtle demons took to the princess, and you, Mario, need to go steal her back! Watch out for the “black magic” (?) of the Koopas. Notably absent is Mario’s status as a plumber, his brother Luigi, and his Italian heritage, features that would come to define Mario in canon.
Basically, none of that outline made it to the movie. Instead, it was packed with this anti-corporate morality tale set in a parallel universe that, visually, has more in common with Blade Runner than Mario. Toad is a laid-back hippie guitarist. Daisy is from a parallel universe and was raised in a Catholic orphanage, so now Mario has the implicit backing of the Catholic Church, probably. King Koopa has transformed into a germophobic, obsessive-compulsive dictator with dinosaur ancestors. It’s basically the plot of a completely unrelated movie that someone painted with Super Mario Bros colors so they could maybe make a few more dollars on release. And boy, does it show.
3. Ruinously Bad Acting
There is not a single actor in the whole of Super Mario Bros that isn’t taking everything very seriously. Perhaps too seriously. Perhaps veering into camp seriously? It’s the kind of movie where you wonder if the actors knew that what they were making was doomed to be terrible.
Like Tim Curry chuckling through his line as his character blasts off into “SPAYHACE!” at the end of Red Alert, did the actors begin to lean into the absurdity as protection went on? We wouldn’t want to speculate. But we can confidently state that no one in this movie appears to be doing their best work. It’s not just that the story is outlandish and everything looks terrible: the acting is deadly mediocre. You can fix “confusing,” but “boring?” That’s not so easily remedied.
There For the Grace of God…
The frank truth is this: as smug as we are from the comfortable perch of the future, how much better can we truly say Sonic is? The franchise storyline is about as complex and twisted as a modern superhero’s storyline. I doubt if there’s a single universe for all the lore, and if there is, who knows what’s truly canon and what’s actually forgotten. The Sonic movie could finally establish a fascinating universe for Sonic and his pals to inhabit. Or, it could be Sonic Forces, coming to theatres near you. There’s only one way to find out.
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