Super Mario Bros. On The Big Screen: How It Can Work
Video game movies have had a rough go. Almost every film has been a critical and/or commercial failure. Off the top of my head, the only real successes in this niche have been Wreck-It Ralph and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. However, those are not adaptations, but rather films sharing the spirit of and inspired by their creators’ love of video games. Now that the long-rumored Super Mario movie is officially happening I thought it would be a great time to brainstorm on the possibilities, pitfalls, and potential of Nintendo’s flagship mascot returning to Hollywood. Could this be the film that finally breaks the video game movie curse!? Let’s-a-go!
Now, before we start getting into movie details and content, I think it best to start with a quick round-up of where everything currently stands with both Nintendo and Illumination Entertainment, who will be developing the film. Both companies are going to have very specific roles in the creation of this movie, so let’s set the record straight.
Nintendo and Miyamoto Are Running The Show
Let’s get this one out of the way since I know fans are a bit underwhelmed at the fact that Illumination Entertainment is co-developing the film. Nintendo and Miyamoto, as Executive Producer, have full carte blanche to give the ‘OK’ or veto any ideas Illumination brings to the table. This isn’t a case of Nintendo simply licensing out their IP and letting Illumination run wild with it. In fact, that is what happened with the 1993 live-action Super Mario Bros. movie, and why it ended up (amongst many other things) the disaster that it did and kept Nintendo out of the movie business for 25 years. That said, Miyamoto is also directly involved with the script. While that could mean we are going to get the simplest of stories—given Miyamoto’s well documented lack of interest in story with Mario games—it also means we won’t get something that strays too far, if at all, from the source material. Also evident is the fact that Miyamoto understands that movies and games are different mediums, so I think we can count on a story that’s a bit more engrossing than the traditional Mario platformer.
Illumination Entertainment Is The Right Choice
I realize this may be an unpopular opinion, but Nintendo aligning themselves with Illumination is a great call. The biggest complaint against them are the Minions characters from Despicable Me and Minions. People find their nonsensical voices/noises and giggles grating, and there over-reliance on slapstick and potty humor to be the low hanging fruit of comedy. While I can agree with those criticisms on some level, more so the latter, there’s no denying that kids love it and it sells. Minions is most guilty being that they stretched their gimmick into a feature-length film. For me, they were an entertaining part of the Despicable Me trilogy since the focus wasn’t squarely on them.
If you are a Nintendo fan, you know that they haven’t really embraced voice acting in their games, and when they have the results, in my humble opinion, have varied from good or decent (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild) to downright poor (looking at you Bowser from Super Mario Sunshine). The fact is, Nintendo has almost exclusively represented their characters voices with little grunts, huffs, laughs, single words and other assorted noises. Hmmm… Sound familiar?
Clearly, we cannot build this movie and develop a plot around Mario and friends where everyone is spewing sentence fragments and nonsense. More importantly, Mario already has an iconic voice actor, Charles Martinet, who has been voicing him (as well as Luigi, Wario & Waluigi) since Super Mario 64. I sure as hell do not want to see them start casting celebrities to voice our heroes and the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom. Their voices have remained largely unchanged after all of this time and it would be extremely off-putting to hear different voices coming from them. By the same token, 90-minutes of Charles Martinet voicing full-on dialogue for Mario would be grating. The most likely case, is that Mario will have some sort of proxy, as he often does in the games, that will speak for him and deliver exposition. This will be Illuminations chance to add some original characters to the film. There are some great examples of this tactic that I will get into more below.
Illumination already has a clear style to emulate from Nintendo, both with the characters’ personalities, as well as with the visual style. The chances that the artstyle is going to deviate from the look it’s had for the last 20 years are slim to none. I don’t think there’s need to worry about redesigns. Say what you will about the way Illumination handles its’ characters or stories, but I believe all of their films are home to some beautiful animation.
The majority of what we know of Mario, Luigi, Peach and gang come from their physicality and expressions. The most recent entry in the mainline Mario series Super Mario Odyssey has done a really great job, through some cool cutscenes and fantastic animation, of giving Mario more of an identity. His happy-go-lucky personality is ever-present, but I feel he has also gained some new layers; Brave, determined, selfless, and vulnerable come to mind. He possesses the true spirit of an adventurer, and really represents the best inside all of us. Even Peach, although serving her usual (and disappointing) ‘damsel in distress’ role, is given a little bit of spunk, sassiness, and independence this time around, evident in the final cutscene and during the post-campaign endgame.
Lest we forget Green Mario, er, Luigi. Since the first Luigi’s Mansion hit on the Gamecube in 2001, Luigi has become so much more than a palette swap for Mario. In it, the Green Plumber essentially becomes Nintendo’s version of a Ghostbuster, who is deathly (pun intended) afraid of ghosts, and has to save his brother Mario. Thus began the trend of representing Luigi as a much more reluctant hero than his older brother, as well as a hero in his own right. Luigi had effectively been designated the scared, goofy comic relief, or jester if you will. Still, Luigi’s Mansion and it’s fantastic sequel Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, while making him a punchline, keep him endearing. Who knows if this would be considered canon, but Luigi also featured in the Super Smash Bros. series where his strange moveset added the layer of him being a full-on weirdo.
I’ve only begun to scratch the service here as far as the challenges and opportunities Nintendo and Illumination have with this movie. Luckily, there are more than a few examples that have done a fantastic job addressing many of the details I’ve just gone over. That said, I want to focus on just one game which offers the best path to follow.
Super Mario RPG: Legend Of The Seven Stars
Developed by Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) and released in 1996 late in the Super Nintendo’s life-cycle, Super Mario RPG is one of the most beloved games of all-time and one of my personal favorites. This game has been the inspiration and blueprint for all future Mario role-playing entries, like the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series’. Consequently, it is also a fantastic example of something Nintendo and Illumination can adapt or, at the very least, draw from for their upcoming movie.
Super Mario RPG is full of firsts for the entire Mario series. For starters, by the very nature of it being in the RPG (Role-Playing Game) genre, it actually has a story compared to its’ previous and future Mario entries in the platformer genre. If you’ve played the game, you know that it starts out with the classic “Bowser kidnapped the Princess, go save her,” but quickly subverts your expectations and continues to do so throughout the adventure. From the get-go, Princess Toadstool (she didn’t get the “Peach” moniker until Super Mario 64) is kidnapped by Bowser and brought to his castle. Mario quickly bursts out of his home and heads there to face his nemesis and rescue the Princess. After battling his way through Bowser’s minions and into what is essentially his throne room, Mario comes face-to-face with King Koopa himself and an epic battle begins atop two giant chandeliers—Princess Toadstool dangling from a rope in the middle. Our hero and villain trade blows for a bit, with Mario, being the resourceful guy he is, getting the upper-hand by attacking the chain holding up Bowsers’ chandelier sending him plummeting to the ground. Just as Mario and the Princess are about to celebrate their victory a huge sword-creature comes from the sky, striking right through Bowser’s keep and sending all three flying out of the castle. Hell of a way to start a story!
As the story continues, it morphs into a grand adventure involving our intrepid plumber, some new friends, and unexpected allies on a search for Seven Stars that were separated from the “Star Road.” You see, this “Star Road” is what grants wishes for people all over Mario’s world, and without it, his world would be one where dreams do not come true! The sword-creature that struck and subsequently took over Bowser’s castle is named Exor, and is also the one who destroyed the Star Road. Exor is actually a minion of a trans-dimensional being named Smithy, who has sent his army to collect the same stars from the now destroyed Star Road to take over the world. While this story unfolds, on average, over anywhere from 10-20 hours of gameplay, and we have 90-120 mins of runtime for a movie it is overall a pretty straight-forward, family-friendly plot that would be perfect for an animated movie with some smart edits.
This game holds the honors of being the first to develop Mario’s world outside of the Mushroom Kingdom in a meaningful way. For example, we get to see that Mario has an actual house (dubbed the “Pipe House”) just outside of Mushroom Kingdom proper and is located between there and Bowser’s Keep. Pretty convenient location considering what takes up a lot of his time. We also get to meet the many other species aside from the Toad’s like the the Mole-folk of Moleville, the fluffy cloud people of Nimbus Land, and even a town of reformed monsters and former minions of Bowser’s called Monstro Town. Not only does this give you a sense of place, but also succeeds in making you care about the larger world outside of the Mushroom Kingdom, especially with what is at stake. Squaresoft created some truly unique, memorable locales to explore, that still felt like they could exist in Mari’s world. Illumination would do well to emulate that.
The Supporting Cast
Your party in Super Mario RPG consists of some familiar faces and some new, original ones. There are a litany of new characters created by Squaresoft, mainly in the enemy category and of which there are some truly fun, zany ones (Honorable Mentions to Bowyer, Punchinello, and Booster). For me to analyze all of them would turn this article into a novel, so I want to focus on the party characters specifically.
Let us begin with the first character to aid Mario on his journey, Mallow. He’s the cute ‘Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man’ you see in the above image. His backstory is simple, yet effective. The story goes that he was separated from his parents shortly after birth, found by a giant frog, named Frogfucius, and raised as his own. Thus, Mallow grows up thinking he is a tadpole/frog, though peculiarly has weather-based magic powers, most evident in that when he gets upset and cries (which happens quite a bit), it rains. The truth is he is the prince of Nimbus Land and part of a race of cloud-people, who are being duped by a former aide-to-the-royal-throne-turned-usurper, Valentina. Mallow’s story is a very well-developed and emotional side plot that ties in perfectly to the main adventure. He’s essentially the “heart” of the story. Despite being reunited with his true family and people about three-quarters through the adventure, he is extremely loyal to Mario and stays with him through the final confrontation with Smithy.
Next, we have Geno. Geno shows up about mid-way through our adventure, and is probably the bigger fan-favorite compared to Mallow. He’s the one in the above image wearing a blue hood and cape, who sort of looks like a wooden marionette. Geno’s true form is that of a “star-being,” but uses a young toad named Gaz’s doll as his vessel when in Mario’s world. Having come from the same “Star Road” Mario and friends are trying to save, he delivers a lot of the exposition and background to their adventure that they otherwise wouldn’t understand.
Another pair of firsts that Super Mario RPG gets credit for is Bowser being not only playable, but also an ally to Mario. After being thrown from his castle along with Mario and the Princess, he can be found around the world rounding up any remaining goombas, magikoopas, and the like to try and get his castle back. Each time Mario encounters him he has a dwindling number of troops, making it clear he is not succeeding. Eventually, Mario comes upon him alone at Booster’s Tower crying. Bowser quickly masks how upset he is and after realizing they have a similar goal “allows” Mario, Mallow, and Geno to join the Koopa Troop, which is his way of asking for help without admitting it. The game actually does quite a bit in the way of characterizing and humanizing Bowser beyond being evil for evil’s sake. He is shown as emotionally complex with traits of insecurity, pride, and narcissism. I should also mention there is a hilarious weapon for him called “Hurly Gloves,” which involves him picking up Mario and tossing him at enemies as a projectile. Again, the game subverts expectations and presents a much more interesting version of the character.
Last, but not least, we arrive at Princess Toadstool. While the odd-ball Super Mario Bros. 2 on the NES gets the honors of being the first game to make the Princess playable, Super Mario RPG is the first to develop her as a character. As I mentioned earlier, the game starts out by once again making her a helpless victim. However, after the second rescue attempt by Mario is successful, we see that Toadstool is more than just a face for the throne. Toadstool is extremely bad-ass! She has her grandmother disguise herself to look like the Princess and take her place, while she parachutes (umbrellas?) her way out of her castle to join Mario and the gang on the remainder of their adventure. The Princess is a willing participant, even putting Bowser in his place a few times. We see she is a noble ruler and would do anything to protect her kingdom. After this game it’s a shame she returned to just sitting around baking cakes for Mario and waiting to be captured by Bowser again. Just writing that reeks of misogyny.
There is still one character we haven’t talked about though and that is Mario himself. I’d like to begin with the fact that literally every character in this game has dialogue, except for Mario. The game explains this straight-away with a very tongue-in-cheek reason that could possibly work for the film—he’s giving everyone the silent treatment due to the events that have unfolded. While that may seem silly, it actually helps provide much of the humor in the game. The game uses this device to have Mario pantomime his thoughts and physically explain things, rather than through dialogue. This is also why I focused on the main part characters from the game, because while Mario talking constantly in the movie may be a bit odd, the supporting original characters, or really anyone other than Mario can speak for him. Throughout the game the other characters also get in on the “charades” type storytelling and it all brings a slapstick comedy vibe. I’m sure Nintendo mandated that Mario doesn’t speak, and so Squaresoft got creative and it paid off.
Mario is heavily characterized by his interactions with the world and characters. Just about every character, relative to the plot or not, knows who Mario is. His mustache and jumping prowess are referenced several times throughout the adventure, with some characters forcing the player to hit the “jump” button to prove he’s really The Super Mario. This all goes a long way to give Mario and the world he lives in a history and an acknowledgment of all of his past adventures. Mario is the hero and personification of joy. His reputation and mustache precede him.
Hopefully I’ve done a good job of illustrating the awesome things this game does with its’ story, world and characters that would apply to the development of the forthcoming movie. Unfortunately, a direct adaptation of this game is probably unlikely due to the fact that I believe Square-Enix owns the rights to all of the original characters and even the story. Unless Nintendo wants to incorporate Square-Enix into the deal and buy the rights, which would mean less profit for Nintendo, it’s not going to happen. We can only hope both Nintendo and Illumination look to this title, or a spiritual successor like the excellent Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga when writing the script. Despite my love for Paper Mario and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, I think the first entry in the Mario & Luigi series better reflects the elements needed for a movie. I also think the Paper Mario series succeeds, because of it’s creativity and style revolving around the “paper-craft” aspect and since I don’t see them going this route for the first animated Mario movie, I’d hate to see them use the story without the charm.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but my dream if this new Super Mario Movie does well, would be for them to follow up with a Luigi’s Mansion film. Oh, and Nintendo, if you’re reading this: Where’s my Luigi’s Mansion 3 for Switch!?
Brett is a passionate, excitable and avid consumer of Comics, Movies, TV and Video Games. He has an extensive background in acting, directing, producing and music composition. He's also a lifelong gamer and die-hard Nintendo fan. You can catch him audibly every Monday & Tuesday on 'The Play It LOUDcast' @PlayItLoudRTF and 'The Revengers' @TheRevengersPOD respectively. Talk to him on Twitter @btmiro