The trailer for the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog movie brings back some unwanted memories of the disastrous Super Mario Bros. adaptation. Much has been written on the seemingly endless conundrum that is the video game movie. In the several decades that gaming has been an industry, there have been attempts to turn its most popular titles into films. Yet none of them seem to have risen above the level of "just kind of OK." Even today, with filmmaking technology more advanced than ever and games themselves further embracing cinematic storytelling, directors are still struggling to crack the code.
The recent Sonic the Hedgehog trailer, Paramount’s upcoming re-imagining of one of video game history’s most iconic mascots, didn’t seem to win over any cynical minds. If the studio were hoping to shake off the mockery and memes that the posters and leaked images had inspired then the trailer was less than successful in that regard.
The film, to be released on November 8, is a live-action and CGI blend with a majority human cast that follows the eponymous hedgehog's journey on Earth as he tries to stop the world domination plans of his nemesis Dr. Robotnik, played by Jim Carrey. Ben Schwartz, best known as Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation, voices Sonic, while Westworld star James Marsden plays the police officer who aids him in his adventures.
In a year where audiences have been surprisingly won over by the marketing campaign for Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, there’s something oddly retro and archaic about the Sonic trailer. It looks like a throwback to the 1990s, iffy effects and all, a matter not helped by perhaps the most inexplicable music cue in any trailer of this year, Coolio’s "Gangsta’s Paradise". What the trailer seemed to remind audiences of the most was the Super Mario Bros. movie, and that’s not a good thing.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie Is A Legendary Flop
The 1993 Hollywood big screen adaptation of Super Mario Bros. is a legendary bad movie. The film was such a critical and commercial disaster that it essentially killed off any future possibilities of further adaptations of Nintendo games. Star Bob Hoskins declared it to be "the worst thing I ever did" (via The Guardian), and co-director Rocky Morton described the film as a "harrowing" experience (via Nintendo Life). Morton and co-director Annabel Jankel were best known as music video directors and the co-creators of the cyberpunk character Max Headroom, and their plan for the film was to create a pseudo-prequel of sorts that told the "true story" behind the lore of the series.
This approach led to some curious story changes: the Mushroom Kingdom became a dystopian hellscape more inspired by Blade Runner than Nintendo, one where its inhabitants had descended from dinosaurs rather than apes; the adorable talking mushrooms of the game became dripping fungi while the Goombas were turned into horrifying henchmen with tiny lizard heads and gigantic bodies; Bowser/King Koopa was played by Dennis Hopper as if he was filming a Blue Velvet sequel; and Mario and Luigi were now Brooklyn plumbers who fell into a different dimension created by the meteorite that killed off all the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
While Super Mario Bros. has a minor cult fanbase, mainly of those who grew up with it, the film is still widely considered to be the nadir of video game adaptations. It grossed $20.9 million from a $48 million budget and ensured that talk of another Mario movie would not become serious for close to 25 years (Universal Pictures and Illumination plan to make an animated Mario movie, with a tentative 2022 release date).
The film became the blueprint for what not to do when adapting a video game. Even though Super Mario Bros. is an absolutely fascinating film in how utterly inexplicable every choice made for it is, it’s tough to watch in terms of understanding or enjoying the source material. It tries so hard to adhere to the recognizable elements of the game – the plumber brothers, the pipes, the mushrooms, the dinosaurs – but then feels the need to make all of those things “edgy”. What is lively and colorful in the games becomes bleak and unnerving on film. Somehow, Super Mario Bros. is simultaneously the work of someone who seems to love and hate the games.
How the Sonic Movie Risks Becoming the New Mario Bros.
What stands out as problematic about the Sonic the Hedgehog trailer is how eager it seems to run away from the elements of the game and players actually like. The classic Sonic games are defined by their vibrant locations, full of colors and geographical twists. The film, for some reason, moves almost everything to our world, free of loops and jump pads and that iconic visual flair. Nothing in it looks all that much like a Sonic story, including Sonic himself. Much has been made about the oddness of Sonic's design, from the human eyes to the uncanny valley nature of his body shape, and the trailer only exacerbates those issues, as well as adding further fuel to the fire of nightmares (why does Sonic have human teeth?) It seems hard to believe that such a design made it out of the pre-production brainstorming sessions. The only element of the trailer that feels befitting of the material is Jim Carrey hamming it up as Dr. Robotnik, and that only adds to the ‘90s nature of everything that inspired Super Mario Bros. comparisons in the first place.
Of course, it’s tough to judge a film based solely on the trailer, but given how the things the studio wants to emphasize through its marketing are elements that have little to nothing to do with the games, it’s not hard to make further comparisons between Sonic and the doomed Mario movie. It seems like a film running as fast as possible from the source material, only stopping to throw in a few visual and audio cues like the rings.
Sonic lore is strange and often kind of inexplicable but at least it’s unique and offers enough of a structural foundation to tell an interesting story on the big screen. Yet we see none of that in this trailer, only uninspired tropes that can be found in any old movie. Video game movies typically struggle to capture the kinetic joy of actually playing a game, but the very least a Sonic film could do is feel propulsive in its action and offer some stunning visuals. The last thing a Sonic movie should be aiming for is gritty realism, a lesson that should have been learned in a post-Super Mario Bros. world. What a Sonic the Hedgehog movie desperately needs to do is enjoy its source material.
- Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) release date: Feb 14, 2020