Illumination is making an animated Super Mario Bros. movie, but it'll need to achieve certain things in order to do justice to the video games. In 1993, at a time when video games were relatively new art form and cinematic adaptations of them a mere concept, a film version of the iconic Super Mario Bros. franchise was released. Despite an impressive cast and big budget, the Super Mario Bros. movie was a critical and commercial disaster, one that its star, Bob Hoskins, considered the worst film of his career. The movie kick-started the supposed video game movie curse and left Nintendo extremely hesitant about letting Hollywood adapt more of their games.
Indeed, despite the growing field of video game adaptations – from Doom to Assassin’s Creed, and Tomb Raider to Castlevania – Nintendo’s output has been notably absent from the big and small screens. Until now, that is. This week, Illumination founder Chris Meledandri revealed that their Super Mario Bros. movie is a priority for them. It was first reported in January that a Super Mario Bros. movie was in development with the studio, but now it's clear how far into development the film adaptation is. Meledrandri, the producer of mega hits such as Despicable Me and The Secret Life of Pets, said that he took on the challenge because it's an opportunity to make a proper adaptation of Super Mario Bros., which hasn't been done before.
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While Illumination’s output has its fair share of critics, the studio have a strong track record of establishing new franchises and having them make a lot of money. With a Super Nintendo Land in development at Universal Studios, it makes sense for a Universal-owned company to be making the movie. But it’s also an interesting route in purely creative terms for a Super Mario Bros. movie.
1993 Super Mario Bros Movie Shouldn't Have Happened
The 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie is one of Hollywood's most curious follies. Released in the same year as Jurassic Park and directed by the duo who created the short-lived television series Max Headroom, the film takes the sweet and simple style of the Mario games and turns them into a hellish dystopia full of oddly horrifying imagery. The games are full of adorable mushroom characters, so the film translates that by having endless amounts of dripping fungi throughout. The games' main villain, King Koopa (aka Bowser), is a giant turtle-like monster with a distinctive look; in the Super Mario Bros. film, he's played by Dennis Hopper in full Frank Booth-mode from Blue Velvet. While the film is visually interesting, it makes absolutely no sense why a Super Mario Bros. story should take its stylistic inspirations more from Blade Runner and late 1980s cyberpunk fiction than the games themselves.
Super Mario Bros. seems embarrassed to even be a Super Mario Bros. film, with every creative and story direction made from an apparent desire to distance themselves from ever being called a video game movie (long before that was a problem). Ultimately, its biggest problem is that it’s not fun. The characters aren’t the joyful and lovable figures from the games, the settings are drab and lack the exciting vibrancy, and there’s no sense of real action or movement that captures the speedy thrills of those early games. While it’s understandable why the film wasn’t animated in the first place, Super Mario Bros. is still a story that would have been best served by the cartoon medium.
Why Animation Can Save The New Super Mario Bros Movie
While technology has vastly improved since 1993 and CGI could accommodate the filmmaking requirements of a live-action Super Mario Bros. story, the games still feel best suited for animation. There have been various animated Mario stories over the years but nothing on the bigger scale that Illumination can provide. The world of Mario is so distinctive that much of the required work in translating it to cinema has already been done by newer games like Super Mario Odyssey, a game that is, itself, visually sumptuous and inherently cinematic. The aesthetic is already great, so why mess with it and risk a repeat of the 1993 film?
Still, that’s not to say there isn’t anything unique left for Illumination to do. They can expand upon the characters and riff on the now iconic “Princess Peach gets kidnapped by Bowser again” narrative that’s as much a part of the Super Mario Bros. franchise as the mushrooms are. The plots are so well-known that any movie adaptation could put story second to sheer visual flair, and that would especially suit a Super Mario Bros. movie. There’s so much to take advantage of in the game, from the acrobatic movements of the characters to the brotherly relationship between Mario and Luigi, not to mention the immensely appealing side characters (no doubt Illumination will be eyeing up one of those figures to be their next Minions in terms of marketing and merchandising appeal). None of this would work in live-action, at least without heavy, heavy CGI.
So much of the work in making a Super Mario Bros. movie has been laid out by decades of games and their evolution through time and technological advances. Fans know what they want from an adaptation and so do the developers, as evidenced by the way the games have shifted to be more cinematic. Illumination would be foolish not to take advantage of that and to just give everyone what they desire.