Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
An alarmingly in-depth look at the 1993 suck-fest Super Mario Brothers and how it could have been a cult classic instead of the bane of Bob Hoskins’ existence.
The 1993 bomb Super Mario Brothers could’ve been a Krull by emulating The Princess Bride.
Before you choke on the geekiness of that opening sentence, let me back up and explain what I mean by first talking about Peter Yates’ 1983 fantasy epic Krull, a movie whose logline must have looked like someone tossed Star Wars, Indiana Jones and The Lord of the Rings into a plot-randomizing wood-chipper.
The storyline follows a series of archtypes and tropes from the canon of high fantasy – a beast called the Beast lands on planet Krull with plans to conquer it. Various mayhem induces the movie’s hero (Ken Marshall, square-jawed and flavorless) to recruit a bunch of brigands to help him overthrow the Beast and rescue his beloved. For some reason, the Beast’s stormtroopers look like hyper-evolved tulips and shoot lasers.
Most people don’t understand fantasy and science-fiction, and the fault for that belongs exclusively to the purveyors of fantasy and science-fiction. Here’s the deal: Fantasy and sci-fi suffer from the same problem that all genre fiction suffers from: There are countless, endless hacks who are all trying to emulate the genre’s reigning monarch. In fantasy, the hacks try to emulate Tolkien. In science-fiction, the hacks try to emulate Herbert, Heinlein, Clarke or Asimov. In romance, the hacks try to emulate Austen. I’m not familiar with westerns, but I suspect it suffers from the same problem.
I realize I’m over-generalizing about the state of genre fiction, but my greater point is this: Hacks ruin genre fiction and genre moviemaking for the rest of us by being fucking amateurs. I think of it like this: There’s a school of thought among shitty, community-theater-level actors that Americans have to perform Shakespeare in an English accent. It’s a dim-witted, bald assertion that is based on nothing besides an affection for how cool Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh sound doing Shakespeare. It certainly doesn’t spring from the evidence. Few records exist that tell us what people sounded like during Shakespeare’s time, but they almost certainly didn’t sound like modern Britons, but even if they did, the question remains: Which British accent would you choose for a Shakespeare performance? Should you adopt an Italian accent when performing Much Ado About Nothing?
The analogous problem in genre fiction is the notion that detail is synonymous with artistry. A subset of Tolkien fans are the guiltiest of this idiocy, harping on the importance of every detail in Tolkien’s primary and ancillary texts. Peter Jackson and his creative team found this out firsthand when they adapted Tolkien’s text for the screen and made a slew of brave changes that augmented, amplified or otherwise repaired Tolkien’s text.
That’s a long way to say that a lot of no-talent idiots get into genre fiction. It makes for a dearth of good material for genre filmmakers to draw from, but even worse, it makes it hard for good filmmakers and smart audience members to take genre fiction seriously, even when good material comes along.
But Peter Yates made Krull into a successful cult classic by committing to every goofy detail in its script and casting actors who would do the same. Stars Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane make early career appearances, and stalwart character actor Alun Armstrong delivers the movie’s best performance as the lead brigand. David Lynch regular Freddie Jones shows up to bluster his way through the Obi-Wan Kenobi role. There aren’t many clips of this classic online, but here’s a memorable scene with Freddie Jones and Francesca Annis, who was central casting for “breathy classical actress” in the late 70s and early 80s. Oh, she also appeared in Lynch’s Dune with Jones:
Krull works not only because everyone involved commits to every detail in the script, no matter how goofy it is, but mostly because it knows what it wants to be. Krull wants to be a grand fantasy, and it succeeds, largely due to Yates’ light touch with the performers, some great location shooting and the Glaive (the spinning, razor-sharp starfish weapon that appears on all the posters).
To put it mildly, Super Mario Brothers (SMB) doesn’t know what it wants to be.
The basic idea is fine: Make a movie based on a video game, but unlike more successful video game adaptations, the imagery in the original SMB video game was too abstract to offer a filmmaker a sure course to a successful movie. Most games today are interactive movies, and as they get better and better, so to do their cinematic counterparts. Mortal Kombat borrowed from the Enter the Dragon script and wound up with a surprisingly satisfying hit, and the rich imagery in the game Silent Hill made for a memorable, if uneven, movie.
But short of making an airheaded, Teletubbies-level kids’ movie, the creative team behind SMB had to take a trippy Japanese video game and find something to do with it. To wit, here are some of the chief images from the game:
• The Mario brothers. Two Italian plumbers perpetually in overalls and peril.
• The Mushroom kingdom. A land filled with floating platforms, whirling fireblades and giant standpipes. It’s also apparently paved with bricks from horizon to horizon.
• Goombas. Evil mushrooms that wander menacingly in your direction.
• Koopas. Evil turtles that either menacingly wander or hop in your direction, always with the same gawk-eyed, just-got-jabbed-in-the-ass-with-a-pitchfork stare.
You get the idea. It’s the usual jumble of random images that goes into many classic Japanese games (see the other Super Mario Bros. games, Sonic the Hedgehog, etc.). Adapting any of these kooky games into a mainstream American movie would be tough – it’s not like a Hollywood studio could go and make a live-action Anime cartoon (with all of the inherent insanity that comes with genre) and spring it on an unsuspecting American public. No, the creative team charged with turning SMB into a movie had concoct a feature-length story (from the flimsy “save the princess” conceit built into the game), justify the game’s imagery, and most important, they had to decide on a tone for the movie.
The creative team for SMB actually managed to pull off the first two tasks, but they couldn’t settle on a tone for the movie. I’ll get to that in a moment – it’s the thrust of my essay – but in the meantime, I’d like to mention what this movie does well. Let’s go point by point: feature-length story, justification of imagery, and tone.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.