Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023).

It's been a while, yet I can still recall the first time I saw the old boy.  During the Christmas holidays way back in 1991, I remember my parents were very eager for my sister an me to take an interest in one gift in particular.  It was the first time I'd ever seen a Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and I think it says a lot about my credibility as a non-gamer that I didn't even know what to make of it.  I'm not lying about not being much of a gamer, by the way.  I was a child of the 80s, yet since I was born the year George Orwell made famous, a lot of my time was spent in watching the decade unfold from the sidelines.  That means while I occasionally came within reach of video game arcades, I think I was just too young to even know what to do with or about any of them.  Besides, the few memories of have of trips to Chuck E. Cheese's can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and there are only two or three that I recall with any great clarity.  

The clearest part of all those memories is the same thing.  Those stage animatronics belting out Bruce Springsteen's cover version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  Like I said, it was a long time ago, and I was just a kid back then.  One of those 80s brats whose attention is more concerned with questions of greater importance, such as whether an animated talking mouse can relocate his family on the streets of New York.  Or whether a manchild by the name of Paul Reubens will ever get his favorite bike back.

So by the time I first set eyes on a familiar plumbing expert from Brooklyn, it was kind of an unexpected arrival.  In addition to the Super Nintendo, my parents had also bought me and my sister a copy of a cartridge game to go along with it.  I can still recall the the box art imprinted on it.  A little man in blue work overalls, a red shirt and cap, riding on a slightly clever looking cartoon lizard.  The game was called Super Mario World, and the punchline here will forever be at my expense.  You see, the joke is that rather than being ecstatic at the prospect of being perhaps one of the few kids on the block to own what was turning out to be a real paradigm shift in the history of video games, I at first thought I just couldn't be bothered.  Now that I've painted a target on my head, let me go on assure everyone here that I soon fell victim to the game's charms.  My parents kept insisting I play it, probably more out of a concern for not throwing away hard earned income, more than anything, and it wasn't long before I was soon joining my sister in the antics of the most famous gaming mascot of all time.  That was really my big breakthrough with the character, though it wasn't my first ever encounter with him.

I'd known at least something of the Mario Bros. series of games long before this.  Mostly, however, it was limited to the occasional commercial I might have caught during the golden age of 80s and 90s TV.  In fact, the first time I ever saw the old intrepid savior of damsel's in distress was on an episode of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood if you can believe it.  If you can't, then here's a clip to prove I'm not lying.  That was literally the first time I'd ever heard of a game called Donkey Kong, and the cast and crew of the console that would all go on to become legends in their own right.  It's also in retrospect that it was the first time I ever saw the cinema legend now known simply as Keith David, yet that's another story.  The point is there goes my initial contact with the world of Nintendo's flagship franchise.  The next time I caught up with plumber from down under, he was now joined by his younger brother Luigi.  It was as part of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show.  And right about now, most of you have the Plumber Rap stuck in your heads.  Wallow in it 80s kids!  We never knew just how good we had it.  

So, yeah, like a lot of the rest of us, I got to witness a few episodes, here and there.  Not much.  In fact, I think I've only ever caught one or two in my lifetime.  However what I did manage to see impressed me enough to the point where I was frustrated by my inability to catch the show again.  That's the real reason I never got into the whole deal more than anything else.  I could just never really locate the show's schedule times.  I think I must have had the bad luck to catch each TV incarnation of the character during the tail ends of the run on the airwaves.  Once those offerings ceased to make appearances, all of us had to wait until the coming of DVD and digital media if we ever wanted to catch a rerun.  And so it goes.  As a result, while it piqued my curiosity, I never really had the chance in my household to ever sort "get into it" like everyone else.  Which at least helps explain my initial lukewarm reception to Super Mario World turning up on my doorstep.  I mean when you're a kid, life goes by pretty fast, even if it seems like aeons, and there was a lot more back then to distract yourself with.

Still, playing that game was enough to rekindle my initial enthusiasm, for a time, at least.  After I finally beat the game, I followed it up with Mario Kart, and then I think it was Super Mario All-Stars, which is where I got re-acquainted with all the others games in the series up to that point.  The last entry in the SNES series that I ever bothered with was Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars, back in 1996.  It was a time that is remarkably distant, yet seems just like yesterday, looking back on it now.  Oh yeah, and then there was the Bob Hoskins adaptation with Dennis Hopper as Bowser in 93.  It's one of those films I can recall not minding all that much as a kid.  In my memory, it seems to share a lot of similarities with shows like The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, if that's anything.  Apparently, however, it wasn't as far as most of the fans are concerned to this day.  And I've got to admit, looking at the film now, it all just falls apart if you give the setup so much as a moments thought.  The whole thing is a classic case of a property suffering from an identity crisis.  At no point can  the film ever quite make up its mind on what it wants to be.  Based on what I've heard on the behind the scenes drama, it's an opinion shared by both the stars and directors of the movie.

What I'm also able to say with a fair degree of certainty is that it was the box-office performance of the 93 adaptation which more or less put the kibosh on any ideas of translating the video game franchise to the big screen for the next three decades.  Then, low and behold, Nintendo decides to take a chance, and hires Illumination studios to try and make a feature-length, computer animated cartoon about everyone's favorite public works brothers, and their amusing exploits.  The result is now still in theaters as of this writing, and all of it begs the question.  Is this the Mario franchise adaption fans have been waiting for?

Conclusion:  Perhaps the Definitive Version.

This is a film that got a lot of flack from the critics upon its release.  It's current Rotten Tomatoes score rests as 56% for the critical consensus, while it's audience score of 96% and its box-office returns tell another narrative.  Basically, what we're looking at here is an age old story of dissociation between professional reviewers and general movie-goers.  It's a trend that's been happening a lot lately, and it's probably not going to be the last time this occurs.  The arts seem to be undergoing some kind of internal struggle of some kind.  It's like a sort of identity crisis, and I don't think the smoke has quite settled yet. However one of its effects is that there's a split over just what a movie is supposed to be.  Which means anyone heading into a film like this is going to wind up taking a side, for whatever reason that I can't see the use of.  So I guess that means the question is what did I think of it?  Was there anything I was able to get out of this video game adaptation?  Well, if you want my answer, then its that this might have to go down as the most faithful big screen game adaptation in history, for the time being, anyway.

In other words, you're going to have to classify me as falling into the more or less favorable camp with this flick.  The basic story is pretty much what you'd expect from something that's based off a game.  That's the main reason why it felt safe to skip the regular synopsis part of the program for this one.  I mean how many people out there don't know the routine by now?  The whole thing revolves around a pair of Italian-American brothers living in Brooklyn, New York.  Their names are Mario (Chris Pratt), and Luigi (Charlie Day), respectively.  Neither of them needs much in the way of an introduction at this late date.  However, the makers of the film were kind enough to provide the famous sibs with a few trace shards of backstory.  This time they come complete with a Mother and Father (played in an admittedly clever cameo by Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario in the video games), along with a few Uncles.  Now this is one of the plot elements that I found interesting in terms of the family dynamic it sets up for the two pipe cleaners.  An Easter Egg introduces us to the fact that Lou and Mario have quit a lousy day job to go into business as owner-operators of a small-time indie plumbing company.

There are a few moments here where the film allows us to get a good sense of the dynamic between the two brothers, and both Pratt and Day offer the kind of performances that not only help to delineate their two personalities, but also the way they both bounce off one another in a way that seems natural, and demonstrates just how close they really are in a few simple brush strokes.  The rapport between the two actors is spot on, as they are both able to sell the idea that these paisanos don't just regard each other as direct relatives, but also that a lot of the reason Mario sticks with Luigi is because he's spent his entire life defending him from one bully after another.  In fact, part of the subtext of the opening act seems to be that it was Lou's too timid nature that made Mario decide to go into business for themselves, after years of badgering that Weedge took from their ex-boss, Forman Spike (Sebastian Maniscalco).

What's further interesting about their dynamic is how it kind of gets flipped on its head whenever the Bros. are back at home, and out of the public eye.  Out on the street, it's clear Mario is always the one in charge, and who is willing to take risks and stand up to anyone who tries to mess with them, while Lou is more willing to lag behind without ever descending to the level of "The Load".  At the family dinner table, however, things get turned on their head, as it becomes clear that it's Luigi, and not Mario who is the favorite son of the family.  Nintendo's flagship mascot, meanwhile, seems willing enough to fall into the role of the runt of the household.  While Luigi always has to stick up for him at home.  It's clear their dad views his oldest son (in an interesting riff on a usual family dynamic) as still a kid who hasn't figured out the way of the world yet, and so he keeps chastising Mario for what he sees as risky behavior, such as trying to go into business as an independent public works contractor.  This in turn furthers the characterization of the main leads, as it becomes Mario's desire to win his father's approval that more or less kicks off their whole adventure when he decides to fix New York's sewer system.

Turns out a faulty water pressure station is causing some pipe trouble, so the two handy men set out underneath the bowels of the Big Apple to address the problem.  It's while doing this that they wind up discovering a hidden chamber withing the sewers, and stumble upon a pipe that automatically transports them into another realm.  It's the kind of place that seems to have emerged straight from a fever dream.  You've got a kingdom where mushrooms can talk (though some remain just your basic, garden variety plant life), and so can the neighboring tribe of Gorillas known as Kongs.  The real customers to watch out for are known as Koopas, a bunch of militaristic turtles of the non-Ninja type, who are ruled over and commanded by a despotic king named Bowser (Jack Black).  As the brothers are transported into this hallucinogenic realm, they wind up getting separated.  With Mario falling, literally, into the environs of the Mushroom Kingdom, whose people are lead by the valiant and beautiful Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy).  While Luigi has the bad luck to land in the shadow kingdom, which has the worse fortune to be ruled over by Bower, who promptly kidnaps him.

Now, with the knowledge that his brother is in trouble, Mario has to get in training, and good enough shape to be ready to take on Bowser, save his brother, and rescue the Mushroom Kingdom.  As you can guess, the entire basic setup more or less adheres to the establish plot beats of your typical Mario game.  All that's been changed up is just a few minor details, and the good news is that most of them make perfect narrative sense for the story the film is trying to tell.  It's more than acceptable enough, for instance, that a newcomer to a strange land, like Mario is here, would have a greater incentive to go on a quest to rescue his own family, rather than a complete stranger like Peach, who he's just met.  Likewise, the filmmakers were able to take the idea of making the Princess Mario's mentor in this film, as well as his budding love interest, and do it in such a way that doesn't break with, or cheapen the lore of the characters.  That in itself comes off as a minor miracle feat when others are struggling with it.

I can see how it's easy to describe all the major plot beats of this movie as predictable.  However, I'm not real sure that this story could have worked half as well as it does in any other way.  There might be a lot more you can do in terms of narrative with a franchise like this.  Yet it makes sense enough in terms of a "starting gate approach".  The filmmakers seems to have done the best they possibly could in terms of locating the happy median that would allow the characters accessibility to whatever few newcomers might be out there in the audience, while at the same time structuring and framing everything in a way that can actually please the long time fans.  This makes the whole experience a pretty decent win-win situation, on the whole.  Is there any room left for improvement?  Yes, possibly.

There's been one, single complaint I keep running into, and this comes even from people who say they enjoyed the film.  The basic gist of their arguments is that it could have been perhaps a bit longer, and I think I know what they mean.  There are several points in the film where I'll swear there were chances for developing the characters, their motivations, and relationships further.  The first big example I can think of would be to allow Mario and Luigi to have just a little bit more interaction with the members of their family.  Let the audience get a better sense of what their dynamic is with their own household.  In particular, there's an element of those scenes which offers a chance to setup Mario's character a bit more.  The movie does a good job of showing us that, once he's out in the streets, Mario never takes any shit from anyone, especially where Lou is concerned.  However, there are Uncles at the dinner table who heap all kinds of scorn on our hero for the life choices he's made, and Mario doesn't do a thing about it.  He just sits there and let's them gang up on him.  Part of the reason for this because "family is family", yes.  However, another is that they also coddle Luigi, so he let's them get away with it.

Perhaps there could have been a scene or two more of this dynamic that might have helped flesh out Mario's own motivations for himself.  Why not, for instance, have one of these same Uncles come up to him later on, and then turn the tables on things by flat out asking his erstwhile nephew when is he ever going to learn to stand up for himself, as there's no way on any possible Earth that he'll be able to make something of himself if he doesn't learn to finally stand up for himself.  The entire gist of this hypothetical scene, in other words, is that the Uncle is self-aware enough to to know he's giving one of his own relatives a lot of grief, and yet he's doing it so that the main character can shore up a lingering weak spot in his own capabilities.  Mario of course would be all like, "Oh lay off, will ya".  And just dismisses his Uncle.  If done right, this kind of scene could help delineate the protagonists character in several ways.  It shows those points of vulnerability that he can't or won't address, and add an extra layer of depth to his development as the film goes on.  It would further establish a thematic thread later on, when Mario confronts Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen).  The Uncle could serve as a precursor to the way DK hazes and treats the "new kid in town", and add weight our hero's triumph over him.

It would then represent not just the "player character" leveling up a notch.  It would also become a case of Mario finally answering his Uncle's challenge, and going on to prove it by beating one of the Kong Kingdom's greatest fighters in what can only be described as the cinematic equivalent of a Smash Bros. brawl.  In addition, you can go on from there to further the uneasy teamwork friendship that Mario and DK wind up having in the latter half of the film.  This is another example of where the film should probably have taken its time, in order to give us a bit of further character exploration.  It would come right after DK and the "New Guy from Brooklyn" get swallowed by the Maw-Ray creature under water.

In the film, this is the point where Donkey let's slip just how much he and Mario have in common.  Just like the two-legged biped in a cat suit, Kong also doesn't have the best relationship with his own father.  It's a bit of information that does come as kind of a revelation, and to their credit, the filmmakers do make sure that each of the character's interactions between one another later on are made with this insight in mind.  When the final act kicks into gear, we see that Mario and DK are now treating each other as friendly rivals or competitors who might at least be able to have a grudging kind of respect for one another.  To be fair, this does seem like the right note for each mascot to wind up on with respect to each other.  However, this is the one moment of the film that jumped out at me the most, because I just know there had to be a longer scene between these two where they begin to hammer (or punch out) the differences between them.  In other words, DK and Mario should have had a longer scene in Maw's stomach where first they each kind of, maybe not so much snap, as let all their failings get to them, and they start going on what each of them wants to be a berserker tear, yet instead its more of a whine-fest disguised as doing some damage, without really making much in the way of a dent in anything.

There would be a bit of business in which the ape and the plumber bicker and snipe at one another, until DK blurts out the surprise revelation that he feels he's not just lost his dad, but he's also probably let him down for good.  That should have been the moment that sent a light bulb off in Mario's head, and instead of fighting, he begins to try and reason with Kong, who is still currently in "just wanting to punch and smash things" mode.  Eventually, however, the "New Guy" should talk Kong down out of his anger and resentment in the hopes of discovering a way out of their predicament.  It doesn't take long before they discover a rocket that can help launch them out of the Maw, and it's all of this accumulated experience that helps begin to have a cautious, uneasy, yet genuine enough respect for one another.  Such an execution would just create a more natural flow to the narrative and its characterization.

The last bit of editing I would have recommended for the film might also have been the most drastic, as it has the possibility of reshaping both the ending, and the overall story, as well.  It would be to allow Luigi to have his own action-oriented subplot.  Now I have defended the idea of Luigi being the one who needs rescuing from Bowser.  And while I'm willing to go along with the idea, I'll also admit there was room here where you could have made things a bit more interesting by giving Mario's brother a side story wherein he is able, first, to rescue himself from Koopa's clutches.  And then you'd have these moments where the film would break away from the main action in order to follow Weedge as he's going on his own odyssey through these same fantastical worlds, and having adventures in them.  The key difference would be that where Mario's is light and adventurous, Lou's could be more dark and ominous.  It wouldn't make the mistake of being grim and gritty.  Instead, it's just that he's traveling through Bowser's kingdom, and so those levels are always going to be a lot tougher than the others.

The good news is such an idea can be the perfect vehicle for Luigi, as its clear that his main character arc throughout the entire movie is him learning how to stand up for himself.  There's a crucial scene where Lou has a flashback to when he and Mario are just little kids, and he's been pushed into the dirt and sniveling, meaning that his older brother in red has to step in an defend him.  That was a nice bit of backstory, and it really should have been used as a motivating factor for Luigi to first free himself, and then try and go find help while running through the video game equivalent of Mordor.  The best possible way to make a side quest like this work would be for the filmmakers to go ahead and basically make Luigi the Ash Williams of the film.  In other words, while Mario gets to take on the regular arsenal that Bowser throws at him, you could give his younger brother the same type of development that he's had in the official video game line, where his specialty becomes being able to handle a lot of the darker, more Gothic influenced villains in the series, like Boos and other creatures.  I mean just imagine how easily this kind of scenario writes itself, and how much Weedge fits into it all.

Let's take a scene from Army of Darkness as a for instance.  Let's superimpose Luigi over Ash's character, and in place of the Deadites, we have the Dry Bones, except all the action is (mostly) the same.  You've got Lou running through a dark forest while all around him skeleton hands are clawing out of the ground, reaching for him, and trying to trip him up.  Then they'd all get into a hilarious Three Stooges style punching match.  The whole idea seems to just write itself.  Also like Ash, these experiences could be made to toughen Luigi up to the point where becomes a hero in his own right.  The kind of guy, in other words, who can stand shoulder to with his brother, head held high.  Of course it also makes sense that Lou might go on to develop his own version of the same snarky attitude as Bruce Campbell's character.  Now, it's possible to claim this is little more than just a cut and paste idea.  However, I'd argue that it still has a validity if applied in the right, in a way that is proper to Luigi's character.  Heck, if the cards are dealt in the proper order.  This means he could take a more active role in the final showdown between the Bros. and King Koopa.  It's fun to imagine how this alternate version of Lou would be there always throwing a wrench into every move Bowser makes.

In a way, though, I suppose all of these thoughts can pass as minor nitpicks.  The movie as it stands is perfectly fine for what it is trying to be.  Films like this have pretty much one job to accomplish.  Can they deliver a fairly decent enough demonstration of the type of story that can be told with a franchise like this?  In the case of the Brothers Mario, the answer has to be more or less a resounding yes.  The goals for this film are easy to meet with the right amount of effort, and the filmmakers were able to rise to the challenge on this one.  The result is a decent and entertaining little video game adaptation that is sure to please both first and long time fans, as well as drawing in the kids.  In fact, the more I think about it, this might just have to go down, for the time being, as the closest anyone has ever gotten to producing a definitive video game movie.  While I'm willing to maintain that there was plenty of room for the sort of character expansions mentioned above, the good news is that none of this detracts from the movie.  Maybe at some future date the makers of this picture can go back and make something like a Netflix special edition where all of these ideas can find their own expansion into the story.  For now, however, the fact remains that The Super Mario Bros. Movie is able to stand out as its own achievement.  It is not just the first successful video game film, it also qualifies as the best out there.

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