Super Mario Bros.’ failures

The instinct to make a film from Mario games is a good one. It was especially salient during the early ‘90s, when studios were trying to capitalize from the success of another film who took children’s entertainment and turned it on its head, 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film I consider to be a spiritual cousin to Super Mario Bros. because of its artistic aspirations and, of course, it’s leading man, Bob Hoskins.

The film, starring Hoskins in a world full of cartoons, made the impossible possible, seamlessly meshing real life actors with cartoon scene partners who steal the show and have just as much heart as any flesh-and-blood person onscreen. There are several iconic scenes from the film, but the most notable one to me is Jessica Rabbit singing “Why Don’t You Do Right,” performing with and against real men in a way that still boggles my mind. Like, how did they get Jessica to take the handkerchief out of Marvin Acme’s pocket and shine his head with it? The film was nothing anyone had ever seen before, and with its success came a renaissance of animation.

“The success of the film helped reignite [Who Framed Roger Rabbit producer Steven] Spielberg’s never quite dead interest in the old Warner Bros. cartoons, which in turn led Spielberg to take back the joint Amblin/Warner Bros. productions Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, Freakazoid! and Pinky and the Brain, which formed a critical part of the overall animated renaissance of the 1990s. That in turn spurred Disney to greater effort and helped Pixar persuade skeptical executives that really, yes, there might just be an audience for a computer animated film featuring talking toys,” wrote Tor’s Mari Ness.

“Movies like Monkeybone, Shrek, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and even Avatar probably wouldn’t exist if not for Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” wrote Inside the Magic’s Spencer Blohm. “One of the film’s most lasting impacts was that it proved animation was a worthy artform for mainstream directors and filmmakers to not only work on and experiment with, but use to achieve blockbuster critical and box office success.”

The realization of the blurred lines between animation and adult entertainment led to aforementioned films like Monkeybone and Shrek, as well as cult classics like Cool World, The Flintstones and Space Jam. You can also count Super Mario Bros. in the mix as well; if it weren’t for a film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, who made it cool (and financially lucrative) to inject subversiveness into a media traditionally viewed as “kids’ stuff”, no one would have considered making an entire film based on a Nintendo property played by children at arcades.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit also helped Hoskins’ career explode in a way it hadn’t before. Part of Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s success lies in how masterfully Hoskins was able to act as the audience’s guide through an unfamiliar world. He successfully made us believe he was really talking to animated characters. Even though co-director Rocky Morton told SciFiNow that the only reason Hoskins was hired was because of his availability (the first choice was Danny DeVito, but he turned the role down), Morton and directing partner Annabel Jankel should have also realized what a boon they had in someone like Hoskins accepting the role. If Hoskins could make talking animated rabbits and toon logic seem reasonable and believable, then think of the magic he could have done with something like Super Mario Bros. Indeed, according to Game Informer, “Hoskins was hot off the success of films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Hook, and the producers felt that he would be a more bankable star.”

In a way, there is a lot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit in Super Mario Bros., despite the latter being a film with real actors. In both films, there’s a fantastical world that exists just beyond our boring one. Both films also carry childlike entertainment into a more adult space. To put it another way, both are trying to elevate what we think of when we talk about cartoons and video games. Both also show how those childlike pursuits can change into something nightmarish, otherworldly, and downright scary.

But the big difference is that Who Framed Roger Rabbit succeeds where Super Mario Bros. failed. While Who Framed Roger Rabbit had a consistent storyline and equally consistent clarity of vision for most of its entire production, as well as a team of pros who had the right amount of boundless imagination, filmmaking know-how, financial backing and love for the craft of animation, Super Mario Bros. had inconsistent story, lack of vision, and lack of consistent leadership. 

Lightmotive, the company behind the film, commissioned its first Super Mario Bros. script from Academy-Award winning writer Barry Morrow, but his story, as Game Informer’s Ben Reeves wrote, “was deemed too dramatic and the project was passed over to the writing team that had worked on The Flintstones and Richie Rich.”

The script that was finally okayed by Lightmotive actually sounds like it could have been in line with many of the strange big-budget children’s films Hollywood has welcomed in the past, thus giving it a better chance of actual success. “This version of the script,” wrote Reeves, “was more in line with Mario’s roots,” adding that in this version, Mario and Luigi “traveled to a magical land reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland.” With their sidekick Toad, Mario and Luigi would rescue Princess Hildy (no word on why she wasn’t named “Peach”) from lizard King Koopa’s matrimonial clutches and save Hildy’s magical artifact, the Crown of Invincibility.

Where the film messed up was with Morton and Jankel, who was somehow given the reins to the project despite their severe lack of film experience (even though their claim to fame was the TV show Max Headroom, they’d only film before Super Mario Bros., ironically called D.O.A. The film was, in fact, D.O.A. in real life with critics and audience members). They changed the film’s entire outlook, opting for a story that was much more self-serious than it needed to be.

Their version of the movie was set “in an alternate reality version of New York, a place called Dinohatten. After an asteroid struck Earth 65 million years ago, all of the planet’s dinosaurs had been banished to a dystopian version of our world, but the two realities were still connected by a portal under New York, as the eons passed, the dinosaurs slowly evolved into humanoids and grew to hate the mammals that blissfully walked around Earth prime.”

More director and producer arguments happened, leading to more rewrites–up to nine writers worked on film scripts, trying to strike a lighter tone and balance between what the studio and what the directors wanted. Ultimately, this led to the film we have today; a dark, mismatched tale involving dinos.

The instability behind the scenes trickled into the cast and crew themselves. Not only were folks behind the scenes calling the directors names behind their backs and complained of micromanagement, but the actors themselves started drinking on the job. As Leguizamo wrote in his autobiography, he and Hoskins would do shots of scotch in between scenes, leading to an accident on set that injured Hoskins’ hand.

While their ingenuity could have been a plus for the film, Morton and Jankel’s biggest issue was that they were thinking way too hard about their subject matter. According to Morton, he felt he was working against stereotypes against video games, saying he wanted “the film to be more sophisticated…I wanted parents to really get into it. At that time, there was a very hardcore movement against video games, and a lot of anti-video games sentiment.” Maybe there was anti-video games sentiment. But in hindsight, the simpler solution would be to just tell a good, entertaining story that audiences enjoyed, whether or not the subject matter was from a video game.

Strangely, Super Mario Bros.’ predecessor, 1986’s Howard the Duck suffers from the same issue of self-seriousness, a result from a complete misunderstanding of the source material. Instead of keeping with a similar (yet still wackadoo) premise from Marvel’s Howard the Duck comic books–the film misses the point of the comic books’ trips into existential absurdism and noir elements by making it weird hybrid of a family film and an adult special-effects movie, never quite mastering either successfully.

“[I]f the writers really wanted to make something for adults, then by all means, go with the edgy sexual stuff. Push some buttons. Make this something that parents would be afraid to let their kids watch,” wrote Comics Bulletin’s Paul Brian McCoy. “Instead, everything that made the comics groundbreaking and unique is whitewashed away, leaving behind nothing much more than a bad pun-spewing duck and a strangely unengaging story about the End of the World. With the occasional bizarre sexual titillation and tease.”

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