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I'm about to say something controversial. Something that might forever ruin my reputation as a gamer or critic.
Super Mario Bros. is not a bad movie.
Whoa whoa, put down the torches and pitchforks for a moment and let me explain. I'm not saying it's the greatest movie ever, and I'm not going to claim its an unappreciated masterpiece (although Borderlands 2 writer Anthony Burch once did). But it's a good movie that doesn't deserve the bad reputation it's gotten.
I think the main reason for its bad reputation is because it was the first in what became a long line of disappointing videogame movies. Yes, there was tension behind the scenes. Yes, the directors were removed from the film and the final cut was done by the studio (though it was the studio that added things like that awful animated intro sequence). Yes, it did poorly during its theatrical run. But of the 32 theatrically released videogame adaptations, Super Mario Bros. is not only not the worst, it's not in the bottom ten. It's not even in the bottom twenty.
Based purely on storytelling, story structure, acting, and production values, Super Mario Bros. is in fact one of the five best videogame adaptations of all time. Which isn't saying much, I know. But it's one of the few videogame adaptations I'd ever dare call good.
Most of the complaints people have are related to liberties taken in adapting Mario into a real world setting. I've never understood the complaints, personally, since I've always loved seeing favorite characters in a real world setting. The first time I saw a TV commercial for the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I practically exploded with excitement. And I've loved seeing comic book heroes given the real world treatment, like Bryan Singer's X-Men, Joss Whedon's Avengers, and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight.
Even when significant changes were made, like Rogue being introduced as the Kitty Pryde/Jubilee Wolverine-buddy character, I understood the reasons for the change. People complain about Mario not getting the princess, but let's be realistic: how do you write a story where a young woman falls for an old, overweight, barely-making-ends-meet plumber, and still make it seem convincing?
I think the main problem with Super Mario Bros. is that, though taking place in a real world setting, the movie doesn't necessarily seem to take the characters seriously. There are a lot of moments in Super Mario Bros. that come off as cheesy or campy, but what's interesting is that a lot of it seems to be in the editing of the movie.
If you've ever studied filmmaking at all, you might be aware just how dramatically a little thing like background music can change the tone of a scene. Alan Silvestri is an amazing composer, responsible for memorable themes like Back To The Future. But I have a suspicion that when scoring Super Mario Bros., he was asked by the studio (who were finishing the movie without the directors) to make it sound more comical. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the car chase sequence, which seems like a cartoon mainly because the music sounds cartoony. If someone went in and put, say, music from The Dark Knight's car chase in there, it'd play very differently.
But even then, there are some purists you can never please. There are people today who are still upset that the movie version of April O'Neil and the movie version of Wolverine didn't wear yellow jumpsuits. For some people, Koopa not being a dragon monster and the kingdom not being bright and sunny and filled with giant mushrooms you can walk on is just inexcusable. And those people would never be pleased by anything less than an animated adaptation, because a literal translation of Mario just wouldn't work in a real world setting – it would seem even more ridiculous than this movie.
But as a real world version of the Super Mario universe, the movie is amazing. I loved all the little details and references. I loved that the flight item that changes each game was a set of awesome rocket boots this time. The fire flower instead being a flame thrower. The cameo appearance of a Super Scope. I was so excited when Yoshi showed up! And how many people realized that the de-evolved king plot was derived from the transformed kings plot of Super Mario Bros. 3?
There was also one of the greatest product placement sequences ever in the form of the Bob-Bomb. And the "let's make a sequel" ending had me so excited to see Daisy kick some ass like how Princess Toadstool had been a playable character in SMB2. I'm still a little sad that it was never made.
Trivia: Younger gamers will be confused as to why Bowser is called Koopa in the movie. The names "Bowser" and "Peach" weren't introduced in the US until Super Mario 64 – before then, all knowledgeable gamers knew those characters as King Koopa and Princess Toadstool. Many of us wondered why the movie princess was called Daisy, because we hadn't all played Super Mario Land yet where she'd been introduced.