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The Princess Is In Another Castle
Finding the ‘Right Moment’ for The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023)
World 1-1: Setting the Stage
The year was 1993. People were getting hyped up about going to the movies – several notable comedies – The Sandlot and Groundhog’s Day – had come out early that year, fans of a young and in-his-prime Harrison Ford were excited to see his star vehicle The Fugitive, and Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park was coming to theaters that Summer.
And in May, another highly anticipated – if a bit unusual – film was slated for the box office: Super Mario Bros, an adaptation of the top-rated children’s video game series from gaming company Nintendo. Mario, along with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), had been responsible for a significant resurgence in video gaming after an industry crash in the ‘80s. But did the success of their little plumber jumping on turtles and dinosaurs translate to film?
Apart from the source material being a video game, a number of things were out of place with this film. For one, the studios and creators behind its production weren’t the sorts associated at the time with major blockbusters or series aimed at young demographics. The producer, Roland Joffé, had several successful films under his belt, but mostly period dramas and war films; and the husband-and-wife directorial duo Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel were most well-known at the time for their oddball TV production Max Headroom.
Going into the release, it was anyone’s guess how this would turn out, and if you aren’t already familiar with the story, it can be summarized succinctly: it was bad. A major commercial flop and critically panned, Super Mario Bros. was by all measures not a successful experiment for either Nintendo or the American movie industry. So… what happened?
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World 1-2: What Went Wrong?
According to Joffé, who was (apart from directors Morton and Jankel) one of the film’s primary creative forces, the film’s story and tone took several twists and turns before landing on the film that so many came to love to hate. Inspired by films like Tim Burton’s Batman, post-apocalyptic action flick Mad Max, and Ridley Scott’s popular, if divisive, Bladerunner, the aesthetic of Super Mario Bros. was distinctly ‘80s sci-fi and cyberpunk – more crime and grime than the colorful, cheerful aesthetic of the popular platforming games.
While a modern sensibility might anticipate resistance from Nintendo, which has largely been seen as controlling of its intellectual property (IP), leadership at the time seemed confident in the approach – their faith in the security of the “Mario brand” made them willing to try something bold, new, and experimental with this film adaptation.
With its multiple and conflicting creative voices across the cast, crew, and production companies, the final film was tonally all-over-the-place, unsure whether it was trying to be a kids’ fantasy adventure film or a dark fairy tale set in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. The film didn’t even seem to want to be associated with its source material, taking on the tagline “This ain’t no game.” This all confused critics and audiences alike and soon became the shining example (and key motivator) for why video games didn’t work as major motion pictures for decades.
The shame is that the film, at face value, isn’t all that bad. Save for a few specific differences (like a switch from live-action to animation and the general aesthetic of each world’s Mushroom Kingdom), both the 1993 film and the 2023 animated feature by Illumination follow the same general plot structure, and character beats:
Mario and Luigi, two down-on-their-luck plumbers from Brooklyn, New York, find themselves in a bind and end up magically transported to a fantastical world populated by a mixture of eccentric characters and creatures. The duo is tasked with saving this new world, helping a princess battle a dinosaur king, and proving they are more than meets the eye. (There are other fun parallels, but we’ll stray away from spoiler territory for this article!)
In light of this comparison, it's funny to see the wildly different response the new film has gotten. The aesthetic had been successful for other films of the time, and similarly sloppy features had found more commercial success in spite of critical reviews. So why do critics and audiences find the new film so much more enjoyable and entertaining?
World 1-3: The Timeliness of Success and Failure
So often, when faced with failures or resistance, it’s very easy to give up and let things go. It’s sometimes even good advice: as the old saying goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” While holding on and persevering through difficulties can lead to an eventual triumph over the odds, sometimes it is best to let something go when it’s not working and options have all been exhausted.
What can be left out of that discussion, however, is that letting go doesn’t always need to be the end of the story. While we’re trading in old phrases, the idea that something was “before its time” is used frequently when reflecting on failed experiments. In many cases, those ideas (or something like them) make a resurgence years later to renewed interest and success. This happened with many of the innovative features of Sega’s Dreamcast video game console, the many user-centered technologies developed by the Apple computer company, and even the artistic works of Vincent Van Gogh. Unappreciated in their time, these things ultimately came back in one form or another years or decades later to immense and sometimes unexpected success (ask anyone who wishes they’d invested in Apple stock back in the early to mid ‘90s).
The philosophy we’re exploring here rests on the fact that something may not be “right” or “good” when it’s first conceived, but when brought back at the right time and place to the right audience, it has far more relevance and interest at its disposal. It’s something we at Checkpoint play with regularly; even in our relatively short lifespan over the past three years, Checkpoint has had seasons of trial and error: testing concepts, letting some carry on and others fall away, only to be re-examined again a year or two later in a new light with a new audience, or some new element introduced that might be just the thing it needs to succeed.
After the undeniable failure of the Super Mario Bros movie, Nintendo wouldn’t license out its treasured intellectual property for major film adaptation for another three decades (with one sort-of exception in the form of The Pokémon Company’s Detective Pikachu film). While many at the time saw this as a sign that Nintendo had “learned their lesson” in trying and failing to adapt a video game to the big screen, assuming that they’d licked their wounds and moved on, the full reality of what followed tells a slightly different story.
Warp Zone: 30 Years Later…
Over those 30 years, Mario would grow beyond its (relatively) humble beginnings. Mario would graduate from 2D into 3D (first with the pseudo-3D Super Mario RPG on the SNES and later a proper jump to polygons with Super Mario 64). He would race go-karts, turn into paper, play tennis and baseball, brawl against other Nintendo stalwart superstars, come face-to-face with his ‘90s rival Sonic at multiple Olympic Games, do … something … with Rabbids, and even take a turn at teaching typing.
Mario (the movie) may not have worked, but Mario wasn’t going to stop there – if anything, both the character and the brand had abundant life left in them. They would grow well beyond any perceived failings, becoming one of if not the most iconic and recognizable gaming characters around the globe. Mario may have been popular in the early ‘90s, but by the 2020s, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wasn’t at least aware of the little mustachioed plumber and his many exploits. Mario had captured by the 2020s not just awareness but a deep-seated recognition, a passionate fanbase, and abundant nostalgia for the years and years of games he’d starred in and the stories they told.
While some, mainly in the critics' circles (and yours truly included), might argue about the overall quality of this new adaptation, the reality is this: this isn’t a perfect film, but nobody asked (or expected) it to be. The positive response from the film’s fans and audiences is undeniable. Even someone with a more critical view of the film can still appreciate what the creative team has accomplished: they found the right time, the right team, the right story, and the right audience and knew when to “Press Go” to bring all those elements together.
World 2-1: What Went Right? (And What’s Next?)
As we reflect on this, either as Christians through the lens of the church or as people through our lives and communities more broadly, a critical lesson emerges: we aren’t tied to our past failings, and those failings are not the end of those stories. In our lives, we will try things that won’t work; while there are times that’ll be due to poor execution or unavoidable errors, other times it simply boils down to it not being the right time … yet.
When the team behind The Super Mario Bros. Movie looked back, they didn’t focus on what failed, but they did learn from that failure and from the years of material that came after it, building on the years of shared games, stories, characters, and experiences the players and fans of these games have enjoyed over the past thirty years. And even now, in the wake of the critical and commercial response to their film, there are people in the creative team asking the question, “So… what about a sequel? Is it time? Are we ready to try again?”
To borrow from games parlance, these are very much “Press Continue” moments – those words that flash on-screen after we fail a challenge that let us know that we’re still “in the game” and have another chance to try again. Not so we can go against the issue brute force, “doing the same thing over and over again” and expecting success, but instead to come at the challenge from a new angle, informed and emboldened by the wisdom we gain from time apart and the lessons learned from the people and experiences we’ve had in that time.
We all have faced (or someday will face) those challenges, and the prompt to “Press Continue.” How are we responding to that call today? Are we taking in the lessons we’ve learned from what went well and not-so-well in the past, plus all the things we’ve experienced since the last time we tried? Because we’ve undoubtedly learned a lot since then, and perhaps what we didn’t realize is that there was another, better pathway all along: the princess was in another castle. So, let’s go find it!