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A brief history of live-action Nintendo films

By Clare McBride
the wizard leads double dragon

Nintendo is no stranger to the cinematic arts. As of this writing, there are 24 animated films based on Nintendo properties, most of which are Pokémon movies. That number will swell to 26 in 2019, thanks to Detective Pikachu and the CGI remake of Mewtwo Strikes Back, which — and I am not afraid to say this — I THINK LOOKS AWESOME.

But when it comes to live action, Nintendo is extraordinarily tentative, boasting only two adaptations. With Nintendo’s first live-action film in 26 years on the immediate horizon, I thought it was high time to look back at the first two installments in that strange trilogy: 1989’s The Wizard and 1993’s Super Mario Bros.

I’m interested in these films for two reasons. First, as a fan of both the big N and bad movies, there is literally no way for me to lose here. Second, as a critic, I’ve found myself of late fascinated by films as products, especially studio films that are adaptations of properties successful in different forms of media. Namely, the functions that a film is tasked with fulfilling outside of “just” being a successful film in terms of box-office and/or critical acclaim. These functions can range from simply being sure to install a hook for a potential sequel to ensuring costume design is sufficiently toyetic to the Olympic-level gymnastics Avengers: Endgame must accomplish to invest in the Brand™️.

To be clear, a film’s success as a product does not preclude its ability to function as a work of satisfying and thoughtful art. To go back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther fulfills that product function — it’s generated new interest in the characters in all media, invigorated audiences for the comics, and generated a ton of merchandise. But it nimbly manages that while also delivering a satisfying superhero origin story that is also a thoughtful examination of the African diaspora. It’s quite a needle to thread, and Black Panther does so without breaking a sweat.

Essentially, the core question I like to ask when a studio sets out to adapt a beloved piece of intellectual property is: What is this movie trying to say about that intellectual property?

the wizard games
The Wizard

In the late '80s, the Nintendo Entertainment System was ascendant in Japan and North America, having tricked its way out of the ashes of the Video Game Crash of 1983 via the cunning application of robots. However, there were some delays between Nintendo of Japan and Nintendo of America, for reasons both logistical and cultural. Logistically, there was a global shortage of ROM chips, leading to the delay of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Super Mario Bros. 3. Culturally, Japan’s appetite for difficult video games led Nintendo of America to deem Super Mario Bros. 2 too difficult for American audiences, resulting in the reskin of Doki Doki Panic we Westerners call Super Mario Bros. 2. (It was later exported back to Japan as Super Mario USA.)

But Nintendo decided to look at these delays as an opportunity to have more time to market these games. When Universal Pictures inquired about a video game movie, Nintendo agreed. What could be better promotion for Super Mario Bros. 3 than a movie?

And so The Wizard was born: a wholesome family film about a little boy symbolically burying the twin sister he watched die right in front of him.

… yeah, The Wizard is DARK.

Perhaps it’s a function of visiting it as a grown woman with two small niblings for whom I would rend a direwolf limb from limb, but watching three children—the youngest of whom is clearly meant to be on the spectrum in a Hollywood understanding of the term — hitchhike across the United States to a video game tournament, pursued by a violent man hired to kidnap them back to their parents, is harrowing. Some of it has aged poorly, like the escape scene hinging on a girl falsely accusing said violent man of molesting her being played as a clever, wacky joke.

the wizard leads casino
Setting those major caveats aside, however, the rest of The Wizard has aged to retro cheese perfection. The inimitable Jenny Lewis herself (!) plays the female lead, Haley, a tough girl from Vegas who helps brothers Jimmy and Corey scam their way to California to participate in Video Armageddon — for a cut of the profits, of course. The cast is surprisingly stacked: Beau Bridges and Christian Slater round out the family, as the father and eldest brother searching for Jimmy and Corey. There are cameos by the always delightful Lee Arenberg and a young Tobey Maguire. There’s even plenty for theme park fans here, as Video Armageddon takes place at Universal Studios, complete with the kids being forced to escape through a studio tour.

What makes The Wizard a fascinating artifact is that Nintendo is an actual product in the film. Scratch that: Nintendo is the be-all, end-all of video games in this movie. Its main competition appears to be pinball, that gamified metaphor for the futility of all human effort in the face of an uncaring and distant god. (My Pokédex in Pokémon Pinball is going GREAT why do you ASK?)

In The Wizard, Nintendo is for people of all ages and all genders. In 1989, it was highly likely you’d have to wait to play your GameBoy because your mom was hogging Tetris. (The racial diversity in the film, however, is really, really thin.) The kids discover Jimmy’s video game prowess when he achieves a nigh-impossible score on a Double Dragon arcade cabinet, which Haley doesn’t believe due to her own prowess at the game. We see middle-aged businessmen playing Golf and Christian Slater drag around an NES that Beau Bridges eventually comes around to himself. When Haley calls the now-defunct Nintendo Power Line for research, one of the operators is a woman. The third contestant in Video Armageddon is a pretty realistic-looking girl named Moira, and the attendees are decidedly co-ed. Nintendo, The Wizard tells us, brings people from all walks of life together—although it does stop before insinuating that it can fix a dysfunctional family, as Beau Bridges has to be dragged off a game of The Legend of Zelda to go save his missing sons.

That said, it does go so far as to present the reveal of Super Mario Bros. 3 with all the pomp and circumstance due the second coming of Christ, complete with a smoke machine, dramatic machinery, and a British announcer nearly falling into ecstatic apoplexy over its majesty. In the Nickelodeon game show slash nerdy kid’s fever dream that is Video Armageddon, Nintendo is the coolest thing on God’s green earth — just the way it is. And don’t you want something cool you can share with your friends and family?

the wizard familes and friends

But just a few short years later, that attitude would change.

super mario bros 1993 van
Super Mario Bros.

I have not come to bury Super Mario Bros. the movie, but to praise it.

Well, okay, “praise” might be a very strong word for what I’m about to do, but I feel like this film has had so much derision heaped on it over the last 26 years, from fans, critics, and even the cast that I can’t help but try and see some silver lining in it.

You have to remember: When this film was but a glint in film producer Roland Joffé’s eye in the Nintendo headquarters in 1991, a lot of what we take for granted today about the Mushroom Kingdom wasn’t set in stone yet. Mario had only appeared in the Mushroom Kingdom since 1985, and Yoshi’s Island — which more or less confirms that Mario and Luigi are natives of the Mushroom Kingdom who are also Italian don’t worry about it let’s play golf — was still four years off. Both 1986’s Super Mario Bros.: Pīchi-hime Kyushutsu Dai Sakusen! (The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach!) and 1989’s The Super Mario Bros. Show depicted Mario and Luigi as two working-class Italians in the real world who have to journey to the hidden Mushroom Kingdom to rescue the princess.

Heck, the entire reason Super Mario Bros. features a Princess Daisy instead of a Princess Peach is that North America called her Princess Toadstool until 1996 and the screenwriters thought that was gross. (Now, why they didn’t think to just use her Japanese name, I’ll never know …)

The premise of the film — Mario and Luigi are plumbers in the real world who have to save the princess of another dimension—isn’t weird. It’s what the movie does with that premise that is.

Friends, the Super Mario Bros. movie is so blissfully, deliriously weird that I barely know where to begin. A lot of this stems from the constantly shifting creative team and constantly rewritten script. A lot of the most amazing talent in the film was attracted to the project because of a funny Mad Max-style script … that was promptly changed by the studio for fear of being too adult.

Which is odd, because Super Mario Bros. feels as overdeterminedly adult as Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Gone are the cheerful colors and natural wonders of the Mushroom Kingdom. Instead, we lean way, way into New Brutalism with Dinohattan, a Blade Runner-style riff on the Mushroom Kingdom complete with a now-uncomfortably Trumpian Koopa running it into the ground. Nightclubs are bursting with the aesthetically outrageous! Crime is rampant! Adult films are advertised in movie theaters! YOSHI GETS STABBED IN THE THROAT!

(He does get better.)

If you, like me, love bonkers late '80s/early '90s production design, you’ll find a lot to love here. But even if you don’t, this hard left turn away from the games does something strangely wonderful: It frees Daisy and the other women in the film from having to be only damsels.

Missing media item.To be clear, Daisy does function as a damsel; she’s literally locked up in a high-rise for some of the film. But when we meet her, she’s just an archaeology student leading a dig in Brooklyn, a kind-hearted nerd who truly loves dinosaurs and is just as endearingly awkward as a blindingly young John Leguizamo as Luigi. The only clothes we see her in that she chooses are her digging clothes and, at the end of a film, a Ripley-esque combat outfit complete with a gun. (A science gun? Who knows, they never made the sequel!) She’s sweet, kind, and funny, and … I love her.

I also love Fiona Shaw’s Lena, Koopa’s scheming second-in-command. I was worried at first that she would be a disposable character, jealous of Koopa’s gross interest in Daisy, but she’s actually out for herself, playing the long game in a series of increasingly amazing outfits. By the time she’s cackling with glee with electricity crackling in her veins, I, too, was electrified.

Even minor female characters, like a little old grandma who mugs the Mario Brothers or Mario’s girlfriend Daniella Pauline (I KNOW!), are amazing. And I can’t let Big Bertha, the statuesque punk bouncer at the Boom Boom Bar and the only woman of color with a speaking role in the film, go unmentioned. She’s sublime. I was so prepared for this film to be terrible that I never even thought it could surpass actual Nintendo games when it came to featuring engaging and well-rounded female characters.

super mario bros 1993 big bertha
But that’s the thing: Super Mario Bros. feels like it’s determined not to engage with the video games whence it comes. It wants you to think that the intellectual property it’s based on is cool … by trying to distract you from the intellectual property it’s based on by zagging where the original zigs.

super mario bros 1993 poster
Adaptations of beloved intellectual property often struggle with this issue, especially when there’s a medium jump: studios trying to capitalize on the existing fanbase by trying to distance themselves from what people love about the thing in the very first place. The first trailers for Sonic the Hedgehog (TEETH!) have brought this conversation back into the forefront by appearing to eschew the breakneck speed and bonkers visuals of the source material for something that seems more Spy Kids than Sonic and Knuckles.

And, as much as I think Super Mario Bros. is an enjoyably bad movie, I think this teenage refusal to recognize its roots is its key failing (not its only failing, mind you, just the key one) as a film-as-product. It doesn’t make the viewer excited to see where this all came from.

The closest thing Nintendo has to an official statement on the film is Miyamoto gently pointing out it, uh, tried too hard; as you might have guessed, Nintendo’s active involvement in the film was minimal at best. Joffé’s theorized that Nintendo did it mostly as a lark, and it seems to have scared the company off television and film adaptations for quite some time.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu
But Detective Pikachu is heralding a new era of Nintendo films. In 2018, Illumination (which is owned by … Universal Pictures WHAT A CALLBACK!) announced that an animated adaptation of Super Mario Bros. was considered high priority, including an emphasis on Miyamoto’s involvement as a consultant and co-producer. While some might see some of Super Mario Bros. in Detective Pikachu’s Blade Runner aesthetic, I hope it will nail the most important part of any Pokémon movie—the relationship between a trainer and Ryan Reynolds—I mean their Pokémon.

Here’s hoping the new era of Nintendo films are more The Wizard than Super Mario Bros. But, y’know, better.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.