In a recent Variety interview, Chris Meledandri, the founder and CEO of the Illumination animation studio, finally revealed some details about the long-rumored Super Mario movie. We now know for sure that the animated feature is a go with a 2022 release date, and that video game designer and Mario’s original creator Shigeru Miyamoto will serve as a producer on the film. Combine that with the fact that Illumination has a string of animated hits under their belt, including all the Minion flicks, The Secret Life of Pets, and Sing, and it seems like the upcoming story of the superpowered Italian plumber has everything going for it. Everything, that is, except its cinematic history.
In 1993, the famous video game character was infamously brought to the big screen with Super Mario Bros. starring Bob Hoskins as Mario and John Leguizamo as Luigi. Oh, sorry: their full names were actually Mario Mario and Luigi Mario, which, somehow, was the least bizarre change to the original SMB story. The movie’s plot actually dealt with a meteor that hit the Earth millions of years ago and created a parallel, techno-punk dimension where humanoid creatures evolved from dinosaurs. This also included the film’s villain King Koopa, played by Dennis Hopper with a silly haircut; no costume, prosthetics, or CGI whatsoever. Super Mario Bros. was panned by the critics and bombed at the box office, and is now often called one of the worst movies ever made.
And yet Chris Meledandri doesn’t let that discourage him. In fact, he said: “I like that this was not done well the first time.” But the thing is, there were MORE attempts to bring Mario to life in live-action and animation besides the 1993 film, and it was not done well every single time.
Voice of Reason
The cinematic history of Mario starts in 1983 with the Saturday Supercade, a CBS animated series showing short cartoons about popular video game characters, including Mario. Only here, instead of fighting Bowser, he’s trying to catch the runaway Donkey Kong from the 1981 Donkey Kong video game, which marked the very first appearance of Mario. So it technically made sense to bring these characters together for Mario’s first foray into animation, but it simply did not work out. For one, the animation was very cheap and the show’s plot was paper thin. More importantly, the character design was bizarre, with Mario suddenly gaining a few feet in height and a huge handlebar moustache that made him virtually unrecognizable. The only thing the show had going for it was the fact that Mario was voiced by Peter Cullen, the voice of Eeyore on Winnie the Pooh and Optimus Prime on Transformers.
Do the Mario
Next came The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! which premiered in 1989 and actually gave us two Marios: an animated one who appeared in the cartoon portions of the series, and a live-action one who appeared at the beginning and end of the show. The latter was played by the wrestler “Captain” Lou Albano, who also rapped and sang. Every episode of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! started with Albano and the live-action Luigi (Danny Wells) performing the “Plumber Rap,” while the end credits featured Albano soloing the cheerful “Do the Mario,” which was also a dance. It was… something different. It wasn’t necessarily bad but it wasn’t really the Mario that we all know.
The cartoon portions of the show did a slightly better job, with recognizable characters and plots taken directly from the Mario games. But the animation still left a lot to be desired and all the plots were really just excuses to deliver very basic and unfunny puns. There was just no magic there that the original game had, which sadly continued well into the show’s follow-up cartoon series: The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990) and Super Mario World (1991), none of which managed to really find their audiences.
Will the new animated movie finally break the long-running cinematic Mario curse? Hopefully so because it’s a fantastic, weird story that deserves to be done right. But judging by all the previous attempts, it’s going to take a lot of hard work.