In case you hadn’t heard, Sony Pictures wants to get their hands on the movie-rights to SUPER MARIO BROS. For what I should hope are obvious reasons, this is a terrible idea that I hope doesn’t come to pass – at least not under the (of late) visionless Avi Arad or the current water-treading regime at Sony.
However! If this is some kind of indication that Nintendo is finally back to a point where they’re willing to talk about licensing for Hollywood movies? I like the sound of that. It’s time. Video game movies are probably the next big substrata of popular culture to mine after comics, and it’s consistently depressing to see the adaptation focus being on currently-hot-but-who-can-say properties like HALO or ASSASSIN’S CREED or whatever while the actual titans of the medium sit by untouched (yes, WARCRAFT comes from storied stock, but it’s still absurd that it gets to be a movie before ZELDA does.)
The one thing that disheartens me about the Sony/Mario rumor (apart from the obvious) is that the plan was apparently to make an animated franchise out of it. Sorry, no thanks. Not that I have anything against animation – quite the opposite, in fact – but more that it doesn’t feel like the “event” that an authentic Mario feature deserves. Simply put: Mario has been animated, either as a sprite or as a TV cartoon, for as long as the series has existed. This is one of the biggest icons in modern popular-culture – the Mickey Mouse of video-games – he and his world deserve to “come to life” as big and extravagantly as, say, THE AVENGERS did.
I’ve been imagining what a live-action Mario would be like for decades – usually in-earnest in response to the somewhat perplexing idea that the property can’t possibly work in live-action (and yet somehow Oz, Narnia, Wonderland, Middle Earth, Asgard etc have worked just fine?) So I figured it was time to sit down and actually type out an off-the-cuff version of how I’d pitch this project if I ever got the chance, rather than reciting pieces of it whenever the topic comes up.
Alright. So here it is. Bob “MovieBob” Chipman’s hypothetical SUPER MARIO BROS. live-action movie pitch. The whole thing:
“25 WORDS OR LESS” PITCH:
“LORD OF THE RINGS meets 21 JUMP STREET. Fantasy/adventure, but with relatable wisecracking modern buddies instead of British dwarves or whatever.”
“LORD OF THE RINGS meets 21 JUMP STREET by way of GHOSTBUSTERS. Epic fantasy-adventure but instead of solemn British elves or precocious children it’s two wisecracking blue-collar schmoes from Brooklyn; so it’s relateable and “now.” Major sequel/spin-off potential with a near-limitless merchandising upside plus massive youth, crossover and nostalgia appeal, based on a proven brand that’s already more established and widely-recognized worldwide (particularly in Asian markets) than most of the Marvel/Avengers characters were prior to their movies.
STORYLINE (SHORT VERSION):
Two Italian-American brothers, plumbers from Brooklyn, are accidentally transported to a fantasy world of magic and monsters. There, they discover that their “alien” physiology imbues them with superhuman strength, speed and the ability to draw strange magical powers from “common” local plants and food. A kingdom of humanoid Mushrooms welcomes them as would-be heroes whose strength could turn the tide in their war against an encroaching army of evil creatures, while the brothers just want to find a way home. But when the Kingdom’s Princess is kidnapped, it’s clear that only they can undertake the dangerous rescue mission; ultimately finding their new destiny as The Super Mario Brothers!
STORYLINE (LONG VERSION):
Mario and Luigi are plumbers in Brooklyn, NY circa-1981. Fiercely loyal to one another in the fashion of archetypal working-class Italian brothers, but don’t see eye to eye on much. Mario had dreamed of becoming an adventurer (think Hemmingway, Indiana Jones, Carl from UP) but put it on hold to take over the family business (with Luigi) after their father died unexpectedly. Luigi isn’t a dreamer. He only ever wanted to follow his father as a plumber, resents Mario “always wanting more.”
The brothers (the family’s Americanized surname IS “Mario,” owing to an Ellis Island foul-up of “Marionetti” that got their ancestor officially named “Mario Mario,” a naming-tradition that carried on in his honor for first-borns) are called to repair a water-main break in a downtown Manhattan office, and note that seemingly every other plumber in the city seems to be doing jobs in the same area. They track the break to a rupture that leads into the sewer system, where they encounter what appears to be a huge turtle-like creature! Amid their struggle, a huge sink-hole opens, swallowing the entire city block, and the brothers (along with many others) suddenly find themselves in a crater in the Manhattan bedrock.
Luigi finds inquisitve Mario having followed the creature to a “cave” whose interior looks like some kind of ancient temple room. The creature has vanished back into a pool of water that seems to lead to a light source, and as the brothers argue about what’s happening a second tremor knocks them into the pool…
They’re spat-out of a huge green pipe jutting from a cliff-side into The Mushroom Kingdom (think Japanese/Brothers-Grimm Hybrid Oz, see below for details), where they encounter more hostile creatures and, in fending them off, discover their seemingly superhuman abilities and the powers they gain from the native nature (just Fire Flowers, to start – and yes, having fire-powers does make their clothing change color because magic). During this battle, one of the upright-walking, smarter creatures (see below) emerges from the pipe clutching some sort of glowing relic, and once he’s out of range the other creatures blow up the pipe (much to Luigi’s horror) and retreat – with one smaller creatures stealing a work-glove from Luigi’s toolbelt.
A troop of Mushroom Soldiers appear (they’ve come to relieve the creatures of another “treasure” they were guarding – a giant green-spotted egg…) wary of the brothers. Mario decides they should go with them to try and find answers, but all Luigi wants is to find another way home. They’re walked to the Castle, where they meet with Toad (“Captain of The Guards”) and Toadette (the Princess’ chief advisor.) Mario can’t understand why Luigi doesn’t at least want to know what’s happening. Luigi is impatient, accusing his brother of already seeing this as “some dumb adventure” rather than a serious calamity. Their bickering stops when they’re finally brought before Princess Peach, the Kingdom’s leader, who (along with being beautiful) seems to calm all around her with her very aura – more like a mystic being than a monarch.
In conversation with Peach, they learn the facts of the situation: The Mushrooms and Koopas (race of humanoid turtles) have been at war for centuries, with neither side remembering who actually started the fighting but also unable to stop as the Koopas covet the Mushrooms’ land and resources. Within the last generation, war has turned in the Koopas’ favor via the rise of Bowser, a larger, stronger and smarter-than-average Koopa who has industrialized and militarized his people to previously-unseen levels. The only surviving member of the Royal Family, Peach seeks to defend her people but knows they can only hold out for so long. The egg the soldiers took from the Koopas is said to “belong to The Yoshis,” and Toad believes that returning it to them could lead to a key alliance of forces.
The Mushrooms want the brothers to use their “magical” strength and powers (Mario and Toadette work-out that it’s a matter of interdimensional physics being different) to help aid the fight, and while Mario seems open to the idea Luigi refuses – he just wants to recuperate and set out to find another “Warp Zone” (ancient inter-universe portals that Bowser’s forces had been pillaging and destroying to find… something) to go home. Peach, though disappointed, agrees to let them leave. By accident, Mario witnesses Peach’s otherwise zen-like calm/nurturing demeanor momentarily drop to sadness, and notices that it briefly begins to rain…
By night, a group of ShyGuys (Bowser’s “ninjas,” see below) slip into the palace and attempt to abduct Peach. A fight ensues (including Peach fending off several attackers using only her parasol in homage to the famous Umbrella Fight from ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA) but Peach is ultimately taken (so is the “Yoshi’s” egg), seemingly spelling doom for the Kingdom.
Toad, Toadette and the other Mushrooms beg the brothers to at least help rescue The Princess – without her, they’re doomed (though only Toadette seems to know why that is, and she’s sworn to secrecy). Luigi is reluctant as ever, but Mario appeals to their shared sense of honor (they’re rhyming catchprases: “It’s an Italian thing” and “It’s a Brooklyn thing”) and his suspicion that Peach is possessed of a power that might help them get home. They set off to quest, with Toad additionally asking that they attempt to rescue the egg, if they can.
Peach is taken via improvised warp-zones directly to the Koopa kingdom, where she meets with Bowser and his scheming wizard/advisor Kamek (“The MagiKoopa.”) Though she’s a prisoner and locked in a dungeon, when allowed out to speak with Bowser she finds him to be surprisingly intelligent if unsophisticated. He doesn’t share Kamek’s eagerness for war and bloodshed (it’s implied that Kamek is responsible for Bowser being born so large and powerful, and that he sees himself as the power behind the throne) but will conquer the Mushroom Kingdom if that’s what it will take to get his people to stop wanting war and focus on the industrial self-improvement that he’s worked to foster in them.
Mario and Luigi venture through the Kingdom, encountering enemies and natural-hazards. Though they work as a team, their disagreements over the situation (Mario can barely contain the fact that, yes, he’s actually pretty thrilled to be questing like this, Luigi is miserable) continue to simmer. Meanwhile, back at the Castle, Toad and Toadette summon the citizenry inside to fortify and prepare for battle amid word of Bowser’s forces massing at their borders.
The brothers find and ambush the Koopa caravan carrying the egg, and liberate it after a battle. Amid the fighting, though, both Luigi’s rage at Mario’s adventure-obsession (“You think your better than me?,” basically) and Mario’s view of his brother as a “coward” and “small-minded” both finally spill into the open. They nearly come to blows (old wounds, father issues, etc) but are stopped when the egg (damaged in the fighting) cracks open to reveal a bipedal baby dinosaur that calls itself Yoshi (it’s growth seems highly-accelerated) and appears to understand English – even if it can only say “Yoshi.”
Bowser knows that allowing Kamek to experiment on Peach to unlock the “legendary” power of her bloodline is the key to victory, but is reluctant to torture her (Kamek does not share this reticence). Apparently, the relic (a stone full of glowing, seemingly self-replenishing liquid) taken from the Warp Zone to Brooklyn may allow them another option – demonstrated when Kamek drops a Fire Flower petal into some of the liquid, causing an “opposite” Ice Flower to sprout. We also see Kamek performing magical experiments on the glove taken from Luigi in their first battle.
Mario, Luigi and Yoshi (now almost full-grown) work out that Yoshi’s “people” are not far from where they are and will rally to the Mushrooms’ cause if asked. The decision is made: Mario will press on to Bowser’s Kingdom, Luigi will take Yoshi to his home. The brothers’ apology is unspoken, as they vow to see eachother at the end one way or another.
Kamek appears to Peach without Bowser’s knowledge, revealing that, as the palace was built to the giant (see below) Koopa’s proportions, he’s able to move about in secret via passages too small for his master. He also reveals that he knows the secret of her royal powers (her emotions, thoughts and feelings are tied to the very nature of the Mushroom Kingdom, hence her well-practiced zen calm) and has developed a machine that will forcibly draw reactions from her that can be used to cripple the Kingdom. Bowser insists that they first at least try using the relic to create a copy they can experiment on instead, but it’s clear that Kamek would be happier tormenting the real thing. When he departs, Peach finally loses her composure and breaks down sobbing…
…which in turn kicks up a raging rainstorm over The Mushroom Kingdom, which Toad grimly notes can only benefit the approaching Koopa horde.
Mario’s lonely journey to Bowser’s Kingdom is hard-fought and arduous, and he begins to lose some of his romantic idealization of adventuring. He come to admit that Luigi has a point, and that by now he actually would like to see Brooklyn again – and that he won’t take it for granted, this time…
Conversely, Luigi’s journey with Yoshi (now fully-grown) takes him to a scenic region of the Kingdom that dazzles him, allowing him to see what Mario had always seen in an explorer’s life. They reach The Valley of Yoshis, where (despite the somewhat hilarious language-barrier) The Yoshis agree to march to The Mushroom Kingdom and lend a hand thanks to the return of their “prince.” Luigi resolves to catch up with Mario, and Yoshi goes with him.
Kamek uses the potion derived from the relic on a restrained Peach, which causes the magical “birth” of a “goth”-looking, black-dressed, purple-haired “evil Peach” (“Princess PLUM,” maybe?) who shrieks and tears about the lab like an animal – frightening Peach and even Bowser as Kamek tries to force her into the emotion-manipulating machine… which fails to work. The relic didn’t copy her gift. Kamek magically blasts the clone into vapor (which he collects in a bottle), and gleefully informs Bowser that they’ve now no choice but to use the procedure on the real Peach. Peach pleads against this, but Bowser is unmoved (though he’s not above angrily reminding Kamek to know his place – and that he’s NOT the “puppet master” he fancies himself, even if he did “create” his King.)
Rain continues at the Mushroom Castle, where long-range archers have already felled a series of Koopa Army advance scouts. Toadette can only console Toad that she “hasn’t felt an earthquake… yet.”
Mario at last slips into the center of Bowser’s Kingdom, just in time to hear Bowser make a proclamation to his people via magical “projection” above the Castle, that their time is at hand. The Koopa King broods over this in his throne room, and sighs as Kamek pipes up with a projection of his own: He shows The Koopas Princess Peach locked into the torture-device that is “the key to our victory!” as the Koopa soldiers and citizenry cheer her first screams… Mario flies into a rage!
At the Mushroom Castle, Toad is momentarily heartened by the news that The Yoshis are speeding to their aid… until a temor is felt. On cue, the Koopa army advances in earnest. Back in the lab, Kamek is informed that Mario is tearing the Kingdom apart and turns the torture-controls over to an underling. He takes a red crystal that had been hooked up and “siphoning” some kind of energy from Luigi’s glove, fixes it into his wand, and heads for the battlefield.
Luigi and Yoshi arrive at the cliffs bordering Bowser’s kingdom just in time to see Mario engaged in a one-man war against the citizenry, soldiers and creatures (jumping, brick-smashing, Fire Flower blasts, the Mario fight-scene for the ages) as he fights his way to Bowser’s Castle like a man possessed. Kamek stops him (just as Luigi and Yoshi arrive to join them) and taunts both brothers with the glove and claims that he “cracked the code” of transdimensional irregularity… before blasting them with magic from the wand. The result: Their super-strength is neutralized, they’re now “normal” in this world.
Pounded by rain and wracked by tremors, Toad’s forces are only just barely holding back the horde at the gates (think Helm’s Deep from THE TWO TOWERS.)
Mario, Luigi and Yoshi are brought before a gloating Bowser, who orders them locked in the dungeon – but not before he specifically relishes taunting Mario, “The one who’s name she still clings to.” In the dungeon, Mario and Luigi apologize to eachother. Mario feels out of ideas, but a changed Luigi reveals that he pocketed a wrench and that they’ll “plumb their way out,” gesturing to the bolts on the large thermal pipes criss-crossing the roof of the dungeon…
Peach passes out from the strain of Kamek’s machine. Bowser orders him to let her be – for now. Annoyed, Kamek departs as Bowser takes his leave as well.
At Mushroom Castle, the tide turns – ever so slightly – as The Yoshis (and several other dinosaur-like species) pour onto the battlefield and make a mess of the Koopa lines, while winged Yoshis arrive for air support. Toad is encouraged, Toadette less so…
Mario and Luigi use their plumber’s intuition to move among the thermal-pipes between the walls of the castle (Yoshi has “gone on ahead,” apparently with specific instructions from Mario) finding their way into Kamek’s lab, where they find revive a dazed but not (physically) injured Peach. They go for the wand, angling that breaking it might restore their enhanced powers… but the wizard returns, and a fight breaks out. Kamek easily fends off the all-too-human plumbers with his magic (at once point attempting to drown Mario in the cauldron of relic-potion) with Peach looking on in desperation… and then anger.
Over the Mushroom Kingdom, the rain and the tremors stop… but the sky turns red with churning clouds and “lightning” that looks more like fire. (Toad: “Is that good news?” Toadette: “I have no idea.”)
Eyes blazing, Peach attacks Kamek with vengeful abandon (and smashing his wand, causing the “powers” to zap back into Mario and Luigi) hoisting him over her head and throwing him out the window – seemingly to his death.
In the bowels of the Castle, Yoshi is using Luigi’s wrench to mess with various pressure valves. As he does, we see various pipes and lava-pools throughout the (thermal-powered) infrastructure boil, buckle and bend.
As the brothers look on cautiously, Peach gradually calms (intercut with the sun finally coming out over the Mushroom Castle battlefield) and the trio make ready to escape; with a minor tremor alerting them that Yoshi must have found the valves (“That thing is a born plumber!”) But Peach notices that Mario still has some of the relic-potion on his mustache, and realizes that they aren’t safe yet…
A deformed, monster-like duplicate of Mario bursts from the cauldron, identifying itself as “Wario.” Mario sends Luigi and Peach to escape while he holds him off, and they proceed to fight – intercut with Luigi and Peach (joined by Yoshi) fleeing through the castle as the tremors increase and lava, fire and steam begin to crack through the walls. They emerge into the Throne Room… where Bowser is waiting.
At the Mushroom Castle, the good guys have turned the enemy back. Toad and Toadette appear at ease…
In the crumbling throne room, Luigi, Peach and Yoshi dodge Bowser’s attacks – including his now-revealed fire-breath. Mario and Wario, still wrestling, come crashing out of a balcony and land on top of the giant brute, bouncing to the ground where the fight continues until Mario manages to kick his doppleganger into a newly-opened lava-pit.
Mario and Luigi engage the gigantic Bowser in battle, pummeling him until he lies still on the ever-unsure floor. The enemy defeated, they turn to leave with Peach and Yoshi… but Luigi looks back, noting that Bowser is “still moving.” Mario nods grimly, tells Yoshi to escape with Peach. She doesn’t understand why they need to “finish” Bowser – “It’s an Italian thing,” “It’s a Brooklyn thing.”
Peach, riding Yoshi, dahses out of the castle across it’s stone bridge, which now extends over a rising lake of fire and lava. Mario, Luigi and Bowser circle eachother, staring one another down and ready for an opening…
…the entire front of the castle gate crumbles as the three combatants come crashing out, wailing on eachother. Mario scoops up a Bowser-sized decorative axe, brandishing it as Luigi powers-up with a Fire Flower and lures Bowser to the center of the bridge. Realizing he’s trapped, Bowser wheels back around in time to see Mario smash the axe down onto the bridge… causing it to crumble under his feet and send the Koopa King spiraling down to his doom as The Brothers exchange happy nods across the gulf.
Mario, Luigi and Yoshi receive a hero’s welcome at Mushroom Castle, where Peach “knights” them (“These people didn’t even have a word for ‘knight’ until Mario brought it up!” notes Luigi). There’s talk of continuing to search for a way back to Brooklyn, but it’s clear that both brothers have reached an equilibrium whereby they miss home but are also excited to be heroes exploring their new world.
Epilogue: In the remnants of Bowser’s Kingdom, something stirs in a lake of lava… it’s Wario, somehow alive (and lava-proof?) and clawing his way up onto the rocky shore – where Kamek is waiting for him.
Mushroom Kingdom: Big and organic. As much visual reference to the games as possible in terms of the look and feel of the Mushroom Kingdom, but not leaning on intentional artifice – think Narnia, MALEFICENT’s Moors, LEGEND or the original WIZARD OF OZ, not the Burton WONDERLAND. Lean heavy on the idea of extra-active plant-life, given the presence of the Mushroom People themselves: Along with the expected Piranha Plants and Goombas (they could be evil/primitive Mushrooms, right?) and so forth, think grabby-vines, moving flowers, etc. Mushroom Kingdom should be “fantasy self-sustaining, a super-colorful/cuddly cross between fairytale medieval Europe and fuedal Japan. Even “familair” looking flora and fauna look just a little bit more cuddly/friendly (big eyes, round proportions) than they would on Earth.
Big-idea stuff like the floating mountains from AVATAR? Maybe, but in trying to recreate the “floaty brick platforms” of the games maybe think more on the lines of ancient, crumbling instrastructure – think the ruins of the elevated Roman Aquaducts by way of M.C. Escher and/or Frank Lloyd Wright (imagine a fight/chase sequence in a canyon criss-crossed with stone bridges and stairs, Mario/Luigi leaping between them and smashing up through the stone from below to knock out enemies!) Should make some practical geographic sense, i.e. no lava-world right next door to the frozen-tundra for now reason.
Bowser’s Domain: The Koopas live in a “valley” created by constant volcanic activity, which they’ve harnessed (crudely) into a power-source. It’s an “industrial” Kingdom in contrast to the Mushrooms’ clean, fanciful world – damn near everything is made out of red clay bricks, wrought-iron and logs culled from ancient, massive trees. It’s not exactly Mordor, though – this isn’t a “blighted” place, it’s the logical solution to building a working civilization in the absence of key natural resources. The exception is Bowser’s Castle, which resembles a traditional medieval fortress of gray stone but built to its master’s gigantic proportions (see below.)
Brooklyn: Won’t be seen for too long, but should be a fairly authentic looking recreation of New York City, circa-1981.
Mario and Luigi: Should divide in appearance, same as the games – Mario shorter, slightly older, stocky; Luigi tall and lanky. They Have their traditional blue overalls and red/green shirt/hat combos, but no initials on the hats and no gloves. They keep their clothes because, like them, their Earth-origins cause them to function like armor against weapons in the new world. They also have their tool-belts, which start half-stocked with common plumbing tools but are augmented to carry gear and items.
Princess Peach: Should look as much like the games as possible in dress and hairstyle, leaning heavy on the mashup of Disney Princess grandeur and Roccoco opulence. Might be prudent to hire a Japanese “idol”-style actress, someone familiar with the serene “zen-but-with-giggles” affect often baked into the traditional characterization of Peach, but also able to drop it when appropriate.
Toad/Toadette/Mushrooms: Probably best executed via CGI or CGI-augmented children/little-people in suits. Same design as the games, with personalities similar to “adult children” like Snow White’s dwarves, Oompa Loompas, Munchkins, etc. Not precisely “comic-relief,” but given their proportions just them moving about doing simple tasks should be amusing.
Yoshi: Think a T-Rex, but roughly the proportions of a mid-sized horse with a vastly less “threatening” face (big eyes, round snout, etc). Personality of a very large, friendly dog (once he’s grown, prior to that more like a puppy.)
CREATURES (KOOPAS ETC):
Bowser: Stands roughly 12 – 14 feet tall, difficult to discern given bulky proportions and hunched posture. Color and shape should be as close to the game as possible, with realistic reptilian textures and musculature. Walks upright, but can “sprint” on all fours like a gorilla for added speed. Sharp teeth, horns, etc but they aren’t the focus – this a brawler, not a biter. Should consistently Appear tired and resigned except when in battle or angry, a brutal tyrant but a brutal tyrant who would rather his people not be so demanding of brutality or eager for tyranny.
Koopas: Humanoid turtles, similar in design to Bowser but “lesser” (human-sized, for one thingf) highlighting that he’s a “freakishly” evolved superior version of them. Most should appear harmless but not particularly clean or pleasant. “Soldiers” among them wear wrought-iron armor, and fight with weapons that are all variations on hammers.
Kamek: Older-looking Koopa, wears wizard robes and a pointy hat. Eager and sadistic, in contrast to Bowser.
Troopas: The turtle-enemies from the games, here utilized as beasts of burden by Koopa soldiers. Also turtles, but walk on all fours, have yellow skin and snapping jaws – resemble overly-muscled tortoises roughly the size of a small car, capable of withdrawing wholly into their shell when attacked. Flying variation with feathered-wings in place of front arms also onhand.
Spinys: Similar looking to Troopas but with stumpier limbs and shells covered with spikes (thinner, longer and more needle-like than the ones on Bowser’s shell.) Should be at least one scene partially built around them emerging from eggs, but maybe save Lakitu (the cloud guy who drops the eggs in the game) for a sequel.
Buzzy Beetles: Change in design from the games, for the sake of variety: Actual large beetles (same size as the Troopas, roughly) instead of smooth-shelled turtles.
Goombas: Same design as the game (evil mushrooms with feet and faces) but here fast-moving and jumpy. Bowser’s army version of “pawns,” usually the first wave into any given fight.
ShyGuys: Masks identitcal to the games (white ovals with three black circles denoting eyes and mouth) red robes more in line with Arabian/Nomadic attire, built for movement. Completely silent, never seen without masks. Carry multiple stabbing/throwing weapons (swords, knives, chains, daggers – think ninja gear) and the occasional bow and arrow combo.
Piranha Plants: Large, plump venus fly-trap creatures. Should be a background presence in any scene set in a heavily plant-covered area, at least one action beat should be set around an encounter with one or more large ones.
Wario: “Mr. Hyde” version of Mario – exaggerated features, bulgy and muscular. Sharp teeth and claw-like fingernails. Purple overalls over a yellow shirt.
…so, yeah. That’s what I got. Silly? Probably. Better if I actually sat around and workshopped it? Likely. But now when people ask, “how would you do it?” There it is.