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I consider the films Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and the Super Mario Brothers movie to be successes as good films. I found them both enjoyable, but also find that both of them work because the people behind them made similar choices. There’s a lot of lessons there, and you know me, I’m definitely going to write it down.
Let me pause to note I do not consider them to be of equal quality. The Dungeons and Dragons movie is fun, emotionally resonant, and both grand yet very human. The Super Mario Brothers film is a fun romp with some clever choices, but not as deep. But the lessons – even where they both don’t succeed – are illustrative.
So how did two different films do same things, let’s take a look. There are of course spoilers here, so here there be dragons (or Koopas).
Be Fun and Entertaining
Both movies are actually fun. There’s action, there’s jokes, there’s actors and actresses giving it their all. I had a good time at both. Super Mario Brothers was so snappy and tight I didn’t even take a break.
Fun can be forgotten, especially when you already have other things on your mind like adaption. But you have to give people a reason to pay attention beyond “hey I adapted this.” Be it Chris Pine being a charisma bomb or a brain-twisting Mario scene where the infamous Rainbow Road is realized, give people a reason to enjoy it.
You can also tell people enjoyed making them, both have a joy to them. Which probably says a lot about why they work as well.
Don’t Run Away From What You Are
The Dungeons and Dragons film is just like the games – not the books. A group of confused dumbasses get into trouble and save the day. It feels like a gaming session, right down to bad luck and unwise choices.
The Super Mario Brothers movie is colorful, bright, and strange. There are moments it has homages to the games and gameplay, but outside of those it runs on a kind of game logic. It feels like a game and doesn’t apologize at all.
This is what people came for. I do not come wanting an explanation of Mordenkainen’s magic or how to use a Fire Flower. I want to see hypercompetent stupidity and someone yelling “wahoo” he stomps on evil turtles. And I got it.
Use It But Don’t Overexplain
Dungeons and Dragons brings decades of history, rules, rules changes, rules arguments, novels, adaptions, and more. What do you do with that? Well, it’s raw material but you tell a story first – ten minutes of rules are boring but the sorcerer Simon struggling to “attune” to a magical item is interesting because it’s about a person.
Meanwhile the Mario film inherits a disjointed series of games and events without an exact timeline or even consistency. The film takes a pile of stuff and forges it into a setting but also doesn’t explain it much. Power ups just exist – what matters is how you use them. An industro-solarpunk kingdom of apes just exist – what matters is if you can make them allies. Tell a story – besides people already bought into the premise of plumbers teleported to this cartoony realm anyway.
The stuff you adapt is fuel for an actual story.
Get A Cast That Works
Want a good adaption? Get a cast that will embrace the roles and bring things to life so people feel and enjoy the film. Even the best script is nothing without the right cast.
Dungeons and Dragons cast is stellar. It’s like a movie filled with leads that just happens to center on Chris Pine’s bard, Edgin. From the humor to the pathos, the cast brings you into the film. A few characters might have been used better or given more depth, but everyone used what they got and then some.
Super Mario mostly does the same thing. Jack Black owns his role as Bowser and brings pathos to the character (more later). Anya Taylor-Joys Princess Peach is fantastic, badass, and charming enough she’s sort of the main character at times. Charlie Day is terribly underused as Luigi, but clearly brought is A game. I could compliment others, but you get the idea. The film is inherently ridiculous but the cast is game, as it were.
Now Chris Pratt is the elephant in the room. Regarding his problematic statements, I looked into them for this article, and it appears he’s not bigoted, but is not always thoughtful or good at reading a situation. Regarding his acting, he can “phone it in” but can really shine when he sinks his teeth into a role.
That being said, his Mairo performance was extremely generic. It was enough to move things along and make Mario human, but he didn’t add anything to the role. Whether it’s his fault or the scriptwriters, I’m not sure. I also noticed the animators did some amazing expression work with Bowser and Peach and wondered if they were more restrained with Mario.
Either way, lesson learned – get a cast that’s good and let them go.
Give Us Real Emotional Arcs
The Dungeons and Dragons movie brought tears to my eyes, once during That Scene at the end (if you saw it, you know), and once afterwards when I realized how I related to a character’s speech. The movie has multiple emotional arcs that bring it to life, give characters reasons to do things, and help you connect.
This is not consistent among the cast or characters, and I blame the script. It’s a perfectly fine script, but a few more scenes could have done wonders. But what is there is good.
Believe it or not Super Mario Brothers does this too, multiple times. In fact, there’s a scene where Mario and his original nemesis Donkey Kong find out they’re a lot alike. When a cartoon plumber and a big monkey share parallel emotions, you’ve done something right.
However Super Mario Brothers also doesn’t dive into the emotional arcs as well as Dungeons and Dragons and is poorer for it. There’s some unused potential, from Mario feeling defensive about Luigi to Princess Peach’s isolation as a lone human in her world. There’s unexplored character motivations, such as Toad’s heroic drive that differentiates him from his fellows. I feel there’s 5-10 minutes of cut footage that made it a better movie.
But the lessons stay the same. In fact . . .
Give Us Relatable Villains
Hugh Grant, playing con-man Forge charms his way through the Dungeons and Dragons movie in a way only he could. Daisy Head’s creepy sorceress Sofina is something out of a horror film, and you believe she’d like nothing more to murder the idiots surrounding her. Both get scenes that aren’t just villainy but humanity – Forge finds a joy in adoptive fatherhood, and Sofina snaps over how annoying Forge is in a relatable way.
This is great, they’re enjoyable. They get human moments – but only the acting covers the fact they’re otherwise paper-thin characters. Both could have shown more depth with just a few tweaks or an extra scene or two. The actors clearly work with what they have, but there could have been more.
Meanwhile let me commit blasphemy – Jack Black’s Bowser in Super Mario not only gets to be relatable, his character is better handled than the villains in Dungeons and Dragons.
Yes I went there.
Black’s Bowser is a terrifying warlord and a hopeless romantic. Madly in love with Princess Peach, he hopes to impress her and marry her instead of conquering her kingdom (sort of). Throw in Black’s performance with excellent animation, and Bowser becomes sympathetic, a kind of ridiculously Shakespearean character of extremes. If anything, I felt there was more to explore.
Both films add villains with some understandable traits. Super Mario does it better. Forge and Sofina aren’t interesting enough on their own, but Black’s Bowser feels like he could carry an entire film.
Do A Film Not A Preview
As I’ve said before, I will compliment the Marvel movies on sheer competency. However, I’m also extremely tired that the interlinked nature of stories seems to “wash out” the films. There’s that need to keep the mega-franchise going, and there’s a certain “safety” in choices that wears thin. Make something that stands on its own – like these films!
Dungeons and Dragons and Super Mario Brothers are delightfully standalone. They do their job, they deliver. Sure you may care due to the games – in fact it’s the only reason to care about Super Mario Brothers. But both stand on their own quite well and in a satisfying manner.
There’s just that thrill of being able to “close the book” and move on with each. Both deserve sequels of some kind, but its nice to see them deliver and be done. It helps the people making them focus, and it means each film is reliably complete.
So there you have it. Both of these adaptions based on games, both wildly different, really succeed due to the same choices. Embrace what you do, don’t overexplain, get the right cast and real emotional arcs we feel. That’s it.
It feels unnecessary to explain this, but maybe the fact I feel this says volumes about the poor media I’ve seen – and how I enjoyed these two pieces. Let’s learn from them, and maybe apply these lessons to things beyond giant big budget movies.