Dungeons and Marios: Honor Among Brothers

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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.

In Conclusion

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.

Steven Savage

Super Mario Brothers The Movie: One Of The Worst And Why

hopper tongues it

[Yes, I know I usually do career and citizenship posts here.  But part of a good career and good citizenship is not making terrible movies.  In the light of Scott’s analysis of Super Mario Brothers, I wanted to put in my own two cents on why the film was awful.  Because I care.  And because the film was bad.]

I did not see the Super Mario Brothers film until Riffftrax released it. I had heard it was terrible. I know some people still remember it fondly, especially for the late and truly great Bob Hoskins’ performance, but agree the film wasn’t good. So my first encounter with it was with the talented Rifftrax comedians giving their take, which was mainly wall-to-wall sarcasm with intermittent horror at shirtless John Leguzamo.

At the end I could really only say that despite the truly marvelous commentary, this was one of the worst films I’ve seen. If you know anything about me, you know that is a terrifying statement.

I mean I’ve watched some seriously bad films without commentary. I’m not sure I could handle this one without sarcastic assistance. I can’t imagine the braveness of my friend Scott who viewed it raw for his analysis.

But this got me thinking – why was my reaction so visceral? What was going on in my head? Why would I rather watch, say “Plan 9” (which is bad, but there’s much worse) than this?

So, oddly, inspired by this debacle of a film, I began asking why it was so bad, and what I found surprised me.

Let’s go ask: what makes a film bad?

The Kinds Of Badness

First there are many ways a film can be bad. That’s one of the big problems in saying a film (or a book or a game) is bad – because there are different forms of things being awful. These are not the same or even equal.

After some analysis I came to the conclusion a film could be bad due to the following elements, or combination of elements.

Conceptual: Some films just have bad ideas. They don’t have a good script and concept to begin with. Now some films can overcome this with good acting, clever implementation, and so on.

Implementation: A film has to embody the concepts it has properly. If this is not done, then the film essentially is not embodying its core ideas. Implementation is challenging as a poorly implemented film concept makes it much harder for the cast and crew to make it work – whereas having just lousy concepts may at least be freeing.

Technical: Some films are technically incompetent, marred by bad vocal work, effects, camerawork, sets, and so on. A good film can overcome these limitations, but they can be a drag or limit the film, as we have seen where a good idea is poorly handled.

Casting: Sometimes you have a problem with the cast themselves. A good script, good effects, and people that just can’t carry it or who don’t carry it well can really mess it up. No matter how well you do, the people on screen can doom you.

Ethical: Some films may be bad due to what they have to say or what they do. Some political/propaganda and exploitation works fall into this area. These are films that are morally objectionable.

So a film could be well made but ethically suspect. A film can have a great idea but be ruined by a bad cast or incompetent director. For that matter a talented cast or director can pull off a bad script and make a decent film in many cases. I’d argue the first X-Men film had a seriously mediocre script and concept, but it was handled quite well.

So where does Super Mario Brothers fall in all of this? Let’s check.

Super Mario Brothers: Examine The Terrible

So let’s take a look at the film and how it faired in the areas it could be bad in.


The core of the Super Mario Brothers worlds is a strange, whimsical, almost fairy-tail setting. It’s a cartoon thats a bit surreal, with a memorable cast of broadly drawn and wacky characters and some imaginative settings.

Now this is a bit challenging to make a film out of, though as i understand the earlier scripts were more of a comedy. However at it’s heart the Mario world is kind of silly and wacky and likeable.

But you do have some strong themes and recognizable elements to work with – it will take effort, and “continuity” in the Mario world is sort of something that happens by accident.  But you know what you’ve got.


The cast was undoubtedly talented, though I question some of the choices (notably John Leguizamo whose comedic approach was grating, and Samantha Mathis who was rather dull). When one examines the cast you find:

  • Bob Hoskins as Mario.  Hoskins was a talented man with great charisma, and frankly a charming Mario. Good call for a non-standard hero. The fact he is so fondly remembered despite the flawed film is a testimony to his skill.
  • Dennis Hopper as Koopa.  Hopper is talented and great at being crazy, a fine choice for a villain. Hopper can dial the insane up to 11, a good choice for the ever self-frustrating Bowser/Koopa.
  • Fiona Shaw as Lena, Koopa’s henchwoman and lover, who had some excellent moments. Not part of Mario’s loose cannon, but a great actress.
  • Fisher Steves and Richard Edson, who showed excellent timing and chemistry as Spike and Iggy. I will note the characters were insanely annoying, but they did actual play off of each other very well, which tells me they could have been used much better.

Oh and no, I have no idea why Mojo Nixon was there. I really can’t say anything but “WTF?”


Well, let’s get it out of the way, I expected a hell of a lot better. The sets were ugly, the direction lackluster, the costumes weird in the wrong way. There was clearly money here and the pairing of Morton and Jankel are the people who gave us Max Headroom.

Not only did it all look wrong, but it wasn’t even that interesting to watch. “Workmanlike” best describes the direction, and “inappropriate and stereotypical” describes the set. We were basically watching a post-apocalyptic set with uninspired direction.

Also light guns used as mice? The weird patches of Goomba slime? You wonder what they were thinking.

Of course why were we watching all this wrongness? Well, here’s where we get to the core of how the Super Mario Brothers Film fails


This was not a film about the Mario Brothers.

This was slapping the names of the characters onto two guys, one of who was a legal guardian to the other. This was turing the goofy Koopa into a sleazy politician and an evolved dinosaur. This was a garish, ear-splitting, ugly, noisy movie replete with things that were Not Super Mario Brothers.

There’s weirdly sexual elements at a dance club. Big Bertha, a giant fish creatures, is turned into a large, bosomy bouncy wearing fetish gear. No one kills Goomas by jumping on their head, and they’re just de-evolves dinosaur humans going back to . . . er, yeah.

I could go on. I could list so many flaws with the film that point out it’s basically not a Mario movie in concept or visuals or use of character or anything.

And we get to the crux of it all.

This is not just a film that isn’t “really” Mario Brothers. It is not just a film that doesn’t use many elements of the games. This is a film that actually rewrites things and rewrites ideas to not just be not Super Mario Brothers, but to be its opposite.

No brothers. No color. Characters turned into something else. Weirdly fetishy elements as opposed to something family-friendly. Screeching noises as opposed to goofy sounds. Dark and dreary and dismal as opposed to colorful.

The core of Super Mario Brother’s failure, what makes it truly terrible, is that it is a film that does what seems to be an intentional reversal of its very premise. It’s the Anti-Super Mario Brothers film. It could have been a Mirror Universe Mario movie – actually that would have been amusing, but I’d rather they not try to handle Wario and Waluigi

It didn’t just fail, it went out of it’s way to be completely wrong.

The Ethical:

Oddly I can’t entirely say the film is bad on the ethical/cultural/moral level. It is a bad film, but I can’t call any of the content ethnically questionable.

Admittedly marketing it as a Super Mario Brothers movie when it’s the opposite brings up whole other ethical issues I won’t address.

The Bad Of Being The Opposite

So when I look at this film, I can say what makes it rank among the worst films I’ve seen is that it is a shining example of a film doing the exact opposite of its core material. It takes the core materials and literally does the most inappropriate things with them. It goes from being just from being bad to being wrong. It’s not a failure, it’s an anti-achievement, it’s more of a failure than a simple bad implementation, and it takes effort to get it this wrong.

So I stand by my judgement in that this film is bad, and bad at a noteworthy level in a specific category – it violates its very concepts by its implementation.. In a way it breaks its agreement with the audience by doing a 180 on what it is based on and what it promises to deliver.

It is consciously bad. Someone(s) decided to make the film this way. It was released this way. Incompetence or lack of talent or lack of money is not an excuse here. It was basically made bad by intentional effort – or not enough people stood up and said “Seriously?”

Thus I stand by my judgement. I hope that this provides some insight o your own writing and media work and what can go wrong.

Big hint? Don’t do the opposite of your concept. Good start. Or lack of start. You know what I mean.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.