It was dubbed one of the worst films of the nineties – and seeing it scarred Seth Rogen for life.
“Seeing (Super Mario Bros.) as a young man was the first time I realised that there could be bad movies, something which had not conceptually occurred to me until that moment! That’s why it feels so nice to be able to redeem the good name of the Mario brothers cinematically, considering where they started”.
Yes, the legacy of the iconic game characters is redeemed via The Super Mario Bros. Movie, in which he voices Donkey Kong. Since catching an early screening, Rogen has been relieved that this isn’t a cinematic disaster like the infamous 1993 flop.
This is a particular comfort for the actor considering the freedom he was given to put his own spin on the iconic video game villain, with directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic (best known for creating Teen Titans Go!) affording him the space to make Donkey Kong his own.
“I’m always trying to find ways to make this material funny to myself – and as there’s nobody else in that recording booth with me, there’s nobody else to make laugh”, he explained to Zavvi.
“The directors were really open to me improvising a ton, and I’m always looking for the joke in the scene, what’s there that can help me add new funny things, and for me conflict is always at the root of that. That’s why I came up with the idea of Donkey Kong hating Mario – I’ve done enough comedies to know you need a conflict like that to sink your teeth into, to ensure a lot of the jokes land.
“I’m not given any do’s and don’ts with what to do with the characters; in the moment, in the recording booth, I just assume they’re not going to use any of it. Although I do understand the tone of these things, and I don’t want to waste anybody’s time, so I’m not turning up and doing my usual edgier fare, expecting that to make it into the final film!”
Rogen is open about the Mario movie being greenlit for purely financial reasons, but as an actor and writer who has been involved with several franchises, he knows that the creative freedom afforded to those involved with it is the major determining factor in its success.
“The reality is, you could make a brilliant movie based on what seems like the least narratively interesting IP, and you can make a terrible movie on what seems like the most narratively interesting IP, it’s really what you make of it.
“These movies turn out good by putting people who are creatively inspired by the opportunity to explore these worlds in charge. I don’t think whoever came up with the idea “let’s make a LEGO Movie” was doing it for purely creative reasons, but (directors) Phil Lord and Chris Miller were, and these movies will always work when you get people to use that arena to create an original and exciting film”.
One of the actors who was particularly inspired was Jack Black, who viewed the character of Bowser as the “Iago of the Nintendo Universe”. The actor, a passionate gamer, jumped at the chance to voice one of the medium’s most iconic roles.
“Bowser had this huge reputation already. Everyone has an idea about Bowser, he’s the most famous video game villain of all time, it’s like getting to play the Joker – this character with a lot of history to him.
“And it’s fun to tell people when they ask if I’ve been working on anything; “Nothing big, no big deal… I’m just playing Bowser in The Super Mario Bros. Movie”, and it impresses everybody. They think I’m a lucky son of a bitch.
“The thing about Bowser that’s funny is that he’s this huge, powerful, evil force of nature. But he’s also very sensitive and insecure, and that dichotomy is funny.
“When you’ve got someone that’s so powerful and dangerous, who is also concerned about what people think about him, and worried that maybe someone doesn’t love him back the way that he thought? Then it’s really funny to explore those sensitivities.”
As with other iconic villains we’ve seen on the big screen, Bowser has been depicted before, by none other than Dennis Hopper in the 1993 movie (where the character was depicted very loosely as “President Koopa”). Black confessed to having not seen that movie, which was for the best, as he admits that he probably would have started imitating one of his favorite screen performers.
He continued: “You’ve caught me with my pants down! It’s embarrassing to admit that I didn’t even realize Dennis Hopper had played him before, but I love my Bowser, and I love Dennis Hopper – if I’d seen his performance, I’d probably have just done my impression of that.
“But it was a blast discovering the character and creating the voice. It took a few sessions to settle on the voice because the creatives over at Illumination and Nintendo are very specific, and wanted to make sure we turned over every stone and and tried every possible Bowser until we found one that we all agreed on.
“They did give me room to experiment more with the character on subsequent takes, which is one of the fun parts of the job. I always do the lines as written, as I’m respectful to the people working hard on those scripts, but once those are done, they encourage you to have fun – and a lot of those did not make the film, as I went to some crazy places.
“But sometimes, you find a nugget of gold in there when you go off roading.”
Keegan-Michael Key, who voices Toad, had the challenge of making his own voice “unrecognizable” in order to inhabit the role of Princess Peach’s servant. Knowing that the actors were being left to their own creative devices in the recording booth, he looked close to home for inspiration.
“I knew that he had to have a high pitched voice. I started by taking a friend of mine, trying to emulate that friend’s vocal patterns and rhythms – I took that to the director and he said we needed to make it higher, and we kept pushing it up until we found the highest spot where I would be able to maintain the voice.”
Shigeru Miyamoto, the original creator of Mario, is on board this film as a producer. Similarly, he made sure to give the creative team space when breathing new life into his famous creations.
As Key explained to Zavvi: “I only got to meet him briefly; he was very gracious and very sweet, and his energy is exactly what you would think it’d be for someone who created this game!
“Michael and Aaron, the directors, were very good at letting us do whatever we wanted, letting us feel the freedom before they refined it. It meant I never felt trapped or boxed in – it was a real compliment to them both for letting us have that space whilst doing the work.”
If early reports from Hollywood are to be believed, the movie is on track to become the biggest box office hit of 2023 so far. This might be a surprise for many, considering that video game adaptations have long been assumed to be a “cursed” genre for critics and audiences – is the Mario movie the biggest sign yet that the curse has been lifted?
Key certainly thinks so, telling us: “I think we have gotten past the video game movie curse. I think what makes this movie work is the fact there wasn’t a story beforehand that boxed in the characters, so Illumination had an opportunity to go in any direction they wanted to with this story.
“There’s a lot of source material, but it doesn’t force you into a box, so I think that they very intelligently approached it by finding the smartest ways to connect the dots.
“Playing video games can feel like watching a movie these days, so adapting something directly is hard, as it’s already been done – although they made it work with The Last Of Us, and I think we’re making it work in animation.”