Bad Reviews and Blue Ducks
In our editorial section, we check in with our Editor-in-Chief, Liz Kelly, for her thoughts on a wide variety of subjects related to storytelling and gaming. All potential spoilers will be labeled ahead of time, so that fans who wish to play specific games unspoiled will be able to set the editorial aside for a later time.
About a week ago, I pre-ordered tickets for The Super Mario Bros. Movie, as one does when one writes about video game stories for a living. A few days later, when the review embargo broke, I digitally sauntered over to Rotten Tomatoes to see how the movie held up. The score: a dismal 53%, suggesting a little under half of the reviewers thought the movie was “disappointing,” “forgettable,” or “bland.”
I won’t lie to you—I considered canceling the reservation for my tickets. I pretty much gave up on movie theaters at the start of COVID and haven’t looked back (though less out of fear of illness and more out of general cheapness), and there are enough great movies playing right now with an RT rating of over 90% that it seemed silly to see anything less than a hit.
I didn’t cancel those tickets, though. And I think I can explain why.
If you’ve ever put on Comedy Central in the middle of a weekday, chances are pretty good that you’ve seen the now-ancient Adam Sandler movie Billy Madison. If you’ve never seen it, all you need to know is that Sandler plays a bona fide failson who has to successfully graduate from both elementary school and high school before he can inherit his father’s company. This is a real struggle for him, given that he’s an idiot, but he actually fits in pretty well in first grade. He gets along with the other kids, he listens to the teacher’s stories, and he even gets to color in a duck as his capstone project. While the other kids are making their ducks normal duck colors, Billy colors his duck blue. When asked why, he says: “I’d never seen a blue duck before and I wanted to see one.”
No one has ever accused Billy Madison of being a work of narrative genius. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is even lower than the Mario movie’s (a downright tragic 41%), and even the most ardent Sandler fans are likely to tell you that Happy Gilmore is better. Nevertheless, Billy made a salient point with his blue duck drawing, which is that we should make art we want to see.
Now, I didn’t make the Mario movie, but I’ve been wanting to see a good Mario movie for a long time. Before anyone jumps down my throat, I’m not saying the 1993 cyberpunk was bad, exactly; it just wasn’t what I wanted to see. I still admire it for both its ambition and its hubris, but it never scratched the Mario itch that’s been dogging me since I first played Super Mario Bros. on the sandy floor of a shore house in New Jersey. It was an itch that transcended the desire for compelling character arcs, clever plot twists, and poignant themes: a desire to see the heroes of my childhood on the big screen.
And in that respect, the Super Mario Bros. Movie gave me exactly what I wanted to see.
It’s been a few hours since I got out of the movie, so I’ve had some time to assemble my thoughts about its successes and its struggles. It wasn’t a perfect movie by any stretch, I’ll say that for starters. The plot was Paper Mario-thin, the pacing was frantic, and the overplayed-pop needle drops were downright obnoxious. On the plus side, the voice actors were wonderful (even Pratt wasn’t bad!), the orchestral music was beautiful, and the art direction was vibrant and playful. It felt like the kind of movie that the cast and crew had fun making.
It felt like they were making the kind of movie they wanted to see.
I don’t know if other fans of the Mario franchise will be as pleased with the movie as I was. The current Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 96% leads me to believe that, yes, I am not alone in liking it, but that score could always be the result of one very dedicated bot brigade. Nevertheless, I’m inclined to think that viewers will be kinder than critics, because I’m not the only one who’s been itching to see an honest-to-God Mario movie.
I could finish this editorial here (and a part of me is tempted to, since I really want to go play more of the Resident Evil 4 remake), but I feel like I should explain why it sounds like I’m dismissing the importance of story on a site that is ostensibly about video game storytelling. It might come off that way, but I’m not trying to reduce the value of story at all. If anything, I’m trying to expand it.
The way I see it, storytelling starts with the fundamentals I’ve tried to outline on this site, but it doesn’t end with them. As creative works, stories have an intangible quality that allows them to resonate with people in ways we can’t even imagine. Ten people with ten different sets of memories can have ten different reactions to the same story, and none of their reactions are any more or less valid. To that end, when somebody tells a story that resonates with lots and lots of people, that’s pretty special. As much as everybody loves to hate on things that become oppressively popular, it’s not that easy to make something with mass appeal—just ask anyone who’s ever had a boss tell them to ‘make a viral video.’
I don’t think the Super Mario Bros. Movie is going to be a global phenomenon, and I certainly don’t think it’s going to win any screenwriting awards. Having said that, I do think it’s unfair to dismiss it because of underdeveloped characters or a by-the-numbers plot. For the fans of the franchise, the story is about more than jumping plumbers or magic turtles; it’s about seeing something you love in a new way, and remembering why you loved it in the first place.
It’s not a great movie, but it’s a movie I’m glad I saw.
Liz Kelly, Editor-in-Chief
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