Flotsam: Various and Sundry Life Things and the Mario Movie

1. I’m beginning to settle in at last as the final few necessary tasks and purchases are being wrapped up. Having a new apartment is like having a giant toy; there are all sorts of things you can do with it and you can’t wait to get the chance to play with it.

2. Internet is up at last, though I have it on a kill switch (via the simple expedient of plugging the router into a power strip) so I can turn it off it becomes too much of a distraction.

On that note, I’m working out a schedule for myself to hopefully improve my (frankly appallingly slow) output. So far setting up has kept on interrupting, but even so I’ve found an uptick in production. Amazing what sitting down and just doing the damn work can accomplish.

3. Part of my schedule is anticipated to include Saturday movie nights (don’t like watching movies during the week, since they eat up so much time), and last night it was Megamind. I’ve probably mentioned it before, but that’s another film I’ve been meaning to do an essay on, since it ranks high on my list of underappreciated gems. It’s an example of the best kind of satire: the kind that provides the genuine thrills and particular joys of the genre it’s spoofing, even as it uses the material for comedy (The Princess Bride and Galaxy Quest are other examples of this sort of thing). In this case it pokes fun at comic book superhero tropes while also providing some excellent comic-book-style action / adventure heroics.

It’s also almost infinitely quotable: “Warming up? The Sun is ‘warming up‘?!”

4. The voice cast was announced for the upcoming ‘Super Mario Brothers’ animated movie (entrusted to Blue Sky of all people), and no one seems particularly happy about it. I like Chris Pratt, but him as Mario? I don’t know about that. And last time I checked, Charles Martinet was alive and well. Granted you might not want the high-pitched Mario voice for a whole film, but I happen to know that Mr. Martinet can do many voices (e.g. he was one of the dragons in Skyrim): all he has to do is tone it down a bit.

I really don’t understand why studios do this (it also bugged me when Roger Craig Smith was replaced by Ben Schwartz for Sonic. Schwartz was fine in the role, but it’s annoying nonetheless). Or rather, I understand, but it makes no sense from a fans’ perspective. Studios figure that mainstream audiences will want to see familiar names in the credits, not the relatively obscure voice actors of the games. Filmmakers, and especially studio people, are notoriously out of touch and so don’t realize that the days of star-driven films are largely in the past. No one is going to go see Super Mario Brothers to hear Chris Pratt and Jack Black: they’re going to go see it to see the Mario Brothers (assuming it looks tolerable from the trailers). Keeping Charles Martinet in the title roles would have been a surefire way to garner immediate fan support, which I think is frankly a lot more valuable these days than star power, especially for an animated film.

I still hope the film is good, and I’m not judging it yet, but this isn’t a good sign. Please, please at least be better than the live action film. That should not be a challenge.

(Though for my part, all will be forgiven if they give John Leguizamo and Samantha Mathis cameos. Or if they bring Lance Hendrikson back as the king / chancellor of the Mushroom Kingdom. Come on, people: he never turns down a paycheck!).

5. By the way, I suspect the above is the reason why My Little Pony: The Movie jettisoned most of that show’s fantastic supporting cast in favor of a bunch of new characters with celebrity voice actors. They probably would have re-cast the Mane Six if they thought they could get away with it (“Starring Scarlett Johanson as Twilight Sparkle”).

6. Also, regarding the Mario movie: Dwayne Johnson should have been Donkey Kong. How does one fail to see that?

Flotsam: Various Writing Observations

1. A few observations on different works:

2. When Uncle Walt adapted Alice in Wonderland, he and his writers ended up giving it a bit more of a plot than the book had. Not much, but a little. And if you notice, the plot they gave it was pretty much lifted directly from The Wizard of Oz: an imaginative girl living what seems to be a dull life wishes for something different and is whisked away to a world of magic and strangeness where she incurs the enmity of an authoritative female antagonist and soon comes to wish for nothing more than to return home. In the end she wakes up to find it was all a dream, leaving her with new appreciation for the mundane world she wanted to leave.

But the interesting point is the one big difference between the two: Dorothy doesn’t only have to deal with the Wicked Witch of the West and the general strangeness of Oz. She also gets to enjoy the friendship and help of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, as well as the protection and guidance of Glinda, and even the avuncular kindness of the wizard.

In contrast, Alice doesn’t get anything of the kind. No one in Wonderland is Alice’s friend. There is precisely one character in the film who is consistently helpful to her, and that’s the doorknob. And all he can do is give her some information. Everyone else is, at best, barely aware of her presence and at worst actively malicious toward her (interestingly enough, the doorknob is the only character in the film that wasn’t in the books).

(Meanwhile in the books, the only character who might count is the White Knight from the second book, who is at least consistently kind and helpful to her, even though he’s pretty hapless himself and she spends most of their time together trying to help him stay on his horse).

For me, this is one of the things that makes the story unique and compelling: that it doesn’t sentimentalize or cheat with Alice’s dreams. They’re weird, chaotic, and ephemeral full of mad people, with all that implies.

3. Again, I haven’t seen the film, but from what I can tell this is one of the things that really bugs me about the Tim Burton version: the Mad Hatter is not Alice’s best friend. The inhabitants of Wonderland are not her childhood playmates happy to have her back. They don’t care about her. This isn’t Narnia or even Oz: this is a world of madness and nonsense.

4. To switch gears (so to speak), I’ve also found myself revisiting Transformers: Beast Wars, at least as far as reading about it and re-watching some clips. Really, as I recall, that was a surprisingly well-written show, where the writers actually thought through the implications and consequences of the events of the story.

For instance, in that incarnation Megatron is played as being a dangerous radical / terrorist with no official standing in the Predicon hierarchy. He had a grand scheme that he’s trying to put into action, but one that is both an extremely long shot and spectacularly dangerous and potentially destructive (to the point where he himself holds off on carrying it through until he gets backed into a corner because it’s that risky).

Now, no one in his right mind would follow someone like that, right? Right. And almost no one in his right mind does. Megatron’s troops are, to a man, either a). intensely stupid, b). looking to betray him for their own ends, c). completely insane, or d). some combination of the above.

He has precisely one competent, rational, and reliable lieutenant – Dinobot – who is later revealed to have joined him for personal reasons…and who almost immediately defects once it seems those reasons no longer apply.

5. This actually achieves a number of things. In the first place, it helps to establish Megatron’s position in this world: for all his arrogance, he isn’t important or high-ranking, he’s a loose cannon following his own agenda. In the second, it allows him to consistently lose his engagements without undermining him as a villain, since however clever and dangerous he is, he has to entrust the execution of his plans to either the idiot, the lunatic, the traitor, or the lunatic-traitor. Finally, it actually makes him a much more imposing villain, since it gives him scope to demonstrate his cunning without pitting him directly against the heroes. So he’ll do things like work the fact that his minions are plotting against him into his own plans, allowing him to turn their treason to his own benefit. Or another episode has Terrorsaur successfully usurp Megatron’s place and throw him in the brig…whereupon Megatron reveals he programmed an override into the cells to let him escape whenever he wants and proceeds to let Terrorsaur lead the Predacons in battle to let them see how incompetent he really is.

The structure of the show also answers the question “why does he keep people around the he knows would betray him the first chance they get?” Because he only has four or five minions and simply can’t afford to lose any of them unless it’s absolutely necessary.

6. Something else I noticed this week: I really like Princess Peach as a character. I mean, she’s just such a delightfully nice character, so pleasant to be around, but also with a bit of an undefinable edge to her (and this isn’t a new thing, either: she was adventuring all the way back in Super Mario Bros. 2 and then again in Super Mario RPG). She’s a perfectly sweet, wonderfully feminine character, but all the while she’s got an underlying pluck and courage that comes out every now and then, all the more amusing for its rareness.

I especially like in the first Paper Mario game where she’ll periodically sneak around Bowser’s castle to try to spy out information that’ll be useful to Mario. That, it seems to me, is exactly what a character like her would do in that situation and gets her involved in a more elegant way than just have her trying to take on Bowser herself (though that can be fun too). I also love how she insists that her closet full of identical pink dresses are ‘all unique and all very fashionable.’

This is something we almost never get these days: a thoroughly and emphatically feminine character who is positively portrayed and allowed to remain so throughout.

Some Old Gimp Pics

I spent part of today sorting through the bloated image folders on my computer, and in the process rediscovered some old photo manips I did. I now pass a selection on to you:

First we have some scenes from the highly-anticipated live action ‘Super Smash Brothers’ film:

Gannondorf (played by Sean Bean) cuts a deal with the sinister Master Hand
The loyal Yoshi is ready for action
Donkey Kong enjoys a relaxing morning before trouble starts
Samus Aran (Emily VanCamp) makes a new friend while infiltrating the Space Pirates’ ship
Meeting of the heroes

Or a Live Action Kim Possible movie (er, a good one, I mean):

Dr. Drakken (Jeffery Donovan) and Shego (Morena Baccarin) oversee their evil plot

And unrelated, but bonus points for whoever gets this one:

Seven Things that Were Good About the ‘Super Mario Brothers’ movie:

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m something of a connoisseur of video game movies, so of course I’ve seen Super Mario Brothers many, many times. As far as the genre is concerned, that’s the big one: the first major video game franchise to be adapted for the big screen.

Too bad it’s a really terrible movie. The script is awful, the set design and art direction are hideous, the Blade Runner-for-kids tone is jarringly out of place, and its connections with the world of the games, even such as it was at the time, are tenuous at best. Mario himself is sidelined while Luigi takes center stage as the romantic lead, Bowser/King Koopa is nothing but Dennis Hopper in a bad haircut, the Mushroom Kingdom is a dystopian nightmare covered in mold (Mario himself dubs it “A building with athlete’s foot”), and there are strange and disturbing sexual innuendoes, as when Mario ends up dancing with a huge, terrifying woman and trying to bite her necklace out of her cleavage.

All that being said, I retain a small, sneaking liking for the movie. Partly that’s nostalgia (when I was a kid I loved it, since, hey, it was a Mario movie!), but partly that’s because there are good things here, buried like jewels in a pile of diseased, pulsating mold.

Here are my picks for the top seven good things about the Super Mario Brothers movie:

7.Dennis Hopper. He goes low on the list because of how horribly botched the character is, but really, Dennis Hopper as Bowser is a pretty good casting choice. You’d have to digitally tweak his voice down a bit, but Hopper excelled at playing hammy, arrogant bad guys who were fun, but undeniably evil, which is exactly the persona Bowser should have. If, that is, they had actually, you know, tried to put him on screen.

All that being said, Dennis Hopper was far too talented an actor to completely humiliate himself even here. Though he’s clearly embarrassed by the role he does his best and his scenery-chewing performance remains entertaining throughout.

6.The Fire Flowers. The movie’s attempts to transition game elements into live action for the most part are either utter failures or just plain stupid. One triumphant example, however, is the film’s version the fire flower. Instead of being an actual flower, it’s a combination shotgun-flamethrower with a vaguely flower-like muzzle. They’re pretty cool weapons and, amazingly enough, actually function more or less like the fire flowers in the game, shooting a series of fireballs.

5.The Special Effects. With a few exceptions, the special effects are often very impressive and were cutting-edge for the day. Unaccountably hideous, yes, but very well executed. In fact many of the digital effects (such as Daisy’s face appearing in stone) were actually invented for the movie. The goombas are incredibly stupid conceptually, but the mechanics involved in their creation are undeniably impressive, and the final shot of the Mushroom King turning back into Lance Henriksen is really fantastic.

Note: the great Mr. Henriksen would have ended up on this list if he’d had more than ten seconds of screen time. Even so, they’re a bright ten seconds and he has more fun with his cameo than most of the cast has with the whole film.

4. Some of the Humor Just Works. Yeah, the script is terrible and most of the attempts at comedy are simply cringe worthy. That said, some lines just work, whether because they’re actually good or because the cast is talented enough to make them work. Some bits that I thought were actually funny include Mario and Luigi’s reaction upon arriving in the dystopian ‘Dinohattan:’

Luigi: “Maybe we fell asleep for a thousand years and this is Manhattan in the future.”
Mario: “Or the Bronx today. No wonder they tell you never to come down here.”

Another good bit is the brothers’ reaction to their mug shots, and I also like Mario’s griping in the Koopahari Desert:
“Yeah, that looks good. Let’s die there!”

So, the film is mostly terrible, but every so often it genuinely makes you laugh. On that subject…

3. Big Bertha. Yes, her scenes are completely inappropriate for a Mario Brothers movie, but Big Bertha is just so bizarre and over-the-top that she almost can’t help being entertaining. She’s this huge, terrifying woman dressed all in red spikes who just comes out of nowhere and begins throwing people around like ragdolls while flirting with Mario in a manner that suggests she plans to eat him. Of the many completely inexplicable elements in this film, she’s one that at least gets some laughs.

2. Yoshi. No, he’s not quite the character he was in the games (being too small to ride), but the movie Yoshi nevertheless remains the lovable, stalwart ally he ought to be, complete with his inexplicably long tongue for reeling in enemies. In addition, the puppetry effects that bring him to life are nothing short of fantastic: almost on a level of the Jurassic Park animatronics, allowing the other characters to physically interact with him and making him a real presence on screen (today he would be done with CGI, but I think the puppet is more effective). All in all, compared to how botched almost everyone else is, Yoshi’s probably the character that survived the transition to live action most recognizably himself.

And the number one best thing about the movie:

1. Bob Hoskins as Mario. If you were to choose the best possible actor to play Mario in live action from any time period, I think Bob Hoskins circa 1990 would have to be near the top of the list. Not only was he a phenomenal actor (and, God bless him, he tries his hardest here), but he had exactly the ‘everyman’ persona that Mario ought to have, yet could play a romantic hero at need (see Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Seeing him in costume, he looks like Mario, and I can easily picture him carrying the film as the hero of a fantastic adventure…

Only, of course, that’s not the movie we got, and one of the most perfect marriages of actor and video game characters was thrown away.