‘Super Mario Bros. Movie’ Is Not Enough: David Lowery Interview
Filmmakers need to invest in improving the quality of family-friendly entertainment. Let Lowery explain why.
By most industry standards, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is a huge success. Released at a time when theatrical studio films were under-serving the market for family-friendly entertainment, it turns the most popular family-friendly video game franchise into a blockbuster.
Illumination Entertainment’s new film, invigorated with cartoonish pizzazz akin to the “Despicable Me” franchise, finally cracks an elusive code for Nintendo, which has guarded its library for decades after the ill-fated 1993 live-action “Mario” movie. And there’s sure to be more to come: With a record-breaking $195 million in five days, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” is the foundation for a whole new era of Nintendo adaptations.
There’s just one problem: “Super Mario Bros. Movie,” at least in my eyes, is terrible.
I know that the story of a wayward Brooklyn plumber and his loyal brother as they get sucked into the Mushroom Kingdom to destroy the diminutive dragon Bowser isn’t meant to be high art – but it’s still disheartening to witness such an elegant corporate product. it even tries to muster some semblance of depth. Instead, it obeys the brainless logic of games – the run, jump, golden question-block variety – while Matthew Fogel’s workmanlike script fills in the gaps with breezy, forgettable dialogue.
Earlier this week, I sat through a screening stunned by the unraveling of narrative standards. At 90 minutes, it’s not a heavy session, but it’s not so much a movie as it is a Twitch series of in-game cutscenes. Say what you will about the ’93 disaster; at least he swung for the fences. “Super Marios Brothers Movie,” on the other hand, conforms to expectations with such pathetic laziness that I denied my own nostalgia for the early games and wondered if all of us young button-pushers had set the stage for the death of cinema. by satisfying the demand for empty product over the years.
The most frustrating aspect of my screening experience came from the rambunctious eight-year-olds behind me who blew every game-related easter egg and pretty much ranted about the inane gameplay as a movie. He hit all their buttons without the slightest effort to challenge or enlighten them in the process; me too, an optimist looking for the potential of movies to improve where they can, wondering if the next generation would rather watch them burn.
It might seem strange in a weekend column about the challenges and opportunities of the independent realm to devote anything at all to a futile IP heist whose underlying motives are obvious to any conscious person. But as I often wonder about the path talented writers and directors make into the studio system, I wonder how they could improve on an aspect of the market that could play to their strengths. Nintendo needs to hire better filmmakers for its new blockbuster business — and more of them should be looking for family-friendly gigs.
When filmmakers enter the studio system after smaller-scale work, they often end up with gigs aimed at more mature audiences, from the Marvel and Star Wars universes to horror franchises like “Scream.” Some of these opportunities can lead to solid work. But filmmakers with agents helping them navigate their options shouldn’t miss the opportunity to think about how they can contribute to the family-friendly scene—and improve it in the process.
David Lowery is one of the few directors in recent years who has actually mined productive results on this path. After the poetic crime saga “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” Lowery parlayed his ethereal narrative style into a writing gig for the live-action remake of “Pete’s Dragon,” which he eventually directed. The result was a wonderful, textured reimagining of the 1977 film that doubles as a meditation on loss and resurrects a Spielbergian sense of dread that many Spielberg films lack. It’s a spooky folk tale that still lives up to the creature’s expectations with thrills. Lowery didn’t have to give up his more grown-up ventures to make it either: his remarkable micro-budget metaphysical epic “Pete’s Dragon,” followed by “A Ghost Story,” the Robert Redford heist romance “The Old Man and the Gun,” and the visually stunning Arthur’s riff on ‘The Green Knight’.
Over the past year, Lowery has doubled down on the family-friendly arena with Disney’s April 29 release of “Peter Pan & Wendy,” and that’s reason enough to pay attention even to those who’ve been interested in all things Peter Pan for decades. .
Why is Lowery so keen to return to the arena of commercial children’s entertainment – and does he see it as an opportunity for more filmmakers to explore the same path?
Looking for some way to clear my head after “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” I tracked down Lowery by phone this week in Germany, where the A24-produced “Mother Mary” is. epic pop melodrama” starring Anne Hathaway and Michaela Cole. I’ve had many conversations with Lowery over the years and have always found him to be a sobering voice when it comes to how to navigate the industry with a unique creative voice. He took a break from the series of meetings to talk to me about his specific journey to meaningfully entertain younger viewers and why it never felt like a compromise. I hope his perspective inspires more filmmakers to storm the gates of Nintendo and other family-friendly IP factories, because the eight-year-olds sitting behind me deserve better, whether they realize it or not.
IndieWire: Your work outside of Disney can be quite dark and mature. Why were you drawn to the challenge of writing family-friendly films?
DAVID LOWERY: I approach all my storytelling from two perspectives: one is naivety, and the other is a sense of emotional maturity. I think kids have both. It still is to some extent. I approach the world from a very naive point of view, but the emotions that the world evokes have always had a gravity that hasn’t changed. I remember feeling these emotions as a child, which I still feel as an adult, and I don’t process them any differently now.
Making less creatively satisfying films for a younger audience?
When I write a film for adults or children, I always approach them from a similar perspective. The differences come from other areas. The things that make a movie skew more towards adults or family are not so much the tone or the perspective, but the feelings it brings to you or the way you take on a solo project. I know a Disney movie has to appeal to a wider audience than something like ‘The Green Knight’ or ‘Ghost Story’. But I approach them intellectually from the same level. They just ask for something else.
Still, the studio knows it needs certain superficial aspects to appeal to its viewers – bright colors, an easy-to-follow story, etc. How do you innovate within these boundaries?
We’ve all seen movies that have terrible qualities. They tend to attribute the film’s negative demands to something that has the lowest common denominator. But sometimes these things are good. Simplicity is very important for a family film. You don’t want it to get too bogged down in plot and world building. For a younger audience, you want the narrative to have an elegance and simplicity that allows all emotions to come to the fore.
Apart from your own work, can you think of a film that does this well?
I think back to Miyazaki and “My Neighbor Totoro” a lot. I know it’s easy to point to that movie and I couldn’t make a movie that works like that in an American studio. It just wouldn’t work. This is an auteur film. But you can still use this as a standard for how simple and basic storytelling can be. Simplicity can be an incredibly valuable thing. It is a gateway to an incredibly rich emotional experience.
©Courtesy of 50th Street Films/Everett Collection
How do you feel when you watch a bad family-friendly movie?
Honestly, we all know that no one wants to make a bad movie. Sometimes things just go wrong. There is always the fear of what will happen. It’s never anyone’s fault. It’s never about someone being hostile to a director. Intentions are mixed.
What keeps you coming back for this challenge?
With ‘Pete’s Dragon’ I think we’ve achieved something very special. Péter Pan’s goal was completely different. It has a different value for the studio. We started from scratch. If I didn’t think it was worth the risk, I wouldn’t try again. It’s an honest expression of something that resonates emotionally for me, but I know more people will see it, and for some it might even be a formative experience. If you think back to the movies that made the biggest impression on you in your life, most of them come from your youth. Despite all the risks, when you’re a creative, sensitive person and you make a huge studio film, it’s worth it because you get to see something on the screen that can make a valuable impression on an audience starting out in life. That’s why I’m making these films and will continue to do so in the future. It contributes more to the world than it gives me. It gives something to the future generation.
Why would you encourage more filmmakers to pursue these types of projects?
When you’re an indie filmmaker, you’re broke a lot, so the writing opportunities are amazing. One must chase them. I was asked to write ‘Pete’s Dragon’. The arrangement came later. It was during the writing process that I realized how wonderful this kind of storytelling can be, and how in synch it is with my storyteller instinct. If you’re a filmmaker who sees an opportunity to tell a story in a video game that can ignite the same spark in someone’s generation, there’s no reason not to pursue it.
Are there certain projects that you definitely don’t consider in this space?
I remember when they were covering the trilogy of ‘Tetris’ movies and I was like, ‘I can’t see it.’ I have my own tastes, but I never say no to anything and always consider an idea. I think everything has potential. Mike White wrote “The Emoji Movie” and he probably did a good job. Ok, I didn’t see it, but I was interested when I realized it was in it. I love this Dean Fleischer Camp follows up ‘Marcel the Shell’ with ‘Lilo & Stitch’. It’s an honorable thing. It doesn’t run out.
Do you think studios have an obligation to provide meaningful entertainment for younger audiences?
When I was little, I was obsessed with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II”. For me it was much better than the first one. They fought with pizzas and salamis. I thought it was funny. Now that I’m looking at it from an adult perspective, I know it’s arguably not that good. Realizing this made me less valuable in everything. Sometimes kids just want to laugh. It doesn’t matter to them that it’s less emotionally relevant. But now I also know that the first one was so difficult and emotional, which probably did me a lot of good.
Not every movie is going to be ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ or ‘ET’. There are many reasons for this. But the mere ambition to get there still gives something of value, something of nourishment to the family audience. My quest to make films that work in this way supersedes any frustrations I’ve had while making them. Until this industry leaves a bitter shell, these ideas still make me want to tell these stories.
As usual, I encourage reader feedback for this column by emailing [email protected]
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