Mark Overanalyses Film

The Super Mario Bros Movie Vs Wall-E

January 08, 2024 Mark Hennigan Season 4 Episode 7
The Super Mario Bros Movie Vs Wall-E
Mark Overanalyses Film
More Info
Mark Overanalyses Film
The Super Mario Bros Movie Vs Wall-E
Jan 08, 2024 Season 4 Episode 7
Mark Hennigan

Mark grabs the Wall-E power up as he tries to figure out what makes The Super Mario Bros feel so hollow and Wall-E so heartfelt, why it's so important for someone to learn something in a story, and if anyone can hear his ranting over the sound of The Super Mario Bros Movie printing money.

Show Notes Transcript

Mark grabs the Wall-E power up as he tries to figure out what makes The Super Mario Bros feel so hollow and Wall-E so heartfelt, why it's so important for someone to learn something in a story, and if anyone can hear his ranting over the sound of The Super Mario Bros Movie printing money.

Hi everybody, and welcome to Mark Overanalyses Film! We’ve just had the season of good will, extra portions, and kids movies on TV, so, today I will be overanalysing 2023’s biggest kid’s film: The Super Mario Bros Movie. I will then be comparing it to 2008’s Pixar classic: Wall-E.

Before I begin, allow me to remind you that I am available for reading, script editing, and story coaching at And also, if you enjoy this podcast, please do share and/or recommend it. It really would be a great help. 

The Super Mario Bros Movie was written by Matthew Fogel and directed by Aaron Horvath, Michael Jelenic, and Pierre Leduc.

Now, I’m a little in two minds about overanalysing The Super Mario Bros Movie. On the one hand, this film is deeply flawed, and it is both easier and nicer to overanalyse a truly great film. I also feel like I need to justify sounding so dogmatic when I talk about what a film like this “should” be doing.

On the other hand, I love videogames, I love Nintendo, and I love kid’s movies. And this film’s story should be better than it is. But mostly, I think The Super Mario Bros Movie is a great example of errors that Hollywood films make all over the place in recent years. And I have a perverse instinct to talk about it while Hollywood execs cannot hear me over the sound of their films printing money.

Now, essentially, I think these errors all stem from one core issue. As Robert McKee put it in his great book Story: they are written from the “outside in”. These films think about individual scenes and moments and find a way to wrap them loosely together in a narrative that looks right if you don’t think about it too much. But great stories — the classics — are not written from the “outside in”, they are written from the “inside out”. In other words, the story stems from the inner psychology and choices of the protagonist. In doing so, they chart a single, overriding arc that creates a sense of unity, totality, and a thematic argument for the story.  

So, in order to explore this, I’d like to change my approach here slightly. Generally, the idea in this podcast is to show the direct relationship between a film’s story structure and the protagonist’s arc. But frankly, that’s not really possible in The Super Mario Bros Movie. So, in an attempt to make my point as clearly as possible, I’d like to separate these two in my analysis. 

With that in mind, first, I’ll look at the fundamental features of our protagonist, Mario. Then, I’ll go through the main story beats by looking at the sequences or stages of the film and we’ll see that superficially, they don’t obviously look amiss. But then, I’m going to compare The Super Mario Bros Movie story beats with those of the film Wall-E to highlight just what is missing. Finally, I’ll talk about the main things I learned from this exercise, if I haven’t been driven insane by that point.

So, let’s begin by defining our protagonist. Mario is a plumber based in New York. He’s just started a new business with his brother Luigi, but his, ah, ‘broadly-drawn’ Italian American family are not that supportive. 

Now, other than these surface factors, there are really 3 ways that our story defines just who the protagonist really is: their life dream, their Want, and their Need. 

Life Dream is basically what Mario wants when we first meet him and before the events of the story really get going. Now, broadly speaking, Mario wants to impress his family and not feel like a loser, to not feel so small. But the film hangs this on something tangible: Mario wants for him and his brother Luigi to have a successful plumbing business.

Ok, so the next thing is the protagonist’s Capital W Want, which is really the tangible objective for the long second act of our film. This gives the protagonist a goal to strive for, and therefore something to keep them busy while they’re growing as a character. It has to be both significant enough to last through the whole act and tangible enough so that we can say definitively that they achieved it or they didn’t. This gives the story its sense of beginning, middle, and end. Or: Before, Journey of Change, and After. 

Now, I don’t think this is a big issue, but The Super Mario Bros Movie does cheat a little here through either shorthand or just bad writing: take your pick. At minute 25, Mario’s objective of saving Luigi is married to Peach’s objective of getting the Kong Army to help her defeat Bowser without the story ever really taking a moment to explain to Mario that “this is the only way you will save your brother”. At any rate, Mario wants to help Peach get the Kong Army to defend the Mushroom Kingdom. That is our 2nd Act want or tangible objective.

So, the last and arguably most important thing we need to define for the protagonist is their Need. But, just before I do that, appropriately for a film about Super Mario, I need to differentiate between a 3-dimensional story and a 2-dimensional story. In a 3-dimensional story, the Need is the human quality or piece of wisdom or moral that the protagonist lacks at the beginning of our story but learns by its end. In other words, a 3 dimensional story is one where our protagonist needs to change. Like, the way Kevin in Home Alone learns to appreciate his family, or how Joy in Inside Out learns to embrace sadness as a part of life. 

In a 2-dimensional story, the protagonist already has this human quality or piece of wisdom and the tension comes from the question of if they can maintain it against intense pressure. So, Wall-E for example does not need to change. His Need is that he is tireless in his capacity to care for that which he loves, and he is like that when we first meet him. His problem, then, is not a moral or psychological one, it’s external. His external problem is that everyone in his world has abandoned him, broken down, or is distracted by comfort or busy-work.

 Ok, so, as far as I’m concerned, The Super Mario Bros Movie is 2-dimensional, which is why I’m going to compare it to Wall-E, another 2-dimensional kid’s movie. Though again, here, I think the Need, and therefore the sense of what this story is actually “about”, is muddled to say the least. At its heart though, I think The Super Mario Bros Movie is trying to be about a protagonist who keeps trying and never gives up. His external problem is that he feels small, and he is small, and nobody takes him seriously. This makes him feel like a loser. But again, those problems are external. They’re not a lesson that he needs to learn. He might feel like a loser, but he doesn’t need to learn to keep trying anyways; he’s already doing that.

Now, I’ll get to the comparison later, but let me say this up top: 1) I think you can probably already hear that Wall-E is better! The dovetailing of Wall-E’s Need and his external problem is far clearer and more interesting than the awkward dovetailing of Mario’s. 2) There is an inherent tension, and not in a good way, in a story where the main idea is some variation of “Even if you’re small or nobody believes in you, never give up and you can achieve incredible things” when the protagonist relies on power ups that supernaturally make him bigger and give him superpowers to achieve his goals. It’s not an insurmountable tension, but it is there and it is not really dealt with.

Ok, now that I’ve defined our protagonist for our story, let’s have a look at the story stages of The Super Mario Bros Movie. 


The Sequences

There are traditionally, but not always, 3 acts and 8 sequences, or stages, in a film. A sequence is a combination of scenes that are tied together by having a single overriding dramatic question or tension, and they tend to be between 10 and 15 minutes in length. A good way to think about it is that every 10-15 minutes, the audience should be on some level asking themselves a different dramatic question. 

Act I has our first two sequences, and the first one is always pretty much “life as it is”. And here, we begin in mid-action, as Bowser descends on an Ice Kingdom, destroys everything in his path, and discovers that which he has been seeking: the Super Star. He declares that with this, nothing can stop him. At that, we cut to: who is going to stop him. We meet the Mario Brothers, who have just set up their own plumbing company, and spent their life savings on an ad for their business. And I have to say: I like the ad. I think it’s funny. But, apparently, nobody in this world does. So, Mario’s old boss Spike laughs at him, insults Luigi, and overpowers Mario when he stands up for his younger brother. Now, structurally speaking, this is solid work in two ways. One: you might notice that Mario basically fights 3 characters that are much bigger than him physically: Spike at the start, Donkey Kong in the middle, and Bowser at the end. That is classic story structure in action. Two: the best way to introduce a protagonist is to give them a problem to solve, so the fact that Mario stands up to someone who can easily push him over is relatively effective at showing this central characteristic of Mario: he doesn’t give up. And the film continues this idea. The brothers get their first call, but their van won’t start. Mario, however, refuses to give up, and runs and jumps through a construction site to get there on time. Unfortunately, the job does not go well, and the brothers are soon at home feeling defeated. Mario looks for support from his father, but the patriarch tells him that you don’t quit a steady job to chase some stupid dream. Which, you can code as a version of: you should know your limits and give up when appropriate. And then we have our inciting incident, or: the event without which our story as it is would not happen. As Mario sits on his bed wishing he didn’t feel so small, a news report reveals that Brooklyn is flooding and needs to be saved. This is Mario’s chance to prove himself, and so he and Luigi set off to stop the flood. Whether or not Mario will succeed is our first real tension, and so at minute 12, we enter sequence II. 

So, Mario and Luigi set out to save Brooklyn from flooding, and I have to say, this sequence feels riddled with “Screw it, that’ll do” writing. Because Mario and Luigi are very quickly diverted from saving Brooklyn as they crash through a wall underground, forget all about Brooklyn, discover a place that has been left unattended for years for “some reason”, and get sucked through a green pipe into another place. I get that we need to keep things light and pacey, but come on, we can expect a little more elbow grease than this surely? Anyways, as Mario and Luigi are sucked through airways, Mario tells Luigi that nothing can hurt them as long as they’re together, which as far as I can tell is a line only there to be called back to later to create a sense of meaning that is not warranted. Because at that, the two are separated. Luigi gets sucked into the Dark Lands, where he soon finds himself in trouble, and Mario lands in the Mushroom Kingdom, where he meets Toad, is introduced to this new land, and finally meets the Princess. Now, when Mario meets Peach, she has just promised her loyal Toads that she will convince the Kong Army to defend the Mushroom Kingdom from Bowser. She walks out, takes a deep breath, and runs into Mario. And this is where the Want of the second act is cheated a bit. The plumber explains that he needs help to save his brother, Peach chides the only other human being she’s ever met for being small which is a weird, incongruous thing for her character to do, especially as how would she even know what a human is, and then immediately relents on her decision to not take Mario with her. So, the combined plan is: Phase 1: Get the Kong Army. Phase 2: Defeat Bowser. Phase 3: Question Mark. Phase 4: Save Luigi. It just bothers me that we don’t have 10 seconds where Mario says “I’m going to the Dark Lands to save my brother”, before someone else explains why he needs to do this instead. Regardless, our long second act objective is now in place, and so, at an exemplary minute 25, we end Act I and we enter Act II. 

Act II begins with sequence III: the first attempts to solve the problem. And we have our first sequence tension of Act II here, as Mario has to prove to Peach that he can come with her. So, Peach sets up an obstacle course for him, and Mario learns about the Mushroom Kingdom’s power ups. Now, sequence III always begins with a “What’s the plan?” scene, that tells the audience what to expect in the long second act. So, this sequence is really setting up the idea that Mario and Peach are going to be working together with power ups while Bowser asserts his plan to marry Peach and/or annihilate her Kingdom. Whichever comes easiest. But this sequence is also defined by what we can term the Refusal of the Call. The protagonist is called to their Need, and they are not ready for it. So, Mario fails the obstacle course. Again, and again, and again. So maybe he won’t be able to come with Peach and defeat Bowser. But, this sequence always then ends with the Acceptance of the Call, or the protagonist’s first unconscious move towards their Need. Mario improves with practice and almost completes the obstacle course, so Peach agrees to take him with her. They are soon leaving for the Jungle Kingdom, so we have a new tension: Will Mario and Peach make it to their destination? And so, at that, we enter Sequence IV: the greater attempts to solve the problem.

Now, in honesty, this is maybe the worst sequence I’ve ever analysed. There is just no tension whatsoever and it relies on gorgeous visuals and Jack Black’s charisma and musical talent to get through it. In our first scene here, Mario admits that he’s nervous, the Princess laughs because she is now in the phase of the story where she just laughs at everything the male protagonist says. Then Toad arrives, demands to come on the adventure, and Peach immediately agrees. They then walk through a montage of the Mushroom Kingdom’s bucolic splendour. And it’s a good thing Mario never gives up, because there are honest to God hills and bridges that need to be traversed. Finally, their longest scene is a conversation that goes as follows. “I miss my brother.”, “Don’t worry, we’ll save him”. “You’re not from here, are you?” “I don’t know where I’m from.” “Maybe you’re from Earth.” “There are millions of planets.” End scene. What?! How is this the final version of a scene that made it into a film that cost 100 million to make?! It is terrible! 

On the Luigi and Bowser side of the story, Bowser learns about Mario, and becomes incredibly jealous. He is then brought Luigi as a prisoner, and he tortures him by pulling his moustache until Luigi reveals that he is Mario’s brother. Luigi, for his trouble, is told that he is going to be killed in front of Mario, and then locked in a hanging cage along with a childish-sounding star-being who is burdened by the unbearable weight of existence. Which, as such a non-sequitur, really should be funnier than it is. Finally, Mario and Peach, looking tired, arrive at the Jungle Kingdom. The sequence tension is now resolved, and at minute 42 in a 78 minute runtime, this is The Super Mario Bros Movie midpoint. 

Now, the midpoint is one of the most interesting aspects of storytelling for me, and it has a lot of possible definitions. In Syd Field’s book Screenplay — possibly the most influential screenwriting book of all time — he tells the story of how Sam Peckinpah built his stories around an event at their centre. Everything would lead to and result from this event. 

Being generous, you could argue that Mario arriving in the city of Donkey Kong allows for him to learn to defeat Donkey Kong, which will in turn allow for him to learn how to defeat Bowser. But it is a stretch.

Now, in his book Save The Cat, Blake Snyder says something pretty similar to Syd Field, but also says that the stakes are raised at this stage. So, again, to be fair to The Super Mario Bros Movie, the creators could argue that the midpoint of the film is actually the moment just before this where Luigi meets Bowser. Here, Bowser vows to kill Luigi in front of Mario, so you could argue the stakes are raised. But does it really feel like that? The problem is that you would basically assume that Bowser will kill Luigi anyways, and this scene has nothing to do with the story’s protagonist. 

Anyways, with our midpoint reached, whatever it is, we enter Sequence V: the honeymoon sequence. The honeymoon sequence is so called, because, partially, it is a period in our story where things generally go well for our hero. Now, the tension of this sequence is whether or not Mario and Peach will be able to convince Cranky Kong to use his army to defend the Mushroom Kingdom. So, they are brought before Cranky Kong by an ape in a sports coat driving a kart to the sound of Take On Me… because he’s wearing a sports coat, which is 80s I guess? I don’t know. And Cranky Kong decides that Mario can have his army if he can defeat his son Donkey Kong in combat. Now, in fairness, this works fairly well in terms of our story. Again, it links back to the fight with Spike in sequence I, as well as foreshadowing the fight with Bowser in our climax. And it’s also a big, exciting set piece in the middle of our story. Most importantly though, Mario is pulverised repeatedly by Donkey Kong but keeps on fighting until he wins… with the help of a power up. Having defeated Cranky Kong’s son in battle, the army is his. Our sequence tension is answered, but storm clouds are on the horizon. They are planning on taking a shortcut back to the Mushroom Kingdom to ambush Bowser by using karts, but Bowser is on to them and plans his own ambush. Things are not looking so promising, so as we wonder “Can Mario, Peach, and the Kong Army get back to the Mushroom Kingdom?”, we enter sequence VI: the bridge from the honeymoon to the lowpoint.

Now, this is really a set piece sequence, as the karts rush towards the Mushroom Kingdom along a Rainbow road. It looks amazing. It sounds amazing. And… it should be better!! This sequence annoys me because even at a superficial level, it’s fine, but it could be brilliant! It is essentially an excuse to work in the Mario Kart games into the film, which I am broadly fine with, even though it’s pretty lazy about it. But this sequence should have more tension, and it would not be hard to manufacture more tension. Mario Kart is a racing game, and every race needs a finish line. Why. Does. This race. Not. Have a finish line?! Any racing sequence of any kind worth its salt has a clear geographical reference point that says “At this point, you win”. This could be a literal race, or it could be something like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, where Steve Martin and Kevin Bacon race for a cab on the streets of New York. In that race, there is a clear, tangible, achievable objective. Here, they are racing ‘towards’ the Mushroom Kingdom. It is such an own goal to not have a fixed physical, geographical location that says “if the heroes get here, they are good”. And it’s The Super Mario Bros Movie! They could make up anything! It could be another pipe. It could be a giant kart-shooting cannon. It could be a wormhole. It could be anything! And they have… nothing. It would add so much more jeopardy and tension if Mario and Donkey Kong are seconds from the jump point as they are being pursued by the blue shell. It is the most bafflingly obvious lack in a film full of them. But anyways, they didn’t do it, and that’s fine. The studio made money. Kids seemed to enjoy it. Just let it go Mark. Let it go…

So, letting it go, Mario and Donkey Kong get blown up at some stupid random point on a road that looks like any other stupid random point on the road, and they fall to their seeming doom. Peach races clear, but the Kong Army gets stuck on the far side of this… gap. Mario and Kong not only fall in the sea, they get eaten by a giant eel. Peach and Mario have failed to achieve their big objective of bringing the Kong Army to defeat Bowser. Things are looking bad, and so, at minute 59, with 20 minutes left, we end Act II and we enter Act III.

Act III has a false resolution and a true resolution. And so, the Toads flee the city, Peach reluctantly agrees to marry Bowser to protect them, Luigi and co are going to be ritualistically sacrificed at the wedding, and Mario and Donkey Kong are stuck in the belly of a giant eel. Things are bad across the board. But then, Mario and Donkey Kong threaten to bond over the fact that both of their fathers think they’re a joke. And, when DK’s antics cause the eel to burp and land the two nemeses beside Kong’s kart, they burst out to freedom. And so, at that, we enter the final fight, and The Super Mario Bros Movie’s true resolution.

So, Peach reveals that she has no intention of marrying Bowser, takes out an ice flower, and freezes him. Mario and Donkey Kong arrive and save the prisoners. Then, Mario manages to redirect a gigantic Bullet Bill from destroying the Mushroom Kingdom, so they all get sucked into Brooklyn cos hey, why not, and then it’s time for the real final showdown. Mario gets pummelled by Bowser until he lies, seemingly defeated, hiding in a pizzeria. But then, his commercial comes on, his one-time dream and a picture of him with Luigi calling on him to not give up. So, Mario goes out and confronts Bowser. Peach wriggles free of a Koopa and kicks the Super Star towards him. Luigi protects him while he dashes for it and repeats that as long as they’re together, nothing can hurt them. Which is meaningless, because they would be instantaneously burnt to a crisp were it not for the fact that they both grab the Star and become invincible. They pummel Bowser and his minions, Peach laughs at another non-joke, and Mario’s father tells him he’s proud of him. Finally, we see the brothers wake up and grab their plumbing gear, ready to go to work. But we discover that they are actually in the Mushroom Kingdom. Because… Screw Brooklyn, am I right??

Ok, honestly, I did not mean to be that harsh, but hopefully you can see how the story structure on a superficial level at least kind of works. Looking from the outside in, we have a first sequence which sets up our hero and villain, a second sequence with our inciting incident which kicks off our main adventure of Act II, a 3rd sequence with a refusal and acceptance of the call (or in this case really, initial failure and then success), a 4th sequence where both the hero and the villain make greater strides towards the climax, a midpoint that theoretically raises the stakes, a honeymoon sequence where things go well and where the climax is foreshadowed, a sequence VI where things take a turn and the forces of antagonism resurge until we hit a low point, a false resolution where all appears dire, and a true resolution where the hero wins the day. There are 3 clear acts, 8 clear sequences, a midpoint, a low point, a climax, and so on. We have clear tensions for each sequence. Things feel upbeat when they’re supposed to and things feel bad when they’re supposed to. And you might think: Mario meets Peach, fights Donkey Kong, races on Rainbow Road, and uses a power up to beat Bowser. Luigi is here. It hits all the things you need in a Mario movie.

And it all looks gorgeous, and sounds beautiful, and gives fans lots of details to pick over. If you don’t think about it too much, you could look at everything I just said and think “Ya, what’s the problem?” 

So, here’s the problem: It’s crap! It doesn’t mean anything. It’s barely a coherent story. It’s meaningless, story-shaped intellectual property goop. To show what is missing here, I would like to compare the story shape to Pixar’s brilliant film, Wall-E. Again, Wall-E is another 2-dimensional story, but as one very much written from the inside out. No pun intended. 

First, in The Super Mario Bros Movie’s sequence I, we have our villain. Now, especially in a 2 dimensional story, our villain needs to personify the counterargument of the film. So, we meet Bowser, who is big and strong, which makes sense for a protagonist who feels small and who worries about being a loser. And then Bowser steals the Super Star because it will make him… ah, strong? I guess? Stronger? What does the Super Star do? Why does Bowser need it? Couldn’t he basically incinerate all the Toads in about 5 minutes as is? Anyways, let’s say that the Star is a source of power. Fine.

In Wall-E, the villain, or the personification of the counterargument is Auto. Now, Wall-E is working tirelessly to save something that feels like a lost cause, and he is doing the thing which has clearly worked his former Earth-based robot companions to death. Auto, on the other hand, is telling the humans not to work, not to think, but to coast, and therefore ensure the greatest chance of survival. 

In sequence I in both movies, we also meet our protagonists. Now, in The Super Mario Bros Movie, I think this works well enough in and of itself. But as Billy Wilder said: if you have a problem in your 3rd act, the real problem is in the 1st act. So while this sequence tells us that Mario is trying hard but struggling, it doesn’t tell us much more than that. The scene where they have to fight the dog is dynamic and fun, but it’s not really telling us anything. And it really has to in a film this short. So, when the film ends with the contrast of Mario now working with Luigi in The Mushroom Kingdom, I’m mostly left wondering why. Why is he there and not in Brooklyn? What does that say about his character or his situation? I don’t really know. So, what about Wall-E? Wall-E is alone and desperately lonely on a planet that has been given up and abandoned by the human race. And yet, despite that, and the fact that he is surrounded by nothing but trash and the remnants of his former counterparts, Wall-E works tirelessly to bit-by-tiny-bit collect rubbish. He also takes great care with his one companion, a pet cockroach that just might be the last living thing on the planet. Again, he is tireless, and he is tireless in his caring and his dreams of romantic companionship specifically. Now, contrast his opening situation to the end of the story. Wall-E has not only inspired humanity to take care of the planet it once abandoned, he has also inspired Eve to fall in love and fix him when he breaks. You can hear it, right? You can hear how the two situations show the journey of the protagonist and how it has changed his world.

Ok, in sequence II, Mario decides to save Brooklyn, and then completely forgets about Brooklyn. He then loses Luigi, so he finds the Princess to ask for her help. Now, when I was studying Screenwriting in college, my tutor Mary Kate O’Flanagan always told us: make your secondary characters busy. Basically, you don’t want this sense that secondary characters are just waiting around for your protagonist to come into their lives to activate. For one thing, it doesn’t feel realistic. More importantly though, as a writer you’re always trying to make things difficult for your protagonist. You’re always trying to give them a problem to solve. This creates tension, but also requires the protagonist to make choices, and choices reveal character. 

Wall-E trying to talk to Eve is a phenomenal example of this. Eve is completely uninterested in Wall-E and busy scanning the whole planet for signs of organic matter. Later on, Wall-E has to hide from or work hard to communicate with single-minded robots that just want to do their job or humans who are distracted by routine and comfort. By contrast: let’s look at Mario’s encounters. He meets Toad, who offers to bring him to the Princess without Mario even asking. Then, he meets Peach, who is on her own and taking a load off after a meeting and who almost immediately agrees to give him a shot after he says please. He then arrives at the Jungle Kingdom, where the door-ape immediately agrees to drive them right to his King, who immediately agrees to let Mario fight for the right to his army. 

And this is actually a double problem specifically in The Super Mario Bros Movie. Because one: this would be bad writing in any story. But two: if this story is about anything, it’s about the importance of not giving up when things get hard! But things don’t get hard for Mario! Characters literally give him what he wants and almost always do so pretty much immediately.


And this brings us onto sequence III. Now, I’d like to come back to my particular issues with Princess Peach in a bit, but suffice to say that there’s little tension in this sequence because the Refusal of the Call has no real grit to it. Mario fails, but keeps trying while Peach waits patiently for him to succeed. And then she eventually agrees to let him come because he gets close enough. In Wall-E, Eve struggles to understand this eccentric old-school robot, and then as soon as she does begin to connect, she locates organic matter and her directive shuts her down. It appears that Wall-E might be doomed to lonely solitude forever. So, he does everything he can to bring her back to consciousness until eventually her spaceship comes and collects her. Wall-E then has to dash back and climb aboard before he loses her forever.   

In Mario Bros’ sequence IV, there is literally no tension. In Wall-E, our eponymous hero follows an unconscious Eve out into space and has to try to figure out a world completely alien to him while avoiding and outmanoeuvring robots that would take him away from Eve.

Ok, so, then we have the midpoint. Now, as I said earlier, the midpoint has many potential definitions, but as far as I’m concerned, the most important feature of a midpoint is that it is where the protagonist makes their first conscious move towards their Need. In a 2 dimensional story, that generally means, as John Yorke would put it, that there is some breakthrough of key knowledge. The protagonist either learns the true nature of their enemy, or they learn what they will need to stop them. So, in Alien, this is where Ripley encounters the Alien for the first time before the crew come up with a plan to blow it out the airlock. In The Dark Knight, this is where Bruce Wayne does the non-heroic but right thing to let Harvey Dent take his place in a reversal of the climax. In Wall-E, this is where the robot first encounters both the ship’s captain and Auto, the manipulative computer really running things, before Eve is reawakened and discovers that Wall-E has followed her into space. 

So, in The Super Mario Bros Movie, this might be a good point for Mario to first meet Bowser. Or to see the desolation Bowser can cause. Or to learn about the Super Star maybe. But instead, it’s Luigi who meets Bowser, which doesn’t feel like it really changes anything, while our actual protagonist arrives in the Jungle Kingdom and without needing to do anything is driven to see Cranky Kong. Which also might work, if the Kong Army actually had anything to do with the climax of the film. But they don’t. Now, to be fair, the fight with Donkey Kong feels a bit like a delayed midpoint, as Mario’s fight with Donkey Kong does foreshadow his fight with Bowser to some extent. In both, he is initially pummelled by a much bigger, stronger opponent before the Princess points out a power up to him and he uses it to overcome them. But while there is clearly some foreshadowing here, it remains broadly superficial. What fight in film history does not start with the hero getting their ass kicked before they mount a comeback? Furthermore, the cat power up doesn’t represent anything beyond being another power up, and it has nothing really to do with the super star. Furthermore, the climax seems to really want to make a thing of the fact that Mario and Luigi are working together, which is not a feature of this fight whatsoever.


That brings us onto sequence VI, our Mario Kart / Rainbow Road sequence which takes us to our low point. Now, other than the fact that the stakes should be clearer in my book, this sequence is kind of hamstrung. It tries to inject a sense of a meaningful arc into the relationship between Donkey Kong and Mario, but without any real grounding. I’ll come back to this idea in a moment when I also talk about my issues with Peach, but there’s a larger issue. Here the competing stakes are “Mario, Peach, and the Kong Army trying to get back to the Mushroom Kingdom” vs “Bowser and his troops trying to stop them”. And that doesn’t mean anything. 

By contrast, in this sequence in Wall-E, Eve dances with Wall-E in space after they discover the missing plant, while Auto exerts greater control over the humans on board by switching to night time and telling everyone to go to sleep. Finally, the captain realises that they must go back to Earth before Auto engages in full blown mutiny and deactivates Eve. In Wall-E, our protagonist and the Earth itself are inexorably linked. And at the start of our story, Eve is too busy, controlled, and distracted to appreciate Wall-E just as the humans are too busy, controlled, and distracted to appreciate Earth. But here, in this sequence, Eve and the humans have learnt the lesson of the story, but it appears the grip of their original position or the counterargument of the story might be too strong. They no longer believe the counterargument, but the argument seems impossible. That is what makes it a thematic low point.  


So, we’re into Act III now, and our false and true resolutions. Again, if we compare this to other 2 dimensional stories, we can see where the thematic argument hinges between these two sequences especially. In Alien, the ruthless xenomorph kills Ripley’s last two remaining shipmates because Parker isn’t cold blooded enough to kill Lambert to save himself. But then, Ripley manages to escape before blowing the creature out into space all because she went back to save Jones the cat. So the quality of humanity and its sense of conscientiousness and empathy eventually wins out. In Wall-E, it appears that as tireless and loving as Wall-E is, Auto and the tendency of humans to take the easy route or be distracted will be too powerful. But then, the newly inspired captain, having learnt about Earth, reasserts his agency and his responsibility to look after that which we should care for. Similarly, Eve refuses to let Wall-E die, and rejuvenates him just as humans need to rejuvenate the Earth with the qualities that Wall-E personifies: with a mixture of hard work and tender care. So the quality of taking responsibility and working for that which we love wins out. 

By comparison, Mario lies in the belly of an eel feeling bad that he has not saved his brother and that his Dad thinks he’s a joke. Then he gets out because he insults Donkey Kong, which results in them landing beside a bongo rocket. Then, Mario arrives back in the Mushroom Kingdom and then Brooklyn, and defeats Bowser with Luigi because he doesn’t give up, and then Luigi helps him, and then they both grab the star which makes them invulnerable. So, what wins out exactly?! Again, it feels like there’s something here about not giving up, but it is not well developed or expressed dramatically through action.

So, hopefully if I haven’t completely lost my mind by this stage, which feels like a live possibility, we can see that while The Super Mario Bros Movie kind of works on this superficial “outside in” level, it absolutely pales in comparison to a film like Wall-E that works on a far deeper “inside out” level. I guess what I’m really talking about here is the idea of thematic unity provided by the protagonist’s Need: the human quality or piece of wisdom that they either need to learn or need to maintain. But if there is one single mistake I think The Super Mario Bros Movie and so many films like it make, it is a misunderstanding of the two components of this idea of “Need”. One: this Need has to be something significant and psychological, moral, or spiritual. It must be internal in its nature. That’s because it has to be a universal theme and tell us something about the human condition. Two: somebody has to need to learn it. In a 3 dimensional story, this is the protagonist. They start the film in ignorance of the real argument of the story, but, in a traditional happy ending, they learn to embrace it. In a 2 dimensional story though, it is the world, or at least an important second lead character, that needs to learn it from our protagonist. Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a classic example, but everyone else in Alien should listen to and learn from Ripley, and everyone else in Wall-E should, and does, listen to and learn from Wall-E.

So, again, any issues Mario has at the start of The Super Mario Bros Movie are external and superficial. He feels small and like a bit of a loser, but he already has the all-important internal, moral, or spiritual quality of never giving up. So, he has no real Need to learn. Now, that’s fine. That just means it’s not a 3 dimensional story. But: who needs to listen to Mario in this story? Who does need to learn this lesson? Nobody. Not really. Or at least, nobody who is in the film for long enough to have a meaningful arc. If we compare The Super Mario Bros Movie to Wall-E one last time, Wall-E meets Eve at minute 14. She is initially too busy to notice him. Then, she struggles to understand him. Then she shuts down. Then she thinks he’s taken or mislaid the plant. It is only gradually over the second act that she comes to realise how much Wall-E cares for her and how much he’s been looking after her. This inspires her to return the favour and provide the maintenance, attention, and the literal spark of love that Wall-E needs to recover from the severe damage he has taken. As with everything else, Wall-E is masterful in this regard. 

Now, the obvious candidate for this in The Super Mario Bros Movie is Peach. But Peach is a terrible character. She is so perfect and kickass and glossy that there’s actually no obvious character to grip onto. If she has a characteristic, it’s that she’s brave. And Mario’s main characteristic is that… he never gives up. So, what do these people have to teach each other? Nothing. Not a thing. Which is why their scenes together are so bad and so flat. If I were trying to improve this story and could only change one thing, it would be this. There are only 3 options that work here. 1) Mario needs to learn something from Peach. 2) Peach needs to learn something from Mario. Or 3) (and probably the option I would go for) Peach needs to be replaced by another character who does need to learn something. And whatsmore, there’s actually an obvious candidate for this. Mario feels like a loser because he’s small and nobody believes in him. Most importantly, his father doesn’t respect him. By contrast, Donkey Kong is a hunky beefcake, heir to the throne, and beloved and celebrated by his community… and his father doesn’t respect him. Mario shouldn’t meet Peach 25 minutes in, he should meet Donkey Kong! That way, the arc could be Donkey Kong’s, as an initial nemesis who considers Mario weak and puny learns to respect his resilience. In so doing, Donkey Kong could learn humility and dedication to gain his father’s respect. Or whatever! The important thing is that these two actually have a potential arc to their relationship, which the film tries to cram into about 20 minutes. 

Without this relationship, The Super Mario Bros Movie is a story without any internal needs to be seen. Everything is external, on the surface, and superficial. And it doesn’t matter how pretty it looks, and how many videogame references it crams in, or how much money it makes: if a film isn’t told from the inside out; if it can’t tell people something more profound about life, it can never be loved the way Wall-E is.

This has been Mark Overanalyses Film. If you enjoyed this episode or like the podcast in general, please do recommend it to anyone you know who might like it too! It really would be a great help! A special thanks to Mary Kate O’Flanagan who taught me everything I know about film, including these methods. Thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves, and see you soon.