When all is said and done, the biggest movies of 2023 are going to be based on a 60-year-old doll and a 40-year-old video game. Barbie and The Super Mario Bros. Movie have each, in their own unique ways, shown the best of what modern studio filmmaking can be. In an era when name brands and sequels continue to be the gold standard, one approached that idea in a way that speaks to the ways things should be, and the other, the scary way it could be.
So on the one hand, you have Barbie, a crowd-pleasing, divisive, thought-provoking film that is both a big popcorn movie but also very much feels like the work of an artist. Is it super deep? No. Does it have a clear intention? Yes. On the other hand, you have Super Mario, a film that’s also a crowd-pleasing blockbuster but about as thematically bare as films come. It’s fun, nice, kids love it, and adults can enjoy it, but there’s nothing hugely unique about it.
Neither approach is right or wrong. In fact, in both cases, it worked better than anyone probably could have imagined. But it’s 2023 and it’s hard to think about the movies and TV that are connecting with audiences without thinking of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. With Barbie, you have an example of the way writers and actors want things to move forward—while in Super Mario, you have an example of what studios think can happen. Basically, when lined up side by side, the films are almost a microcosm for what hangs in the balance with the current state of Hollywood.
Let’s dive in deeper to explain. In many ways, Barbie and The Super Mario Bros. Movie have a lot in common. Each is based on a hugely popular brand name that is known by people of all ages. Each had tons of merch before a movie was even announced and had previously been made into other types of media, just never with the care and budget of these iterations. And though each is based on a well-established IP, they’re not sequels, so the films are providing audiences with new stories to enjoy from characters they know. They’re also both big, bright, and family-friendly with at least moderate critical acclaim. As a result of checking all those boxes, each has become a massive, billion-dollar hit. And counting.
The differences are a bit more important though. There’s obviously the biggest and least crucial one—that Barbie is live-action and Super Mario Bros. is animation. Beyond that though, as previously alluded to, the most important thing is the intention. Barbie has a voice. It’s the work of a filmmaker, in this case co-writer and director Greta Gerwig, who has a very distinct point of view. Yes, it’s bright pink with lots of very attractive people, but it’s also dark, funny, and challenging. It’s also all those things in a very easily digestible package. Gerwig knows the line between making a Barbie movie Warner Bros. is releasing over the summer and one that could have debuted at Sundance. She finds that line and rides it expertly.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie also has a voice, but that voice is Chris Pratt’s. And Seth Rogen’s. And Jack Black’s. Everything happening on screen with the story is mechanical. The narrative, the characters, the worlds, the voices, it’s all completely devoid of intellectual thought. Does it do the job? Without a doubt. But directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic aren’t there to infuse their own points of view. They’re there to make sure the film comes together in a manner that will make families happy they bought tickets. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is so by the book, it almost feels like producers put a list of everything that had to happen or appear in the movie into a computer, pressed enter, and this is what popped out.
What does that sound like? It sounds like artificial intelligence. And while obviously Super Mario, much like Barbie, was exclusively made by talented artists who worked very, very hard, juxtaposing the latter’s unique, original take on an IP with the former’s predictable, basic take on another feels like a perfect example of the two sides of this moment in Hollywood history. On the one side, you have writers and actors fighting for the fact humans are needed to make stories, and those humans deserve to be well-compensated and respected for do. On the other side, you have the studios, who want to find a cheaper way to do all this and think computers might be one of the answers. And if computers and AI ever do become the answer, a movie like The Super Mario Bros. Movie is exactly what Hollywood wants. A popular brand, complete with all its mythology and lore, pumped out in a pretty package that does nothing interesting but works at its core. It’s the AI dream.
Now, imagine a Barbie movie made with AI. It’s pretty easy to picture. You’d get all the Dream Houses, outfits, cars, and lots of Barbie and Ken romance, but none of what the actual movie is: cheeky, interesting, campy, and emotional. That’s why, just like Barbie is soon to outgross The Super Mario Bros Movie, we think the creatives will eventually win. Barbie is the perfect example of everything this modern era wants, done right: it takes a popular brand or idea and puts a whole new spin on it. The Super Mario Bros Movie is the perfect example of everything this modern era wants, done simply. It’s exactly what you expect of it. Both things worked very, very well, but one seems to be working better.
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