SUPER MARIO BROS. (1993)
Starring Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper & Samantha Mathis
Directed by Rocky Morton & Annabel Jankel
Written by Parker Bennett, Terry Runté & Ed Solomon
Produced by Jake Eberts & Roland Joffé
Cinematography by Dean Semler
Music by Alan Silvestri
Edited by Mark Goldblatt

If this awesome poster doesn't make you want to see this, then brother, I don't know what will.

   It was bound to happen eventually – a big-budget, full-length feature film based on a video game. After decades of adapting from other mediums, it was only a matter of time before somebody in Hollywood decided to make a movie inspired by the interactive worlds that games offered. And in the early 90s, the video game market was still relatively new – still evolving and growing to the level of sophistication (depending on who you ask) that we know and understand today. And at the forefront of the video game revolution was Super Mario Bros. – undoubtedly the most successful video game of all; the game that singlehandedly made Nintendo a household name and saved the video game industry from becoming a forgotten, irrelevant fad during the mid-80s. Mario was the Mickey Mouse for the gaming generation, a veritable icon for the ages and beloved mascot for a titan entertainment company. So it’s really no wonder that Super Mario Bros. became the first ever movie based on a video game – and unwittingly set the unfortunate precedent for almost every video game-to-film adaptation to come.

   Upon its release in 1993, Super Mario Bros. was universally despised by pretty much everyone who saw it. It was loud, strange, tonally inaccurate with the games that inspired it, and generally boneheaded in its execution. The film cost $48,000,000 to make and only recouped $21,000,000 from the box office. Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs down – an unavoidable kiss of death for movies during the 1990s. Bob Hoskins, who had the distinction of portraying Mario in the film, would go on to say that it was the worst thing he ever did and that he wished he could delete the film from his life – and this is coming from the dude who was in Heart Condition. If there were a picture in the dictionary to go alongside the word “failure”, the poster for Super Mario Bros. would surely do the most justice.

Or maybe this one, actually.

   But, my friends, I have a sort of deep, dark secret I would like to confess to all of you right here and now: I actually kind of enjoy Super Mario Bros. I know, I know, what the hell could possibly be wrong with me?! How can any of you trust my word on films when I actually enjoy a travesty such as this film?! Well to that I can assure you that Super Mario Bros. exists for me purely in the realm of guilty pleasures – something that is so horrendously, appallingly terrible that I just have no choice but to love it for being so bad. I first took a shine to the movie as a young lad, when I rented it from Zip’s Video without any knowledge of its abysmal performance at the box office or any care what critics thought of it – I was just a little kid who loved the Mario video games, so a live action movie was pretty much the coolest idea ever! I really liked the movie as a little kid, so maybe that effects my judgement of it as an older, semi-wiser adult. But, to reiterate, I definitely do understand that the movie is bad. And to be fair, Super Mario Bros. isn’t bad in the way that a movie like, say, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is bad. Super Mario Bros. actually has several redeeming qualities about it that save it from the realm of evil, offensive, mind-destroying crappiness that so many other movies fall into. What could those qualities possibly be? Read on, my friends, read on!

   For one thing, Super Mario Bros. actually tries to take itself seriously – which can either be construed as a bad thing or a noble thing, depending on your view. There is a sort of devotion to the reality the film is trying to present, even if it is a silly and over-the-top one. You get the feeling that the characters in the movie actually believe they’re participating in the ridiculousness being put upon them, and because of this, it’s actually possible to be drawn into the world of the movie, rather than being alienated from it and detached while things are going on. I guess what I’m trying to say is, while the tone of the film is COMPLETELY different than the tone of the games, it establishes itself for what it is and remains consistent throughout its running time. This is something which cannot be said for a LOT of movies considered to be in the same vein as Super Mario Bros., so I give the movie some credit for actually staying faithful to its own grand design…unfortunately, it’s just a very misguided one.

   Anybody who’s ever played a Mario game knows what the deal is: Princess Toadstool (later renamed Peach) gets kidnapped by Bowser, a big, menacing, fire-breathing, evil & spiky-shelled turtle, and it’s up to Mario (and sometimes his brother Luigi) to go on a magnificent quest through bright, colorful worlds to rescue her – all while defeating troublesome enemies along the way. There’s not really much else to the early Mario games – they’re lighthearted platform adventure games with catchy music with a VERY thin plot to give you an excuse to bop digital bad guys on the head. I’m sure when people went to go see the movie back in 1993, they were expecting something similar to this, since – you know, it was based on the game n’ shit. But instead of seeing this bright, colorful world filled with smiley happy characters, they got a grungy, dilapitated hellhole populated by unfriendly and ugly dinosaur people and controlled by Dennis Hopper. The plot is, Mario and Luigi are plumbers from Brooklyn, and get sucked into an alternate dimension where dinosaurs have evolved into intelligent beings (who happen to look exactly like humans), and are now actively being pursued by King Koopa (NOT Bowser) for harboring a piece of meteorite which belonged to Princess Daisy (NOT Toadstool) that can be used to merge the dino-dimension and the human dimension into one. If you’re saying “What the fuck?” to yourself after reading that sentence, trust me….you are NOT alone. The makers of the film, in a vain attempt to modernize and ground the film in some kind of reality, completely morphed the concept of Mario into some kind of sci-fi/action/comedy spectacle flick….and the effect is, needless to say, quite confusing.

Seriously, how do you go from THIS........

..........to THIS?!

   Gone were the bright green pipes which housed chomping Pirahna Plants. Gone were the mushrooms which made Mario grow larger and stomp enemies. Gone were the green-shelled turtles and mushroom-shaped Goombas which populated Mario’s world. Gone was anything that even remotely tied in to the Super Mario Bros. franchise visually, save for the appearance of Mario & Luigi themselves and one sole Bob-Omb. It was all replaced by lavish, S&M-inspired hysteria and dystopian grunge with only mild references to the actual games themselves (a nightclub called “Thwomp” and another called “Bullet Bill’s”, for example) in a sort of send-up of 90’s New York culture. I think this is primarily why so many people rejected Super Mario Bros. upon its release: it was just way, WAY too different from what they knew and loved from the video games. Not only that, but it was a lot more violent and harsh than the games, which exemplified kid-friendly cuteness in almost every way. I’m positive there were MANY parents out there who stormed out of the theater with their children once they laid eyes on the dark, dystopian society the loveable Mario & Luigi found themselves trapped in and the surreal, violent antics which occurred there. You go from such simple themes as adventuring and saving a princess to fascist rule by an oppressive dictator, childhood abandonment, the concept of evolution AND de-evolution, and inter-dimensional domination, to name a few.

   So what hell happened here? Well, I think that when time came to develop the Mario license into a live-action movie, there were several problems that instantly came into play:

1. There’s no plot.
2. Nothing in Mario’s world tangibly exists in reality.
3. Faithfully recreating the exact style of the games would cost a shit-ton of money.
4. The only people who played video games were little kids….and maybe weird adults.
5. Nobody had ever made a video game into a movie before.

   I think this last one was the most troubling for the creators of this film, since they had absolutely nothing to go off of – they were essentially creating a brand new genre of films. Now personally, I think that notion would be incredibly exciting and open up a nearly endless well of creativity, and maybe it did for the movie’s producers – but they didn’t necessarily use that creativity in a very productive way. I still believe it is VERY possible to make a good, solid Mario movie using the actual style and characters from the universe of the games, but apparently at the time the filmmakers thought they needed something a bit more substantial to make a live action movie with. The result, unfortunately, was something wholly unworthy of being considered anywhere near the quality of the games which inspired it.

   But, if you recall, I did say that I actually enjoy Super Mario Bros., and I really, truly do. I completely understand that it is is a terrible movie, with a hopelessly inept script and somewhat hammy acting from all parties involved, but for some reason, I can’t bring myself to completely write it off as another failure from the bowels of Hollywood. There’s a sort of quirky charm to the movie, a kind of lightheartedness that endears itself to me. The movie begins with what could possibly be the worst animation ever committed to celluloid – I don’t know if they were trying to emulate the 8-bit look of NES games, but the poorly-drawn, barely lip-synced dinosaurs in the intro look laughably terrible. Then a cheesy-sounding narrator with a bad New York accent begins to awkwardly expose the plot before the opening credits even begin, effectively showing that these filmmakers have absolutely no idea how to begin their own movie. Seriously, they could have done away with this entire opening segment and the movie probably would have made at least 10,000 more dollars…but this is just speculation. Anyway, the movie really begins with a mother leaving her baby (a giant, unhatched egg) on the front stoop of a nunnery in the middle of the rain, along with a mysterious piece of blue rock. Then, when she goes back underground to go into her dimension, Dennis Hopper comes out of the shadows and grabs her by the shoulders….which makes the whole cave shake for some reason, and the mother screams while the rocks presumably bury her alive. We don’t know for sure because it cuts away instantly to present-day Brooklyn, where we meet Mario and Luigi, two plumbers who are dangerously low on funds. We follow them around and get to know their personalities, and they eventually run into Daisy, whom Luigi falls for and which gets out plot going. I’ll stop summarizing here because I think you get the idea – this movie is pretty damn ridiculous.

Koopa wants to hit it too.

   Despite the shortcomings of the heavily flawed script,  it does actually make sense in its own way – I know what motivates each character, I know what the stakes are and what happens if Mario and company fail, and because of that, I can actually squeeze a small amount of dramatic tension from the story. The characters have a sort of goofy charm about them, and the actors try their best to breathe a little life into them. It’s not Shakespeare, but c’mon, it’s a stupid movie based on a video game! And hey, the production value on the film is GREAT! It really is a fun film to look at, even though what’s transpiring onscreen is enough to make you question what the hell the directors were thinking. The set designs are creative and elaborate, the makeup effects are pretty damn dazzling, and the creature effects are very impressive. It’s very clear that a lot of money went into this production, and they actually used it to create a believably hostile environment filled with strange and perplexing characters. This is all part of what makes movies fun to watch – complete immersion into a make believe world.

   Although, for this feat, I should really give credit to production designer David L. Snyder – the same man who designed the sets for Blade Runner. He’s pretty much the reason why the movie looks cool, because the film’s directors – the husband and wife team of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel – probably didn’t have much to do with that. Stories of the duo’s inability to control what was happening on their set are now infamous, but needless to say just from watching the movie, these two people were in way over their heads. It’s really mind-boggling to me that the movie’s producers (including Roland Joffé, the director behind the critically lauded filmed The Killing Fields….WTF?!) didn’t try to find someone with a bit of a track record for big-budget adventure flicks….the only movie these two yahoos had directed was a little noir film called D.O.A. (1988) which was critically accepted but bombed at the box office. Their biggest success was creating the popular 80s commercial character Max Headroom. Other than that, Rocky and Anna were pretty much hacks whose “arrogance had been mistaken for talent”, according to Bob Hoskins. Inexplicably these two people were put in charge of a big-budget video game adaptation and this was the result. Not to mention the screenplay had been rewritten several times by several different writers and wasn’t even completely finished by the time production began…in essence, making Super Mario Bros. was almost more unbearable than the movie itself. It’s really a shame, because the potential for something great was squandered by people who thought they knew what they were doing.

When we said we wanted to "gross millions" this isn't exactly what we meant.

   Super Mario Bros. exists as one of those rare movies where everything goes completely wrong but is, for some reason, still somewhat entertaining. Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo actually have pretty good chemistry and are pretty believable as Mario and Luigi, and Samantha Mathis, who plays Princess Daisy, tries her damned hardest to be a convincing emotional center for this movie and somehow manages to succeed at doing so. Dennis Hopper gets to have the most fun by being a completely over-the-top asshole, and I’m pretty sure he just agreed to appear in the film to score drug money – but his performance is memorable nonetheless and one of the saving graces of the film. And for all the silly antics and ridiculous occurrences that happen, the movie is actually smart enough to give Mario and Luigi character arcs – Mario is portrayed as a sort of average Joe everyman, someone who doesn’t believe in supernatural phenomenae or wild stories until he finds himself in the middle of one, while Luigi is portrayed as a goofy younger guy who has trouble talking to girls, until he falls for Daisy and eventually gains confidence…ok, I might be reaching with that one, but it’s still a small semblance of an arc nonetheless. My point is, things actually happen in this movie, and the characters have things to do and are developed semi-well. It’s not complete garbage, as most people who see this movie would have you believe. It’s harmless popcorn entertainment, just smart enough to provide some inspired moments but ultimately an unfocused, flawed production. I’d only recommend it to those who like to sit around with friends and watch subpar movies for fun, but other than that, I can’t really recommend it in any serious fashion – even though I personally like the film for what it is. What could have been at least marginally great is now instead one of the biggest blunders in recent cinematic history, and it set the stage for even more atrocious video-game-to-film adaptations that are still being made to this day. I guess there’s something about the interactive experience games provide that gets lost in translation to movies – or maybe the people who make video game movies think that the movies themselves have to be like actual video games, instead of actual movies. Whatever the reason is, it’s definitely been one of the worst genres to exist in film history – and it all stems back to Super Mario Bros.

   Oh, I almost forgot to mention the best part: the movie ends with Daisy running back to our dimension to fetch the Mario Bros. for another adventure, ostensibly setting up a sequel which would never, EVER come. Such high hopes, yet nothing to show for it…in a tragic way, it pretty much sums up the entire movie.

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