REVIEW: Super Mario Bros.
Produced by: Jake Eberts, Roland Joffé
Written by: Parker Benett, Terry Runté, Ed Solomon
Edited by: Mark Goldblatt
Cinematography by: Dean Semler
Music by: Alan Silvestri
Starring: Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Samantha Mathis, Fisher Stevens, Richard Edson, Fiona Shaw, Mojo Nixon, Dana Kaminski, Francesca Roberts, Don Lake, Gianni Russo, Frank Welker, Dan Castellaneta, Lance Henriksen
Based on the Nintendo video game series created by Shigeru Miyamoto
You know, there was a lot of controversy in the 1990s, mostly spurred by the 1992 and 1993 release of the first two Mortal Kombat games. Regardless of your feelings on that particular series, however, it did lead to some good: the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and the industry wide adoption of its ratings system, which has successfully given parents absolutely no excuse for blaming games for their children acting out… or, at least, that was the idea in theory, but you get the idea. However, perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the early 90s in regards to video games was the sudden proliferation of movie adaptations of video games – bad ones. REALLY bad ones. Double Dragon, Street Fighter, a toned down PG-13 film based on Mortal Kombat and its even worse sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation… It’s a trend that has continued to this day throughout the Resident Evil films, the tax write-offs directed by German anti-auteur Uwe Boll, up to today, with the recent Need for Speed garnering a whopping 22% approval on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s pretty mindboggling, really, especially with so many games having stories that would surely be worthy of being given a respectful treatment in the film format, and yet not even the games known for their engrossing stories have been properly handled. Consider Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which currently holds the record for the highest rated major motion picture release based on a game franchise at just 44%, and most of that praise was for the then-cutting edge computer animation that nearly bankrupt the company that produced it when the film failed to perform well enough, and even then, it hardly offered anything to fans of the video games, what with it being a quasi-spiritual sci-fi film set in our distant future rather than being the fantasy epic that most fans of the games were familiar with. (But, hey, at least they remembered to throw in a character named Sid, right?) Respect for the source material never really seems to have been the primary focus of the filmmakers who take on these properties, unfortunately, sometimes seeming almost apologetic for their very existence. Other times, however, you just have to wonder what the hell they were thinking in the first place, and nowhere is this more appropriate than in the first ever video game adaptation, Super Mario Bros.
Everyone pretty much knows the premise of your typical Mario game by now, right? If you haven’t played one, you’ve played another, and with only a few exceptions, it usually involves Mario and, frequently, his brother Luigi going out on a quest to save the perpetually kidnapped Princess Peach (formerly Toadstool) from the nefarious Bowser, travelling through various landscapes and collecting various power-ups along the way. It’s a formula Nintendo has repeated time and time again, usually with pretty stellar results. The Super Mario Bros. movie, despite of a few alterations, pretty much sticks to the core formula for the story, complete with the damsel in distress and evil lizard king. Apparently, in the process of adapting the very cartoony game series into a live action film, however, someone said, “Hey, you know, the games are awesome and all, and I know they sold like a kajillion copies across the world, but I’m not sure movie audiences are going to buy into all those little mushroom and turtle guys running around in a fantasy world interacting with two stereotypical Italian plumbers and being terrorized by a big dragon who kidnapped their princess. Let’s instead make this a parallel dimension where people evolved from dinosaurs, and it’s this big city that looks kinda like Blade Runner, only, like, technology’s really shitty, because Koopa is, like, this really shitty, evil leader who wants to rule both dimensions, and he needs the princess to do it?” And then everyone else was like, “Hey, yeah, that’s, like, much more believable!” And then they made it. Because they’re stupid.
That’s basically it in a nutshell, honestly, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. The film opens with some backstory explaining how this came to be. 65 million years-worth of backstory, to be precise, starting with the extinction of the dinosaurs – or so we’ve been led to believe, apparently, as the movie explains that the giant asteroid that hit earth actually created a parallel universe where dinosaurs evolved to a higher human-like state while humans evolved from monkeys – because the movie’s understanding of evolution is basic to the point of not actually understanding it. Flashforward to just a few decades ago, and we see a desperate woman leaving a large egg on the footsteps of a church, where it is taken in by the nuns and from which a baby girl is… hatched. Yeah. I guess there have been weirder things in the games, so let’s give this one a pass. Flashforward once more to present day, and Mario and Luigi (last names also Mario, answering a question nobody asked about the series’ title) are two plumbers who happen across Daisy, an archeologist who, unbeknownst to her, was the baby who hatched from the egg. Luigi and Daisy hit it off immediately, but before their romance can fully bloom, Daisy is kidnapped by some thugs and whisked away through a strange underground portal and into that parallel dino dimension. The brothers come to her rescue, but they find that they must first face off against the germophobic, mammal and plumber-hating President Koopa, who wants to merge the two dimensions and rule the universe with Daisy forcefully at his side.
Needless to say, a lot of liberties were taken with the franchise in translating it into this bizarre adaptation, even apart from the setting. I’ll give the focus on Daisy a pass, too, since at least she was the damsel in Super Mario Land, but take, for example, Toad, who goes from a panicky little mushroom assistant to a middle-aged hippie folk singer fighting the power through his music. Things like fireball throwing, jumping great heights and distances, and even the prominence of mushrooms as helpful tools in the games are needlessly made more “logical” in this movie where many actions are frequently accompanied by cartoon sound effects, sometimes making for far more bizarre explanations than what was already in the game series. Even worse, Goombas, once squat little walking mushrooms with toothy frowns, are now gigantic, grunting reptilian humanoids in suits. Yeah, I don’t know, either. At least the interior design language of Koopa’s tower looks at least pretty closely inspired by the spike-filled architecture of Bowser’s castles, right?
That’s the thing about this movie, though – it’s obvious the filmmakers weren’t completely detached from the film nor its source material. A lot of hard work went into making this movie happen, and it shows in the set designs and make up, ugly though they may be. I’m sure a lot of thought went into these bizarre and inexplicable changes, because I’m pretty certain that the lazier route would have actually been to have made a more literal translation of the world from the game, complete with all the inexplicable power-ups and fanciful scenery. It was already made for them, and it’s a formula that worked countless times before and probably will continue to so long as the games sell, and this was made at a time when people actually weren’t tired of that storyline – Super Mario World, the game which provided the inspiration to focus so much on dinosaurs, had only released 3 years prior to this movie’s release, and that was only the fourth game in the main series. Either direction would have likely bombed, but you almost have to admire how the filmmakers went out of their way to make something that was already pretty freaking illogical and likely one of video gaming’s worst candidates for a film adaptation and at least make it their own in the process of making the movie.
I’m not saying that it’s impossible to make a bad movie based on Mario, and I personally believe there’s no such thing as a bad premise, just bad execution. The first mistake that was made here was to make a live action adaptation instead of an animated one. The second was hiring a cast of actors who basically have no interest in taking any of this seriously – and how could they have?
Both Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper went on to claim that working on this movie was a nightmare, with Hoskins in particular calling this movie one of his biggest regrets. Ironically, they actually give the two most engaging performances in the movie, with Hopper playing your classic eccentric, campy bad guy and Hoskins in particular almost a perfect choice for the role of Mario, but even then, that’s not saying much with the material they’re given. John Leguizamo plays Luigi, and, let me tell you, he is by far the most annoying character in the movie. Everything about him, from his extreme stupidity to his carefree faith that everything will work out alright, even if you’re doing the most unreasonably stupid thing ever, is grating on the nerves. Samantha Mathis seems to deliver every single line of dialogue with the same breathy tone throughout the film with the only variances being in volume. She’s pretty dull, otherwise. In supporting roles are Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson as the doofus henchmen Iggy and Spike (only one of which takes his name from a game character). They’re irritating, but nothing you haven’t seen before from your bumbling villain sidekick archetype. Fiona Shaw is entertaining enough, possibly out-camping Dennis Hopper as his… lover?… secretary?… associate? It’s never really quite clear, and no game equivalent exists for her. Whatever, though. She at least commands every scene she’s in and somehow maintains a bit of dignity.
Overall, Super Mario Bros. the movie is terrible, and everyone involved in making it seemingly wanted to put it behind them for good. And yet, over the years, the movie has actually developed a sort of cult following because of it, and the studio has actually taken notice – the UK is getting a Blu-Ray release this year, complete with a new 60-minute retrospective documentary on the making of the movie. I gotta say, I’m actually quite jealous, as my DVD copy, procured from the $5 bargain bin at Walmart a few years ago, is in freaking non-anamorphic widescreen, resulting in black bars on all four sides that not even zooming in fixes like it does for the non-anamorphic Star Wars theatrical versions on DVD. Seriously, I want this terrible movie in proper widescreen and in HD, dang it, and I want to watch that documentary! The thing about this movie is that it is one of those rare instances where it’s so bad, it is seriously entertaining to watch it when the mood for such a thing strikes you. Perhaps the filmmakers knew this, and perhaps that’s why they made it so completely batshit insane? I seriously do not know, but it’s almost kind of tragic that, of all the terrible video game films that followed and did get even more terrible sequels or reboots, this was the one that didn’t get to continue its story is actually kind of disappointing, especially since it ends on such a baffling cliffhanger. Seriously, what the heck happened that prompted Daisy to come back to Brooklyn armed to the teeth and seeking the Mario Brothers’ help? Were Koopa’s kids seeking revenge for their father’s death? Was it Wart, the frog villain from Mario’s dreams in Super Mario Bros. 2? OH MY GOD, WAS IT DONKEY KONG!?
Sadly, we will likely never know what they had in mind for a potential sequel. Even more tragically, we’ll never know just how terrifically bad that movie likely could have turned out. One thing I guess we can all appreciate, however, is the fact that, even if there have been way worse video game films released since, none of them have been quite as enjoyably shitty as the one that did it first.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 1 / 5