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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Growing up in the late 80s, Super Mario Bros. was both a cultural phenomenon and also my favorite videogame. I have highly vivid memories of playing it at every opportunity. We didn’t play much videogames on school nights, so I can remember getting in as much playing time as possible on Saturday mornings, in between my favorite cartoons of course. I also have clear memories of playing Super Mario Bros. on Sunday morning before church with my brothers, and wishing I could skip church to play more Mario. I loved my older brother’s Nintendo Entertainment System, and had such a good time with those classic games. What if, I wondered, someone turned Mario and Luigi into a movie? What would that be like? How would it look? These were the burning questions that haunted my eight-year old mind.
By the end of the 80s and into the Super Nintendo era of the early 90s, I still loved Mario and Luigi (Super Mario World, the SNES pack-in game remains my favorite videogame of all time), but I was getting a bit older and more interested in other things (Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers). So when I heard that Buena Vista Pictures was adapting Nintendo’s biggest franchise into a movie, I was still excited, but less so. I was so un-excited that when Super Mario Bros. finally released into theaters in May of 1993, I ended up not even seeing it in theaters. It was the summer of Last Action Hero and Jurassic Park, and Schwarzenegger and dinosaurs held much more appeal for me. I didn’t even end up seeing Super Mario Bros. until 1996, when I caught it on basic cable at a friend’s house one cold Friday night in November.
Super Mario Bros. turned out to be a really weird film and had a really bizarre production behind it. Originally developed by Roland Joffe, best known for films like The Killing Fields, the movie was attached to various Hollywood big wigs over the years, with people like Steven Spielberg lined up to direct and Tom Hanks rumored to star as Mario. Danny DeVito was also attached at one point to direct and star in the picture, and Arnold Schwarzenegger or Michael Keaton could have been the villain. When producer Joffe couldn’t get Harold Ramis, best known at the time for writing Ghostbusters and its sequel, he was finally able to tap directing duo Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel for the job. The partners, best known for their work on Max Headroom, were two British advertising execs/music video directors with no real Hollywood experience.
The script went through four drafts, with various fairytale-like ideas strewn about. Morton and Jankel wanted a more futuristic, Blade Runner-esque look to it, and copious sets that can best be described as cyberpunk were built for the production. Here’s the rub: there’s very little story in the Mario videogames, and what is there isn’t especially close to being either a fairytale or a dystopian cyberpunk story. There are certainly elements of a fairytale story within the Mario setting, but it’s not as if it were exactly based on Rapunzel or Jack and the Bean Stalk or something. It seemed fairly clear that directors Morton and Jankel, who were described as control freaks and uncommunicative, had no idea how to handle the Mario Bros. property. Even if the pair had understood the property better, however, there’s still no guarantee that two rookie directors could end up making a good movie anyway.
Production on the film went on and on and on, with Dennis Hopper, who played the villainous King Koopa,
giving insight into the torturous filming schedule years later. In an interview with the A.V. Club, Hopper stated that the project was way over budget, and his five weeks of filming turned into seventeen. Stars Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo also disparaged the film, with Hoskins calling it the worst thing he ever did. In a 2007 interview, Leguizamo claimed to be drunk during much of the filming, and that he knew the end product was going to be bad. He also claimed that the studio was in constant conflict with Morton and Jankel over the tone of the film, with Universal wanting a family friendly film and the directors going for something more adult. The end product, a mix of both styles, ended up really appealing to no one.
I remember finally seeing Super Mario Bros. a full three and a half years after its theatrical release. I remember how it seemed to take well over an hour before Mario and Luigi even donned their classic red and green plumber uniforms. I remember that the Goombas were lumbering giants with tiny heads, that King Koopa was a human and not a terrible lizard, and that Yoshi was absolutely terrifying for some reason. I remember being baffled as to why Luigi’s love interest was a princess named Daisy, because in the videogame Mario’s love interest is a princess named Peach. Why was Mario not the one with the love story? He was supposed to be the main character, after all. I also had no idea what was going on with the parallel universes, the dystopian under-ground city, the sentient fungus that seemed to drip everywhere, and so forth. Super Mario Bros. is a really weird movie.
Rewatching the film last week, I did find some things to like about the movie. The production design is so bizarre that it has to be admired. I don’t understand why Morton and Jankel were so obsessed with making the film look like it took place in a 1980s anime, but I appreciate the sheer audacity of the set design. The film looks appropriately good, probably due to the music video influence the directors brought to the production. Even though the three principle actors eventually spoke poorly of the film, there is something winning about Leguizamo that just makes me like him. Dennis Hopper is fine as the villain as well, clearly hamming it up and having a good time. The best praise can be reserved for Hoskins though, who dives into the role with a character actor’s abilities crossed with a leading actor’s charisma. Samantha Mathis is fine as Princess Daisy, though her role is clearly underwritten and she is also the focal point of a plot that makes no sense whatsoever.
But still, there is a reason why Super Mario Bros. was a colossal flop and continues to be recognized as the absolute worst kind of film adaptation – it just isn’t a very good movie. Bad direction (this film basically ended the careers of its directors), poorly staged action sequences, unfunny jokes, wildly shifting tones, goofy character design, and a lousy script doom the entire thing. The best one could say about the film is that its set design is inspired and that the whole movie is so bad it comes around to actually being secretly good. There is a weird can’t-look-away factor to this film. It is bad, but it is at least never boring. Super Mario Bros. was a huge flop, losing tens of millions of dollars and flaming out at the box office in the weeks building up to Jurassic Park and The Fugitive. Buena Vista hired the wrong people to make a good movie, but they hired the right people to make a bad movie. At least it’s bad in a good way.