Have I not done a review of the Super Mario Bros. movie? I guess not! I’ve mentioned it in some of my videos and I’ve talked about it off the record a lot. It’s one of those conversation pieces. Everyone talks about this movie, but when was the last time we gave it a closer look? So, let’s see what it was about this adaptation that went so horribly wrong.
This has been one of my most often requested movies, so this is very belated, but I think I just needed some time to get myself into the right mindset and view it for what it is. The last time I watched it fully was in the theater on May 28th, 1993. That was twenty years ago!
Today, younger generations discover this movie as some weird artifact from the 90’s, like, “Hey, you know there was a Super Mario Bros. movie?” I’ve actually gotten e-mails like that. And yeah, this movie was a big deal when it came out. It wasn’t something that just passed by under the radar. It had lots of promotion and merchandise. I must have seen that commercial on TV like a thousand times. Even Megadeth had a song on the soundtrack album!
Of course, then the movie came out. It flopped. It faded into obscurity, and then with the advent of the internet, was resurrected into a cult phenomenon.
It was the first time a video game had ever been adapted into a feature live-action film. There were movies before it like Tron, War Games, Cloak & Dagger, and The Wizard, which were movies about video games, but this was the first adaptation of a specific game.
Imagine if you were a screenwriter assigned to the task of adapting this, and there was no pre-existing example of how to make a game into a movie. At face-value, the game is two guys running around, hitting blocks, jumping on turtles, and getting mushrooms. What do you do with that? So, the writers took many liberties, and came up with their own story.
It starts with the Super Mario Bros. music—the only time you ever hear it in the movie, and it’s not a newly-composed cinematic version, but instead just the same exact 8-bit music from the original game. It’s just something to trick you into thinking that the movie’s gonna be like the game, when it isn’t at all.
Then, all of a sudden, we’re getting an animated history lesson about the dinosaurs.
Narrator: “No people went around hasslin’ them because there weren’t any people yet. Just the first tiny mammals.”
What the hell happened?
Then we jump ahead to present-day Brooklyn, where we meet Mario and Luigi, played by Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo. Some people may not like the choice of casting, but honestly I don’t think it’s that bad. I especially like Bob Hoskins, but if you wanna see a better movie with him, see Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He is amazing in that.
From what I gathered, he hated this movie. He once said in an interview, “The worst thing I ever did? Super Mario Bros. It was a fuckin’ nightmare. The whole experience was a nightmare.”
And from what I heard in John Leguizamo’s book, he says that it was such a negative experience that to dull the pain, both of them were always drinking scotch on the set. So perhaps Bob Hoskins became the real-life Eddie Valiant.
The two of them almost have a chemistry together. It’s no Lethal Weapon, but there’s something there.
While the video games hint that the Mario brothers are plumbers, the movie makes it EXPLICITLY CLEAR.
[clip of Mario and Luigi fixing a pipe with plumbing tools]
Man, they sure are plumbers! If there’s one the movie follows from the games, it’s the thing the games play up the least.
It also explains why they’re called the “Mario Brothers,” because both their last names are Mario.
Cop: “How many 'Marios' are there between the two of you?”
Luigi: “There’s three: Mario Mario and Luigi Mario.”
You know what? I never thought of that. Why are they called the Mario Brothers? That’d be like if I had a brother named Tim, and we called ourselves “The Tim Brothers” instead of by our surname. It doesn’t make any sense, but did we need the movie to make sense of it? Would anyone be confused if they didn’t get that out of the way? It’s like the movie’s taking a stab at the games. It doesn’t adapt from the games very well, but they sure did a good job of parodying it!
Cop: “Last name."
Luigi has a love interest: a girl who’s digging for dinosaur bones underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. All right, look, if I try to explain all of this, I’ll be here all day, so look, she’s the princess. Princess Daisy. Strange that Luigi has a love interest, and not Mario, but in the film portrayal, it does make more sense that way. One minor thing, since we’re on the topic of how the movie relates to the game: why did they pick Princess Daisy from the Game Boy version, Super Mario Land, and not the more famous Princess Toadstool? And that’s right, I said Princess Toadstool, because that’s what she was called back then! I know in Japan she was always Princess Peach, but instead we got ... Princess Toadstool. Very attractive name for a princess. Might as well be Princess Frogshit.
Then there’s the villain, played by Dennis Hopper, who they refer to as Koopa.
Random townsperson: “...Ever since Koopa took over.”
There’s a couple things here that don’t add up. The first is minor: the name. While this is a live action film, and is a different take on it, we all expected the villain to be Bowser. That’s what he was always known as in the games. I distinctly remember the original instruction manual called him “Bowser, king of the Koopa.” But here, he’s just Koopa. But the thing that’s more offsetting, is … just look at them. Do these two things look alike? No!
That’s one of the common things that confuses people about this movie. Bowser is supposed to be a fire-spitting turtle/dragon hybrid. So why here is Bowser a human being?
Well first of all, he’s not Bowser. He’s Koopa. And second, he is a reptilian creature; he’s descended from the T-Rex. You know, T-Rex? Bowser? Close enough, right?
And in the finale, he’s zapped with the de-evolve gun. The guns in this movie are SNES Super Scopes that have been painted.
Anyway, this gun makes him de-evolve back into his reptilian self. Man, that effect is still cool! Some of the weird CG effects in this movie do heighten its enjoyability. He turns into his true form as a T-rex, and there you have, the closest he ever gets to resembling Bowser.
Speaking of de-evolving, there’s a scene where he crosses over into our dimension, and de-evolves some guy into a chimpanzee. They could have had him turn into some kinda primal, prehistoric ape done with animatronics or a costume, but instead they used a live chimpanzee. Kinda cheap that he turns into an animal that’s still around today.
As for the king who once ruled this world, he was de-evolved back into fungus. That’s right, his fungus has spread all over the city, and tries to help the Mario brothers ... until he’s evolved back, and he turns out to be Lance Henriksen.
The King: “I’m back!”
As far as Dennis Hopper’s performance goes, you could say it’s bad.
Koopa: “…pit hole, germs everywhere, fungus!”
But I don’t know what it is, there’s something I like about it. I can’t explain it, and I think it’s just because in the 90’s, he was in [starts holding up VHS tapes from the shelf he's standing behind] Speed, he was in Waterworld, he was always playing the villain, so I just thought of him as the quintessential bad guy, and I’m unable to distance myself from it. I look at the movie, and I just think, “It’s fucking Dennis Hopper!”
Koopa: “Ahhh, plumbers! You plumbers!”
[clip of Dennis Hopper from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2] “Bring it all dooooowwn! I’ll take you to hell!” There’s a running joke where he’s waiting for a pizza.
Koopa: “I’d like the Koopa special.”
Pizza Guy: “Pterodactyl tail on that”?
But it’s not a joke, because there’s no payoff.
Koopa: “Where’s my pizza?”
It’s like saying, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” And then offering no punchline. As a kid I was confused, but now I think I finally get it. It’s funny because it’s so unfunny.
Koopa: “See you later, alligator.”
And that’s the way the whole movie is. It’s just this awkward tone, and it’s hilarious for that reason.
Koopa: “Do you know what I love about mud? It’s clean and it’s dirty at the same time.”
Koopa has two henchmen, Iggy and Spike, who are also descended from dinosaurs. Iggy’s name comes from Bowser’s offspring in Super Mario Bros. 3, and Spike comes from … that thing. So random! They’re both idiots, played for comic relief, sort of like the burglars in Home Alone, but that’s giving it too much credit. [James laughs, noticing the Home Alone VHS on the shelf by the other two movies] How come every movie I’m talking about is on this shelf?
Okay, I think now that I’ve introduced all the main characters, I can finally start telling you about the backstory. Okay? So get this. In a nutshell, there was a meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, but this meteor split the world into two parallel dimensions. In one dimension you have primates, and then in the other, you have the dinosaurs. Now, the primates evolved into people, and the dinosaurs evolved into these cold-blooded reptilian people that lay eggs and all that. So anyway, Bowser-Koopa belongs to this dimension, and wants to cross over and merge the two dimensions into one so he can take them both over. And to do this, he needs a piece of the original meteor that caused the dimensional split. Princess Daisy has been keeping it safe, so that’s why Koopa captures the princess.
Koopa: “She has the rock … arrest her!”
And that was the biggest part of the game: Bowser captures the princess, and the Mario Bros. have to go rescue her. So they got that part right, and they tried to elaborate on it to make a whole movie based around it. It’s conventional, but it works.
It’s like in Star Wars, when Darth Vader captures Princess Leia because she has something he wants back. In this case, the plans to the Death Star. The part that throws me off is, what’s with all the dinosaur stuff? They even use the song, “Everybody Walk the Dinosaur.” What is this movie’s fascination with dinosaurs? Dinosaurs didn’t have anything to do with the game, so why’s it such a big part of the movie? The closest it comes to having any direct tie-in is with Yoshi. Technically, Yoshi can be considered a dinosaur, so it makes enough sense that his live-action counterpart would be just that: a generic-looking dinosaur. Although the animatronics are pretty cool.
You know how today, everything’s always about zombies and aliens? Well, back then in the early 90’s, everything was always about dinosaurs. They were everywhere! Super Mario Bros. was released at the height of this dinosaur craze, just a couple weeks before Jurassic Park came out. And when Jurassic Park came out, everybody forgot about the Super Mario Bros. movie pretty quickly.
So how else does the movie relate to the game? Well, the Goombas are the complete opposite. Instead of big heads with small, nonexistent bodies, they have small heads with big bodies. It almost seemed like a conscious decision to make the movie as different as possible from the game!
They’re voiced by the unmistakable Frank Welker. Goombas aside, I really love these faces. I don’t know how to put it. That just cracks me up!
Remember big Bertha, the giant fish from Super Mario Bros. 3? Well, in the movie, she’s a bouncer at a bar who steals the meteor piece and wears it around her neck. Mario tries to get it back by dancing with her to distract her… and then …
[Mario and Bertha are dancing; Mario sees the meteor piece hanging in her cleavage]
What the hell?! Is that something you expect to see in the Super Mario Bros. movie?!
[The 8-bit Mario theme plays as Mario attempts to pick up the meteor piece with his teeth]
Remember the Thwomps, the living blocks that try to crush Mario? In the movie, Thwomp is a brand name given to rocket boots, a power-up that never existed in the games. The stores are full of them, so can anybody just grab these boots from the stand and go flying off? Oh, and they’re powered by things that look like Bullet Bills. So there’s your Bullet Bill reference.
The only thing in the movie that does what it’s supposed to, basically, is a Bob-Omb. Yes, there actually is a Bob-Omb in the movie, and it’s pretty much like in the game. Except it’s wearing Reeboks.
[clip from Wayne's World: Garth is decked-out from head to toe in Reebok gear]
Garth: “It’s like people only do things because they get paid. And that’s just really sad.”
So, other than a bunch of references, the movie has almost nothing to do with the games, and seemed to not take any faith in its source material. Understandably, this disappointed many of its hardcore fans. Nintendo didn’t have any creative input on the project. It was one of those rare moments when someone else entered into an agreement with Nintendo and was able to do something like this. This was a mistake that could never be repeated. Today, people take video game movies way more seriously, and if Nintendo had produced the film themselves, maybe it could have been done properly. And in twenty years since, they’ve never tried again. It scarred them that much.
I was wondering what Shigeru Miyamoto thought of this movie, so I was able to dig up a comment where he said, “The movie may have tried to get a little too close to what the Mario Bros. video games were. In that sense, it became a movie that was about a video game, rather than being an entertaining movie in and of itself.” To a certain extent I think that’s true, but I think that it is its own movie, and if it were any more different from the game, it would have shared no connection with it whatsoever, except for the title. It’s kinda like the American Godzilla movie from 1998, where Tri Star acquired the rights from Toho to make this travesty which had nothing to do with Godzilla, and it was more like any other generic reptilian monster movie.
When I saw the Super Mario Bros. movie as a kid, I wasn’t so concerned about it being like the game. There were no other video game movies to compare it to. In all the years since, being critical of it, I’ve actually forgotten how much I wanted it to be different from the game. It’s like going from the Batman TV show to the movie. It was a fresh new approach, and that’s how things keep us interested as we grow older. We need them to become more badass. The same goes for Ninja Turtles. Most of us first got hooked on the animated series, which was more kid-friendly than the comics. Then the movie came out, and blew our fucking balls off! It was darker, and for lack of better words, it’s just badass!
So I expected the Super Mario Bros. movie to be a badass version of the games. Sure, it was a little darker, and a little more adult in tone, but misguided.
So what was misguided about it? Was the source material too difficult to translate into a movie? Well, it was done fairly well in all the different animated Super Mario Bros. TV shows, so maybe you could say it just didn’t translate well to live action. I think the biggest problem is the setting. It’s not set in any kind of environment that we recognize from the games. And keep in mind, Super Mario World was out by now. They had PLENTY of time to establish the familiar fantasy landscape of the games, and the movie threw all that out the window. Sure, they have interpretations of all the characters, and certain references, but without the world, you have nothing.
That’s not to say I didn't like the world that the movie created. It’s a dystopian, futuristic city reminiscent of Blade Runner. I noticed the Blade Runner similarity on my own, but then I found out that lots of people have compared it to Blade Runner. And the production designer was David L. Snyder, who just happened to be the art director on Blade Runner.
Super Mario Bros. has a surreal quality that makes it unique. Can you think of any other movie that has so much fungus? And I have to mention the ending. It’s a cliffhanger.
Daisy: “You gotta come with me, I need your help!”
Luigi: “What’s wrong?”
Daisy: “You’re never gonna believe this."
Mario: “I believe it.”
Luigi: “You do?”
Mario: “I believe.”
Was there anyone else out there who actually thought there was gonna be a sequel? [James laughs] There wasn’t. And I’m still hanging on. This is one of those endings that everybody likes to laugh at, that that’s how the movie ends. But wait: that’s not how the movie ends. Just wait until after the credits.
Japanese Businessman #1: “We have a very exciting proposal. A video game based on your many adventures.”
Japanese Businessman #2: “What would you call it?”
Iggy and Spike: “The Super Koopa Cousins!”
Yeah. Now you know what you missed. So how does this movie hold up after twenty years? Um … about the same. It’s a terrible adaptation, but if you can distance yourself from it being a Super Mario Bros. movie, you can get some enjoyment out of it. It’s definitely watchable; it’s not a total bore, it’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s not as bad as its reputation. Maybe it shouldn’t have been called Super Mario Bros., and just been its own movie. But then again, if it wasn’t called Super Mario Bros., we probably wouldn’t be talking about it today. So the name, if anything, just helped preserve this movie. It’s a time capsule of the 90’s.
[clip of Luigi pressing a Needle Art Frame over his face]
Remember that thing? I used to have one of those. Hours of fun.
And on a more serious note, in the alternate dimension, the damaged World Trade Center can be seen. Watching it today gives us a grim reminder of what happened in 2001, but also a reminder to the more carefree and innocent time when we were naïve enough to think nothing like that could ever happen. Only in the movies.
So, you can see this movie through a nostalgic filter, or through a critical filter that the internet’s helped with. I say see it for yourself. See it for what it is, and always trust the fungus.
Luigi: “Trust the fungus!”