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Super Mario Bros. (1993)
~Review by Grawlix (January 2019)
Given my love for both video games and cinema, it may come as a surprise to some that I’d never watched Super Mario Brothers in its entirety before I did so for the purposes of this review. I remember when it first came out. I remember the hype train crashing amid scores of negative reviews, although the prevailing attitude towards the film seemed to be more one of confusion than outright disdain. I don’t remember it getting much of a second life on cable, that go-to venue where the occasional misunderstood classic was granted another chance at finding an audience. One could easily believe that perhaps certain unseen forces had a vested interest in allowing it to fade into obscurity. In any case, until recently, watching Super Mario Brothers was not something I’d made much of an effort towards doing.
This hesitence may have ended up working to my advantage, though. As the years passed, more and more information surfaced regarding what are now understood as the legendary production difficulties that the movie faced, to the extent that it’s now considered a small miracle it was completed at all. Most of the problems are usually laid at the feet of the movie’s co-directors, the husband and wife team of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, whose credits prior to SMB included the (quirky and criminally underrated) Max Headroom TV series and a bunch of music videos.
Morton and Jankel were at least smart enough to start things in familiar territory. Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo) er, Mario (yes, they went with the Super Mario Bros. Super Show convention of using Mario as both a first name and a surname. I guess it’s really Nintendo’s fault for titling the game that way) are two brothers carrying on the family plumbing business in Brooklyn, New York. Plumbing is apparently a bit more of a cutthroat profession in this universe, as it’s not uncommon for a potential customer to call multiple contractors and let them compete to see who gets the job (even though it’s actually implied that the Mario Brothers are union… weird). Still, the brothers get by, Mario through cynicism and blue-collar grit (even if Hoskins does lay the N’Yawk accent on a little thick), and Luigi through a guileless optimism that allows him to see the silver lining in everything. Apparently, Luigi has also never seen a woman before, because when he locks eyes with Daisy (Samantha Mathis) as they both reach for a pay phone, he is immediately smitten and thinks nothing of diving through a strange portal, Mario in tow, when she is grabbed by a few shifty looking characters and spirited away for reasons unclear.
Okay, It’s worth noting at this point that, while the Super Mario Bros. games have traditionally set the standard regarding gameplay, they’ve never really been all that consistent on story or persistent lore, especially not in the early 90s. As such, the palette was wide open for their depiction in a motion picture. Reportedly, the initial script, the one that got most of the principal actors to sign on, was comparable in structure and tone to The Wizard of Oz. Morton and Jankel, on the other hand, apparently decided, for some reason, that they would rather remake Blade Runner and committed much of the film’s budget in that direction. Eventually the studios (primarily Hollywood pictures, a subsidiary of Disney. You mess with the Mouse at your own peril.) caught wind and demanded M & J revert to the previous script, but by then much of the cash had already been spent and the directors weren’t about to relinquish their new bold vision so easily. The end result was a flurry of revisions being fired back and forth culminating in the so-called “Rainbow Script”, a crazy-quilt style monstrosity of a screenplay, the varying colors of its individual pages indicating their source. This left the actors (to say nothing of the rest of the crew) in a sort of day to day limbo with nothing giving any sort of clue to the movie’s future direction. Some coped by drinking. Some by raging. Many did both.
Under most circumstances, internecine squabbles of this magnitude would sink a film completely, but apparently Disney really wanted their Mario Brothers and neither side was willing to blink, thus production forged ahead. The story moves to a alternate reality New York, a claustrophobic, ramshackle urban sprawl reminiscent of Escape from New York, with piecemeal vehicles that look like they were pulled directly out of Mad Max, and only an occasional patch of (apparently benevolent) fungus to suggest this is supposed to be a “Mushroom Kingdom”. Daisy is revealed to be an exiled princess in possession of a meteor fragment that the place’s despotic ruler, King Koopa (A scenery chewing Dennis Hopper, who’s frustration with the directors suggest a good deal of method acting to his performance) wants in order to merge the two worlds so that he can rule over all. The Marios resolve to come to Daisy’s rescue (as well as to that of a few other women, apparently snatched by Koopa’s bumbling underlings by mistake) while avoiding Koopa’s goon squad and coping with the general lunacy of the new world.
Regardless of whether or not the aesthetics actually fit the subject matter, there’s no denying that the movie looks pretty good. The more I read about the film’s production, the less I would have been surprised if Morton and Jankel had just absconded with the budget and vanished, but no, they clearly believed that the proof would be in the pudding and their bold stylistic choices would ultimately speak for themselves, thus it appears that nearly every dollar made it to the screen. The costuming runs the gamut from Metropolis-style industrial wear to borderline bondage gear, but there’s no denying that it stands out. The Goombas look nothing like the ambulatory mushroom caps from the games, instead appearing as trenchcoated goliaths with absurdly small lizard heads, but they are an impressive feat of visual engineering nonetheless. (Apparently the directors though so too, as they were originally intended to be more of a background feature, but ended up looking so good that they were given increased presence in the final film). The sparking, armoured vehicles look cool, as do the oppressive urban settings, though the latter does look obviously “set-like”, not unlike Tim Burton’s Batman movies. There’s some limited CGI and a nicely rendered animatronic Yoshi dinosaur, both of which were considered cutting edge – for about two weeks, until Jurassic Park was released and immediately made nearly everything special effect that came before it look like amateur trash. Ironic, considering that a central idea of SMB was that the inhabitants of the Koopa dimension were descended from dinosaurs themselves, rather than primates, though the relevance of this seems to come and go depending on the color of the script that day.
As for the cast, well, I guess they do their best considering the less than ideal working conditions and the general confusion about what a video game movie in general and a Super Mario Brothers movie in particular was supposed to look like. Leguizamo definitely overplays Luigi’s naivete and Hoskins really leans into Mario’s New York-ness, but given the target audience it works okay. Hopper is seething and sleazy as Koopa though, as I mentioned, he might not have been acting. Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson are funnier than they have any right to be as the Koopa Cousins Iggy and Spike (likely because they ad-libbed nearly all of their dialog). Mathis is fine, if unremarkable, as Daisy, though given the source material, she really didn’t have much to work with. Psychobilly icon Mojo Nixon appears in a cameo as Toad in one of the weirdest instances of stunt casting I’ve ever seen. And Dana Kaminski steals nearly all of her scenes (few though they are) as Daniella, Mario’s girlfriend, who’s Brooklynite sass offers hilarious deadpan commentary on all of the weirdness that surrounds her.
Given the many warring factions involved in the making of the movie, it’s interesting to note that Nintendo itself was mostly silent. It seems nearly inconceivable now, but one has to remember that not only was Nintendo much smaller back then, but the entire video game industry was far from the multi-billion dollar behemoth it is today. At the time, not a few people still regarded video games as another passing fad. Throughout the years, Nintendo has remained pretty mum on its opinions of the film, but it is worth noting that both Toho and Studio Ghibli, two other Japanese companies who are notoriously tight-fisted with their intellectual property and who were both rather famously screwed by the US film industry, eventually relented and allowed Hollywood renewed access to their respective properties. Nintendo never has (Unless you count distributing Pokemon movies, and of course no sooner do I write this than I learn about the live action Pokemon: Detective Pikachu slated for release later in 2019).
I often wonder what might have happened if Super Mario Brothers had been made as a straightforward adventure film in the vein of The Goonies or Indiana Jones, as originally intended, rather than the odd, grungy, semi-art film that was eventually released. Would video games have been given more respect as a storytelling medium? Would Nintendo have gone on to rule the box office? Would we be discussing the Oscar prospects of The Legend of Zelda right about now? Who can say? But there’s no denying that the spectacular failure of Super Mario Brothers (and Street Fighter a year later, another infamously troubled production) set the tone for video game themed movies, giving them an inauspicious reputation that, even 25 years later, they have been unable to fully shake. You can heap the blame on Morton and Jankel if you want. Many people do. But I have to question some of Hollywood/Disney’s decisions on this one, too. $50 million was nothing to sneeze at in 1993 and handing it off to a pair of inexperienced but ambitious directors with virtually no oversight was practically begging for trouble. It’s possible that Disney simply held video games in that much contempt (hell, a good portion of Hollywood clearly still does), but still, it’s $50 million. Don’t blame the auteurs for your failure to protect your own investment.
But it was Morton and Jankel that ended up bearing the brunt of the fallout, then and now. None of the main actors, most of whom were endlessly vocal about their distaste for working on the picture, had trouble finding work in the aftermath. Likewise, both Disney and Nintendo seem to be doing just fine these days. As for Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, well, they divorced in 2005. No word on whether Super Mario Brothers played any role in that. Morton has subsequently done the occasional film short and music video. Jankel went on to do sporadic TV work and released a reasonably well received indy film in 2018. Neither has come anywhere as near to the brass ring as they had in 1993. The Mouse giveth, and the Mouse taketh away, apparently.
Super Mario Brothers is a mess but it’s an intriguing mess as it’s not every day you get to watch a movie that was essentially bashed into existence by a committee of parties that were actively at odds with one another from beginning to end. There are good elements, mostly in the visual department, but it’s the patchwork, Frankenstein’s monster of a script that ultimately sinks it as a whole. There’s plot holes galore (If reuniting the meteor with its missing fragment is what’s needed to merge the dimensions, then what happened while the meteor was still whole? And I can only characterize the assumption that our dimension’s New York is a preferable place to live than… pretty much anywhere as a bold narrative assertion, especially since the Koopa dimension has figured out a means to increase people’s intelligence at the touch of a button.) and the video game references seem to have been added almost grudgingly (Reportedly the directors had to be browbeaten into putting Mario and Luigi into their trademark red and green coveralls.) It’s worth watching, but more for what it represents rather than what it is. It’s the first big budget film adaptation of a video game, for better or for worse, and that makes it historically significant, if not necessarily good, in the traditional sense.
Final Grade: C+
Super Mario Brothers plays less like a film version of the game and more like a weird dystopian fever dream that just happens to contain a ton of Mario references, for some reason. It’s like a bad acid trip after a marathon retro gaming session. Fans of the game series, who are somehow unaware of this movie’s reputation, are likely to wonder if they haven’t turned on a different film by mistake. On its own merits it’s… still a pretty rough watch, but it’s the enthralling kind of rough that, one way or another, is enough to hold one’s interest until the end.
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