This isn’t hilariously bad in the same manner that any of the other movies I’m featured this month – it’s not even close. Depending on how much you care about movie accuracy when it comes to video game adaptations, you may even find this movie infuriating. If you can get past that aspect though, this movie isn’t what you would call terrible, despite appearing on several “worst films ever made” lists. In the 30 years since its release (yes, the movie turns 30 this year), it’s become a cult classic. There are a number of people who genuinely enjoy it. It puts this movie in a strange category, where you either pretend it doesn’t exist, hate it, think it’s just OK, you enjoy it ironically, or you genuinely enjoy it.
I’m somewhere between enjoying it ironically and genuinely enjoying it.
I’m talking about the 1993 video game movie, Super Mario Bros. I strongly considered looking at the Street Fighter movie instead, as that one is hilariously stupid, but I chose this one because there’s a new Super Mario Bros movie coming out soon. This movie is also noteworthy, in that it was the first ever film adaptation of a video game. Sure, there were movies about video games before, like Tron and The Wizard, but never an adaptation of an existing game franchise.
Super Mario Bros was the first theatrically released movie based on a Nintendo property, and it remained the only live-action Nintendo film until Detective Pikachu released 16 years later, in 2019. Back when this movie released, the storytelling in Mario games was very limited. They took place in the Mushroom Kingdom, the main villain was a giant turtle monster, and the heroes were Italian plumbers trying to rescue a princess. Well, save for Mario Bros. 2, where said princess joined the group of heroes fighting a completely different villain … at least the North American Mario Bros. 2. Instead of trying to stick to that story, the creators decided to get creative.
Although I didn’t find the specific year, British producer Roland Joffe pitched the movie directly to Hiroshi Yamauchi, and he left Japan with a $2 million contract. Believing the Mario brand was strong enough to stand on its own, Nintendo didn’t ask for any kind of creative control, and merely asked for merchandising rights tied to the film. Oscar-winning screenwriter Barry Morrow wrote the first version of the movie, which was a more dramatic existential road trip, similar to his movie Rain Man. He even titled the draft, “Drain Man.”
When co-producer Fred Caruso didn’t like the more dramatic tone, he brought in screenwriters Jim Jennewein and Tom S. Parker for a “more traditional” adaptation. Their screenplay sought to satirize fairy tale clichés, while focusing on the relationship between Mario and Luigi. In a later interview, Jennewein said “Essentially what we did was what Shrek did.” At first, Greg Beeman was attached to direct, but after his Mom and Dad Save the World flopped, he was dismissed by nervous producers. They next offered Harold Ramis to direct the film. Although Ramis is a fan of the games, he declined. The Associated Press later called that his “smartest career decision.”
Eventually, they decided the movie should take on a darker tone, similar to the very popular 1989 Batman and the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. Of this direction, Joffe said “This wasn’t Snow White and the Seven Dinosaurs … the dino world was dark. We didn’t want to hold back.” Eventual husband/wife director team, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, agreed with this direction. The visuals of the film also took inspiration from Blade Runner. The parallel universe concept took inspiration from the recently released Super Mario World. They called the design of the Dinosaur version of New York, “New Brutalism”.
In the meantime, Disney bought Lightmotive, the studio producing the movie. They found the current script to be a way too dark, so they hired script doctors to lighten the tone. The changes in tone were a shock to the cast and crew, who arrived on set only to be handed the script with the new, lighter tone. Morton and Jankel considered leaving the project, but decided to stay when they realized no other director could understand the project at that point. They figured nobody else could properly adapt the story, and they felt that they owed the cast and crew their effort to reclaim their vision. Script rewrites continued throughout production.
The casting ended up being a complicated process in its own right. Dustin Hoffman expressed interest in portraying Mario early on, however the production staff felt he wasn’t right for the role. Danny DeVito was offered both the title role and the director’s chair, but he turned both down. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Keaton were both approached to play Koopa (the movie’s version of Bowser), but they both turned it down. Tom Hanks was considered for the role of Luigi, but a recent string of failures dropped him from consideration, and he wasn’t offered the part.
Bob Hoskins was eventually offered the part of Mario. At first, he disliked the script and didn’t want to play another kid’s film. “I’d done Roger Rabbit. I’d done Hook. I didn’t want to become like Dick Fan Dyke.” He talked about having the right build, and even a moustache, but also joked, “I worked as a plumber’s apprentice for about three weeks and set the plumber’s boots on fire with a blowtorch.” After he was sent several different script revisions, Hoskins agreed.
Meanwhile, comedian John Leguizamo signed on to play Luigi. Of being a Latin actor playing an Italian character, he joked, “You always see a lot of Italians playing Latin people, like Al Pacino did in Scarface. Now it’s our turn.” He was hired more for his comedic talents than anything else.
I couldn’t find much more background information on the rest of the cast, but Dennis Hopper plays King Koopa, Samantha Mathis plays Princess Daisy, Fisher Stevens plays Iggy Koopa, and Richard Edson plays Spike Koopa. Rounding out the cast, you’ve got Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter movies) as Lena, one of King Koopa’s main supporters, and musician Mojo Nixon as Toad.
This movie actually contained a number of groundbreaking visual effects. Knowing that Jurassic Park was being made at the same time, lead creatures designer Patrick Tatopoulos aimed for a cute design for the dinosaur animatronics. Yoshi was designed to look like a baby T-Rex, with a touch of iguana. Meanwhile, the movie introduced a number of pivotal techniques. It’s the first film to use the software Autodesk Flame, which allowed them to integrate 3D CGI into live action footage. It’s since become an industry standard that’s still used today. It’s also the first film scanned with a digital intermediate, allowing for compositing more than 700 visual effects shots. Again, that’s since become an industry standard.
All of these visual effects advancements, along with the large Dino version of New York set, made for a fairly large budget for its time. The movie cost nearly $50 million to make, yet it only earned $38.9 million worldwide. It received the low-end of middling reviews, with an average score of 4.1/10 and a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 28%. Siskel and Ebert gave the film two thumbs down. The Los Angeles Times praised the movie’s visuals, but criticized the movie’s writing. The New York Times review was similar, while also praising Hoskin’s acting, saying he “could handle any role with grace and good humour.” The Washington Post’s positive review called the movie “A blast.” He also described the Goombas as “the best movie heavies since the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.”
Hoskins said in a 2007 interview, “The worst thing I ever did? Super Mario Brothers … the whole experience was a nightmare.” He also commented that he and Leguizamo would get drunk before every day of filming, and would continue to drink between takes. At the same time, his son, Jack, is a fan of the film and praised his father’s performance.
Hopper’s comments on the movie are hilarious. “It was a husband-and-wife directing team who were both control freaks and wouldn’t talk before they made decisions. Anyway, I was supposed to go down there for five weeks, and I was there for 17. It was so over budget.” In 2008 he also said, “My 6-year-old son at the time – he’s now 18 – he said, ‘Dad I think you’re probably a pretty good actor, but why did you play that terrible guy King Koopa in Super Mario Bros?’ And I said, ‘Well Henry, I did that so you could have shoes’, and he said, ‘Dad, I don’t need shoes that badly.’”
Leguizamo on the other hand looks fondly on his memories with the movie. For the movie’s 20th anniversary, he released a video message saying, “I’m glad people appreciate the movie … I’m proud of the movie in retrospect. Mathis also seems to appreciate the cult following of the movie. In 2008, she said, “There are a lot of people who are really excited to meet me because I was Princess Daisy. That’s all you can ask for as an actor – that your work, and something you were a part of, left an impression on people and makes them feel good.”
Even director Morton has reflected on the movie as a “harrowing” experience. He felt very uneasy needing to defend the new script, and found working with Hopper “really, really hard. I don’t think he had a clue what was going on.” Co-director Jankel has also reflected positively on the hard experience, and she enjoys its newfound cult status. “I am often hearing how many people loved it growing up, watch it repeatedly, and are genuine fans.” Producer Joffe also enjoys its new cult status. “It’s not that I defend the movie, it’s just that, in its own extraordinary way, it was an interesting and rich artefact and has earned its place. It has strange cult status.”
Disney considered pushing Super Mario Bros for the Best Visual Effects Award at the next year’s Academy awards, but eventually decided to push for The Nightmare Before Christmas instead. Even though it didn’t win, that’s not the wrong choice, considering Nightmare Before Christmas is the better movie. Jurassic Park won either way.
As for the movie itself, well … it’s the kind of movie you either love or you hate. It’s a hard movie to review in that sense. One thing’s for sure though, it’s very creative with its interpretation of the video game franchise. The mushroom kingdom is recreated into a nightmare version of New York City, that’s being overtaken by a fungus, in addition to their energy shortages. With the exception of the “de-evolution” weapons, the technology there is comparable to our own, even if it took a different direction. They use flamethrowers instead of bullets. Their cars use electricity in the same fashion as bumper cars, instead of gas. Their expressions reference being born in eggs, but are recognizable to our own insults and beliefs.
The basic story is, in order to solve the energy crisis, Koopa wants to merge their world with ours, while also turning humanity into monkeys with the newly refined de-evolution guns. To do this, they need to re-attach a crystal to the meteor that struck Earth 65 million years ago. Instead of killing off the dinosaurs, said meteor split the Earth into two dimensions. It’s all very strange and clearly unlike the games, but points for creativity. This crystal is on Daisy’s necklace, who herself is the true king’s daughter, sent to our Earth as a baby for her protection.
There is one known point of interdimensional travel between the parallel Earths, near the meteor’s impact point underneath Brooklyn. Iggy and Spike are sent to Earth to find Daisy, and end up kidnapping a number of other women in the process. Just before Daisy herself is taken, she and Luigi meet and quickly hit it off. It then becomes a mission to rescue Princess Daisy, who at the time, was the only properly named princess in the games.
What follows is an adventure that doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be dark and dramatic, or light-hearted and goofy. This feeling of indecisiveness behind the movie’s direction makes for a mess, but there’s a sense of charm behind the indecisive tone. You can tell that a lot of effort went into this movie, with everything from the visuals to the attempts at turning a very straight forward video game story into a complex, compelling story.
It’s hard to properly review this movie because of how much of a mess it is. It’s hard to say whether it’s worth recommending or not. There likely isn’t much of an in-between here. Personally, I enjoy this movie, and I watch it every few years just for the sake of it. But I also fully understand why a lot of people either hate or ignore it. The whole thing feels like watching some sort of fever dream. I will say this in the movie’s favour though – it’s the first genuine portrayal of the Mario brothers doing some actual plumbing.
There is a new Mario movie coming out quite soon, and it honestly looks like it could be fun. However, despite its financial failure, 1993’s Super Mario Bros movie isn’t without its own follow-ups. In 2013, a sequel comic released online, even with some mild involvement with one of the movie’s writers. It basically involves the Mario Bros. returning to the Dinosaur world to help the now Queen Daisy defeat a mad scientist Wart, based on the final boss from Super Mario Bros. 2. There is also a fan-made extended cut, re-using a bunch of deleted footage from an earlier VHS workprint of the film. Fans even paid film restorationist Garrett Gilchrist to fix the footage as much as possible. Some of these deleted scenes include stripper footage that Disney forced out of the final cut (no nudity, but definitely scantily-clad lizard dancers), Koopa de-evolving one of his henchmen into a primordial slime just for sneezing, and some added political commentary scenes with the Mario Bros, Iggy and Spike. The slime scene in particular fixes a glaring plot hole in the theatrical cut, while also foreshadowing Koopa’s downfall in a clever way.
One last note, the soundtrack is actually by Alan Silvestri. Yes, the same Silvestri that composed the soundtrack for the Back to the Future trilogy, three of the Avengers movies as well as Captain America: The First Avenger, and plenty more. This soundtrack generally goes for a more zany feel, and it couldn’t be more appropriate.
Next week, I’ll be looking at a movie that only exists because of a bet. Then I’ll wrap this month up with one of two movies. It’ll either be one that’s intentionally stupid, or it’ll be a terrible adaptation of a comic character.
I’ve never actually seen Super Mario Brothers but heard it wasn’t that great. Considering the production nightmare it went through it s a wonder the film got made at all!
Whether you enjoy it or not, the Super Mario Bros movie is a fascinating watch, and it’s even more interesting when you know how much of a production nightmare it was. If you enjoy the clips I added, you might enjoy the movie. If not, I’d recommend you stay away.
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With how things went on during production, I’m amazed that it even saw the light of day. I’m not surprised to hear that there’s confusion in the direction, whether to be goofy or dark, but with everything that happened before its release, it seems like an inevitable misstep. Great write-up though. I learned more than I ever knew before about the movie’s background. Will you be checking out the upcoming animated Super Smash Bros movie?
If you mean the upcoming Super Mario Bros movie, of course. Not sure when I’ll see it, but it looks like it could be fun.
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