What do you get if you cross a universally renown video game, two rookie directors and some of Hollywood’s biggest stars? Fireworks. And not the creative kind
Make no mistake about it, Super Mario Bros: The Movie was a monumental fail on just about every conceivable level. From its deeply troubled production to onset disharmony and the kind of mind-boggling creative decisions that left fans of the franchise scratching their heads, something wasn’t right about this movie; something just didn’t fit.
At eleven years old, with high school but a few months away, maybe I was a little too old to get carried away by the prospect of a Mario movie, at least in my head. I don’t remember being all that enthusiastic. For one thing, Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited Jurassic Park was barely two months away, and its ubiquitous marketing campaign had swallowed me whole. Anyone of a similar age will be all-too-familiar with Jurassic Park fever. Kids were dinosaur crazy that summer, and there are plenty of dinosaurs in the high-concept Mario movie to capitalise on that fact (they even added George Clinton’s Walk the Dinosaur to what was admittedly a rather stacked soundtrack), but people were more interested in what magic Spielberg, the man who brought us arguably the biggest summer blockbuster ever in Jaws, would conjure given modern CGI capabilities and the jaw-dropping animatronics at his disposal. I’ll never forget the moment a gobsmacked Laura Dern and Sam Neill first laid eyes on a Brachiosaurus as John Williams’ towering theme burst into life. It may not be up to much all these years later, but at the time it sent shivers down my spine. Super Mario Bros: The Movie I could hardly remember at all.
It seemed like a terrible idea from the off. You couldn’t completely depend on CGI during the early 90s, certainly not for a high-concept adaptation like Super Mario Bros: The Movie, and Toy Story was still two years away, which ruled out feature-length computer animation. A straight-up cartoon — a grander version of the 1989 TV series — seemed like the most plausible option for a loyal adaptation of a video game about two Italian plumbers lost in a colourful and wholly fantastical alternate reality, but it wasn’t exactly inspiring. Almost a half-decade old, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! ― a mix of animation and live-action segments ― aired for only one season. It’s successor, The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, had a similarly short lifespan, airing from September 8 to December 1, 1990, as did 1991‘s Super Mario World, which managed only 13 episodes ― the lowest volume of the lot. People were more concerned with The Simpsons during that period, a groundbreaking series with the kind of universal appeal that was unprecedented for an animated show, making everything else seem dated by comparison. Again, not exactly the best timing. When news finally reached me that Super Mario Bros: The Movie was set to be a live-action outing, I immediately lost interest.
That’s not to say Mario wasn’t huge in his own right. In 1993, Nintendo were the console kings, and Mario was their flagship character. Even with Sonic the Hedgehog and the infamous and wholly benign ‘blast processing’ snapping at their heels, the Mario games franchise could do no wrong. The Nintendo Entertainment System or NES (known as the Famicom in Japan), saved home gaming from near extinction following the Video Game Crash of 1983, a large-scale recession which limped all the way to 1985 thanks to a flooded console market of Atari rip-offs. The 8-bit NES was a huge leap forward, and Super Mario Bros was the game everyone was talking about. It was so fun and fluid, completely redefining the capacities of home gaming. You didn’t have to use your imagination to bring these games to life. They were absolutely alive, something more akin to a trip to the arcade during the late-1980s.
Narrator: A long long time ago, the Earth was ruled by dinosaurs. They were big, so not a lot of people went around hassling ’em. Actually, no people went around hassling ’em cuz there weren’t any people yet. Just the first tiny mammals. Basically, life was good. Then something happened: a giant meteorite struck the Earth. Goodbye dinosaurs! But what if the dinosaurs weren’t all destroyed? What if the impact of that meteor created a parallel dimension where the dinosaurs continued to thrive and evolve into intelligent, vicious, and aggressive beings… just like us? And hey, what if they found a way back?
I was a little too young for the original Super Mario Brothers game. My first introduction to Mario, asides from a hugely primitive, yet highly addictive Game & Watch, came in the form of 1988‘s Super Mario Bros 2. The actual Super Mario Bros 2, released in Japan, was a tired rehash of the first game that never made it to US or European shores. It was also extremely difficult, designed for the more experienced gamer. Instead, Nintendo took another Japanese exclusive, Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, swapped the game’s four characters for Mario, Luigi, Toad and Princess Toadstool, and repackaged it as Super Mario Bros 2. It wasn’t a conventional Mario game for obvious reasons, but it was still wildly inventive and a huge upgrade on the Japanese rehash. The release of 1989’s wildly successful handheld console, the Nintendo Gameboy, buoyed by pre-packaged phenomenon Tetris, would also reserve a special place for Mario. The guy was everywhere.
The real game-changer arrived on UK shores in 1991, almost three years after its initial Japanese release, and boy did it deliver. Even with all the delays and anticipation, it more than lived up to the hype, expanding the Mario universe to jaw-dropping levels. With improved animation, a plethora of new characters, utterly engaging sound and the kind of gameplay and fun side puzzles that ramped up the interest and playability levels, Super Mario Bros 3 pushed the boundaries of platform gaming, once again cementing Nintendo as the console kings in the face of an aggressive and utterly underhanded marketing campaign from Sega, who suggested that the 8-bit NES had fallen into obsolescence thanks to their 16-bit super machine the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. I saw all the ads for the Mega Drive. I was aware of the improved graphics and sound. I would even play on an older kid’s console, and games like Golden Axe looked far more advanced and arcade authentic, but I didn’t care. Super Mario 3 was all I wanted; when it came to pure gameplay nothing could rival it. The death knell for Sega’s 16-bit console was the release of 1991’s Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), a 16-bit machine that made Sega look like old news. Again Mario was front and centre, games such as Super Mario World and 1992‘s Super Mario Kart expanding the Mario Universe in ways that Sonic the Hedgehog and Sega could only dream of.
By 1993, the same year suped-up Mario compilation Super Mario All-Stars hit the shelves, Mario was an institution, and the thought of branching out into the movie industry promised all kinds of riches. Producer Roland Joffé, the recipient of two Academy Award nominations for The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986), suggested the idea of a Super Mario Bros film at a script meeting for his production company Lightmotive, before pitching it to Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa. His initial script landed him a meeting with Arakawa’s father-in-law, Kyoto-based president of Nintendo Hiroshi Yamauchi. Once Yamauchi had ironed-out the rights issues, he gave Joffé a $2,000,000 contract along with temporary control of the Mario character, though he wanted no part in the creative process, feeling that the Mario brand was strong enough to succeed regardless. This was a somewhat arrogant, yet totally understandable belief that he and his company would soon learn from.
And so began the difficulties. Transforming a colourful, wildly surreal video game into a live-action film was complex to say the least, a fact highlighted by three different scripts that were nothing if not ambitious. The first of those scripts, penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Barry Morrow, was nicknamed Drain Man, and was a surreal riff on the writer’s previous hit Rain Man. Yes, you read that right. THE Rain Man. A film about autism. If ever there were two films that hold absolutely no relation in my mind it’s Super Mario Bros: The Movie and Rain Man.
This was all the way back in 1990, a time when Danny DeVito had expressed interest in the lead role. As Morrow would explain to The News in December of that year, “The premise is rather simple: two Italian-American brothers living in New York, who work as plumbers. As in the game itself, there will be an odyssey and a quest. I’m taking as many elements from the game as I can, but I’m also trying to write it as a motion picture that has its own integrity ― for those who’ve never seen the game. I think it’ll be inherently funny in that the brothers are a study in contrast, like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello.” Morrow’s script helped shape the movie’s lead duo, but according to co-producer Fred Caruso, “It was more of a serious drama piece as opposed to a fun comedy. We were looking for the same audience that enjoyed ‘E.T’ as well as ‘Ghostbusters’ as well as ‘Terminator II’ and ‘Batman.'” Forgive me for stereotyping, but that’s a spicy meatball! A little too spicy if you ask me.
The second script, written by Jim Jennewein and Tom S. Parker, was a much more traditional adaptation, a fairy tale satire along the lines of Shrek which Harold Ramis was approached to direct, but Ramis wasn’t interested, and once again it all fell apart. Rather than search for another experienced, high-profile director, Joffé turned to rookie duo Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, a married couple with a background in animation who landed the gig based on the producer’s admiration for their dystopian TV series Max Headroom. The three of them met in Rome, where Morton and Jankel hit Joffé with their initial pitch: “65 million years ago, when the meteor hit the Earth where Brooklyn is today, it pushed a small group of dinosaurs into a sub-dimension, and they evolved into something like us ― humans descended from reptiles.” And so began one of the most bizarre and troubled productions of the decade.
It didn’t help that the movie’s directors were loathed across the board, particularly by influential veteran Bob Hoskins, who would land the part of Mario after Nintendo turned down a highly enthusiastic Tom Hanks (surely he would have been more suited to the role of Luigi). Hanks was experiencing something of a commercial blip at the time, and Hoskins, a veteran actor who had experience in high-concept family films after starring in Robert Zemeckis’ hugely successful live-action/animated mystery comedy Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, was the perfect build and personality for the job. Hoskins, who would drink whisky and smoke reefer between takes with co-star John Leguizamo, the surprise choice to play Luigi, hated his time working with the film’s ‘arrogant’ and inexperienced directors. “The worst thing I ever did? Super Mario Brothers,” he would tell The Guardian in 2007. “It was a fuckin’ nightmare. The whole experience was a nightmare. It had a husband-and-wife team directing, whose arrogance had been mistaken for talent. After so many weeks their own agent told them to get off the set! Fuckin’ nightmare. Fuckin’ idiots.”
King Koopa: Give me that Devo-Gun!
[Koopa tries to shoot Mario, but instead hits Scapelli, who is transformed into a chimpanzee. Koopa points at him and laughs]
King Koopa: Monkey!
By all accounts, the entire production was a clusterfuck of gross mismanagement, strained relationships and copious rewrites, with producers, writers and investors all clashing over the film’s direction. Several weeks before shooting commenced, distributors Disney delivered the death knell by demanding significant, child-friendly rewrites, resulting in a screenplay that had little-to-no resemblance to Morton and Jankel’s dark, dystopian vision. Whether such a conception was appropriate in the first place is questionable given the film’s likely demographic, but what we get is an unassertive patchwork that fails to capture the spirit of the games almost absolutely. It didn’t help that the set, “a huge concrete edifice of rusted catwalks and towers”, had already been built. The Blade Runner-esque, live-action setting of Dinohattan, a kind of inverted re-imagining of Manhattan that was designed to look like “New York… on mind-altering drugs,” had no place in a kids movie, and you can more than understand Disney’s concerns. As Leguizamo would recall, “It’s eight-year-olds who play the [Mario] game and that’s where the movie needed to be aimed. But [the directors] kept trying to insert new material. They shot scenes with strippers and with other sexually-explicit content, which all got edited out anyway.”
Samantha Mathis, who would land the role of Princess Daisy, was more sympathetic towards the film’s directors, who were so reviled on set they were dubbed “Rockabell”, “The Flying Squirrel Show”, and, most derisive of all, the mythological, serpent-like monster “Hydra”. “The script had issues, but the casting was so impressive it seemed it would elevate the material,” she would recall. “I had a fondness for both Rocky and Annabel, I just felt like the production was so much bigger than anything they’d done before… I don’t think it’s any secret that it was a troubled shoot. I would say Bob didn’t suffer fools gladly ― he was an artist, he could see the chaos swirling around the set, and the lack of clarity. I think it’s a rare thing to have two people directing a movie together well ― I certainly haven’t experienced it. The production just took on a life of its own.”
Dennis Hopper, another veteran actor who would land the role of humanoid dinosaur villain, King Kooper, was equally miffed by the almost ceaseless chaos. Summing up his experience on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, the actor would say, “I made a picture called Super Mario Bros. My six 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.?’ I said, ‘Well Henry, I did that so you could have shoes.’ And he said, ‘Dad, I don’t need shoes that badly.'” Was all of this a collective vendetta against the directors built on snobbery, or were they really so arrogant and insufferable? I suppose we’ll never know for sure. It is what it is.
So, is Super Mario Bros: The Movie really that terrible? Thanks to an all-star cast who are never less than watchable, it’s not completely without merit, but as an adaptation of a well-established video game franchise it isn’t up to much, and it certainly isn’t something that warrants too much analysis beyond the production side of things. It’s a bonkers mess of a movie, so off the wall you sometimes forget what you’re watching, though one can’t deny having a strange fascination. Watching it back today, it’s not very funny. It’s often spirited, and there are some admittedly cute moments, like a scene in which our siblings reveal their surname. There’s something about the names Mario Mario and Luigi Mario that really tickled me, and this kind of endearing silliness isn’t an isolated incident, but the cast are mostly reduced to the kind of puerile hi-jinks that wouldn’t appeal to anyone over the age of five, which makes the film’s more adult tone even more baffling. The movie is certainly ambitious, and it looks absolutely stunning at times, tragically unique in a Frankenstein’s Monster kind of way, but the production struggles are evident onscreen. It’s so disjointed and lacking in harmony at times.
Many of the actors involved were so overwhelmed by the day-by-day alterations that they’ve practically admitted to phoning it in towards the end of the shoot. They’re never less than professional, but they’re hardly pouring their heart and soul into affairs. Part of the problem is that the movie’s characters have no way of living up to their console counterparts for pure energy, which makes everything seem lacklustre by comparison. The Super Mario games were creative wonders, a cornucopia of colourful characters, inconceivable locations and out of this world action. The film works rather well before our brothers, struggling for work, find themselves in another dimension in search of a kidnapped archaeology student named Daisy, who in an alternate dimension is actually a princess whose father, the King, has been transformed into a ball of mucus by his reptilian successor. The film’s colourful if overabundant mise en scène is filled with cute video game nods that partially recall the games, but it all seems just a little tacked-on and desperate. Not that they had much choice by the time Disney arrived with their not-too-unreasonable, late-to-the-party demands, leaving us with a seriously wounded movie held together with an abundance of creative band aids.
Production designer David Snyder, who unsurprisingly worked on Blade Runner, was enthusiastic about the visual concept, and there are some clever ideas and in-jokes that will please fans of Mario if they’re able to dig beneath the hectic visuals and bloated screenplay. In an interview with Starlog in August 1993, Snyder would explain, “What we’ve done is basically taken all the elements that are in the video game, turned them into a metaphor and combined them with 3-D and real characters. It’s something really strange that is going to surprise audiences.” Snyder was right. It was a surprise. But a reliance on metaphors seems somewhat out of place in a kids video game adaptation. Sometimes it’s a struggle identifying who is supposed to be who, or in many cases what.
Aesthetically, Hoskins and Leguizamo are perfect casting, though it is a little infuriating that they fail to stick to their red and green colours for a good chunk of the movie. In fact, Luigi often wears red. This may sound a little pedantic but adherence to such staple delineations are really helpful, especially for younger audiences. Since they’re human in the games, Mario, Luigi and Princess Daisy are more easily translatable. The movie features some outstanding animatronics, but familiar, non-human characters from the game are portrayed as human in the film, and not in a way that is instantly recognisable. Koopa henchmen Iggy and Spike are vaguely recognisable to adult eyes, as is Francesca P. Roberts’ Bertha, but if you were a kid watching back then (and who wasn’t?), you would have been full of questions. Bertha is big and red, but anyone under the age of ten would struggle to relate her to a greedy, underwater fish, and her fleeting romance with Mario is Troy McClure at his most sordid (see Simpsons episode A Fish Called Selma). Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson as the aforementioned Iggy and Spike capture the spirit of the game better than anyone, and even pop up in a post-action, in-joke about creating a video game based on their lives and experiences. Without them, the movie would have been half as fun.
Most baffling is King Koopa himself. Hopper never fails as the bad guy, and his turn here, though clearly lacking the usual motivation, is no different. Koopa, who acts as a kind of exposition express dragging the plot forward, is hellbent on obtaining a magic crystal that is actually a meteorite shard belonging to Princess Daisy. His aim is to merge his dimension with Earth’s, ‘devolving’ anyone who gets in his way by transforming them into subservient Goombas, an army so idiotic they’re absolutely worthless. With one eye on Jurassic Park‘s popularity, the film’s animatronics are reserved for dinosaur/lizard characters, a category which the goombas, who are nothing like their video game incarnation, fall into. Instead of tiny, fanged mushrooms we get giant pea-headed lizards. Admittedly, they look fantastic, but they may as well belong to a different movie entirely.
Even more impressive is an animatronic Yoshi, “an abstract, fantasy T. rex,” that holds little-to-no resemblance to its video game counterpart, looking more like it was stolen from Spielberg’s private collection, though it’s still a hugely impressive achievement. All-in-all, four versions were created, including a fully functional, $500,000 puppet with 70 cables controlled by nine operators. It looks absolutely fantastic, but again the character seems just a little tacked-on and ill-fitting. You have to wonder whether a fully functional King Koopa would have served the movie better. A trip in the devolution machine turns Koopa into a T-Rex for a short period, but it all looks rather naff and is certainly no reflection of the actual character. In a cute touch, the weapons used to trigger this transformation are almost carbon copies of the Super Nintendo’s Superscope, and the use of a wind-up Bob-omb is very much welcome. A race along what appears to be a Mario pipe is also reminiscent of the game’s action, but where is the Mario theme song? Surely they could have fit it in somewhere. It’s a gloriously catchy piece of music, as are most compositions in the Mario universe, and it would have gone an awful long way to capturing the essence of the games, particularly for younger viewers. Instead we get an orchestral piece from Back to the Future‘s Alan Silvestri, which is big and brassy but too generic for such a unique franchise.
Sergeant Simon: Name.
Sergeant Simon: Last name.
Sergeant Simon: And you?
Sergeant Simon: Luigi Luigi?
Luigi: No, Luigi Mario.
Sergeant Simon: Okay how many Marios are there between the two of you?
Luigi: Three: Mario Mario and Luigi Mario.
Unsurprisingly, the film sets us up for a sequel. In the Mario games, Luigi is the marginally younger sibling, but Hoskins is considerably older than a 29-year-old Leguizamo, which means Luigi hooks up with Princess Daisy rather than Mario… kind of. At the end the two part ways when Luigi chooses to return to New York and Princess stays out of duty to her people. I mean, really? Is that New York plumbing job really important enough to abandon the delectable Ms. Mathis? I know they barely know each other but I know which life I’d choose. Their separation doesn’t last long ― three weeks to be exact ― as Daisy returns with the promise of a new adventure, and Mario and Luigi are well up for it, though you have to think that Hoskins and Leguizamo were somewhat less enthused.
According to the movie’s box office returns, audiences felt much the same way. After so much stress and conflict and so many ill feelings, Nintendo’s venture into the realms of Hollywood proved a huge financial failure, taking a $27,100,000 hit on a movie that cost an estimated $48,000,000. This was enough to convince Nintendo to give up on the movie business indefinitely, though a webcomic sequel did materialise in conjunction with one of the film’s original screenwriters in 2013. The movie has achieved a certain level of cult status in the years since its release, both from fans of the video games and people with a taste for ‘so bad it’s good’ movies. For me, Super Mario Brothers: The Movie doesn’t quite fall into that category, thanks mostly to a superlative cast who somehow escape this haphazard experiment unscathed. Morton and Jankel described themselves as coming from the “Tim Burton school of filmmaking”, and they were certainly bold in their ambitions, but the movie is more a failed attempt at quirkiness, one that isn’t at all appropriate to the context.
Super Mario Bros: The Movie‘s bold and assertive tagline, ‘This ain’t no game’ was a noble effort at setting the film apart and preparing audiences for its radical departure from the fluffy, yet sinister land of the Mushroom Kingdom, but in hindsight that tagline actually works as a denouncement of the movie. The fact is, this ain’t no Mario game; as an adaptation of a money-spinning property aimed primarily at kids it’s a complete misfire. If you look at the movie as a reimagining, it’s rather fun and visually impressive, but when Disney, a company responsible for shaping animation in the Western world, tells you that you’re targeting the wrong audience, you know you’ve missed the point entirely from a commercial standpoint. Experimentation is all well and good, but when it comes to themes and characters this ingrained, convention is your greatest ally. Someone, somewhere, had taken too many magic mushrooms, and somewhere along the line it turned into a very bad trip indeed.