Talking Movies [Mario Month]: Super Mario Bros.

So, for no better reason than “Mar.10” resembling Mario’s name, March 10th is widely regarded as being “Mario Day”, a day to celebrate Nintendo’s portly plumber, an overalls-wearing mascot who literally changed the videogame industry forever and shaped the home console market of the nineties.

Released: 28 May 1993
Director: Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel
Distributor: Buena Vista Pictures
Budget: $42 to 48 million
Stars: Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, Samantha Mathis, Fiona Shaw, Fisher Stevens, Richard Edson, and Dennis Hopper

The Plot:
Mario (Hoskins) and his younger brother, Luigi (Leguizamo), are out-of-luck plumbers who, upon meeting Daisy (Mathis), are suddenly transported to a parallel world where dinosaurs, rather than primates, evolved into the dominant lifeform and are immediately caught up in King Koopa’s (Hopper) diabolical plans to merge this “Dinohattan” with the real world.

The Background:
By 1993, Nintendo’s portly plumber Mario was well-established as a successful videogame and pop culture icon; over sixty videogames had been released that either included Mario or featured him and his brother, Luigi, in a starring role. Super Mario All-Stars (Nintendo EAD, 1993) was released that same year and the characters had featured in numerous animated and live-action productions. Mario’s popularity had captured the mainstream; a 1990 survey revealed that the character’s popularity and eclipsed that of Mickey Mouse and, perhaps inevitably, the idea of a live-action feature film began to take shape thanks to Nintendo’s then-director of advertising and public relations, Bill White. Despite bringing in Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) co-writer Barry Morrow and attracting such superstar names as Dustin Hoffman, Danny DeVito, and Tom Hanks, production of the film almost immediately ran into troubles when pages of the script were “rewritten on a daily basis” so the “actors didn’t bother reading the new pages, knowing full well that more would likely follow” (Russell, 2012: 140).

I feel like expectations were unrealistically high for this film, which distracts from its fun elements.

Despite some reservations about the script and being typecast, Bob Hoskins eventually signed on for the lead role and ultimately came to regret the experience; reportedly, he and co-star Leguizamo were so frustrated and unhappy on set that they spent the majority of their working days drunk and Hoskins later claimed that the film was the “worst thing” he had ever done and a “nightmare” as the general onset atmosphere was “anarchic”, with Nintendo being “nowhere to be seen [and without] a representative present during the shoot” and the directors being “out of their depth, pulled between the demands of the producers, their attempts to rewrite on-the-hoof and the logistical enormity of the production” (ibid: 140). Budgeted at $42 million and grossing just over $20 million, Super Mario Bros. was met with almost universal derision; everyone from critics, to cast and crew, and even Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto distanced themselves from the film because of its troubled production and removal from the source material. I, however, loved this movie as a kid; my friends loved this movie back in the day, too, because it was a bright, goofy, fun-packed adventure that was entertaining as hell. As I grew up and moved into studying videogame adaptations for my PhD thesis, I also came to appreciate the film as a movie rather than an adaptation, which I think is where a lot of its criticism falls down as people seemed to have been expecting a one-to-one transliteration of the source material and adaptation just doesn’t (or rarely ever) works that way, resulting an a light-hearted, kid-friendly action/adventure romp rather than a 100% recreation of the game’s more obscure fantasy elements (having said that, though, I am sure that the upcoming computer-animated movie will be the Mario movie fans have wanted for years).

The Review:
Although Super Mario Bros. was not the only videogame adaptation to be a critical and commercial failure, by virtue of being “the first” it exists as a perpetual reminder that videogame adaptation is difficult and often disappointing. Despite its failure at the box office, movie studios quickly exploited videogame adaptations to entice videogame players into cinemas and allowed the videogame industry the opportunity to license their franchises out with little to lose (Picard: 2008: 295). As a result, Hollywood continues to attract reasonable budgets and high-profile actors and production stuff to videogame adaptations despite the genre “[failing] to receive much in the way of critical or commercial success” and Uwe Boll’s ill-received contributions (ibid). However, while it’s true that the film has many differences from its source material and isn’t much more than a fun kids adventure, that doesn’t necessarily make it “bad”; it’s like a live-action cartoon and, when your source material is a chubby plumber bouncing on the heads of malevolent mushrooms, what else do you really expect?

Though dysfunctional, both brothers have strengths and weaknesses that make them a team.

Bob Hoskins may have spoken out against the film in the years since it released but, whatever his demeanour and mindset on set, he is absolutely fantastic in the role of Mario; the plumber brothers are introduced as normal, everyday working men who are behind on their rent, drive a clapped-out van, and are constantly being scuppered by Anthony Scapelli (Gianni Russo). While Luigi is the young, lazy, overly enthusiastic and imaginative of the two, Mario is the older, more cynical and jaded brother; Luigi is a day dreamer, who is open to all possibilities and probabilities while Mario is realistic and grouchy, concerned about their lack in income and their sustainability. Due to the absence of their parents, Mario has had to fulfil the role of mother, father, and brother to Luigi, raising him since he was a kid and his priority, above all other concerns, is Luigi’s welfare; this manifests itself in a number of ways, from berating his younger brother for his reckless ways and daydreaming, encouraging him to keep his feet on the ground and be realistic and serious for a change, to literally holding Luigi in check physically and emotionally. While Luigi somewhat resents Mario’s constant over-protectiveness and influence on his life, he is also heavily reliant upon his brother; Luigi isn’t much of a plumber and is more like Mario’s apprentice and assistant (he knows the tools and the trade but lacks confidence in tackling big plumbing jobs by himself) and is far my awkward around women compared to his older, far more confident brother. Still, the chemistry between both actors is immediately believable; I totally buy that these two are brothers who wind each other up and get on each other’s nerves in other ways but, nevertheless, share a real bond, their banter is amusing and realistic and, best of all, while they argue and disagree a lot, they never have a big, cliché falling out or anything like that and Mario is always extremely supportive of his younger brother even while he despairs over Luigi’s immaturity.

Though she undergoes a bit of a transformation, Daisy is little more than a damsel in distress.

Furthermore, Mario is given a crippling fear of heights (kind of ironic, you could argue, given the amount of jumping his videogame counter parts takes part in), meaning that he relies on his fearless younger brother when it comes to taking literal leaps of faith; additionally, Mario learns to adopt many of Luigi’s more open-minded characteristics by the conclusion of the film and grows from a reluctant hero to a willing hero, immediately jumping into action to assist Daisy when she pops up for the film’s conclusion. Speaking of which, Daisy is a serviceable enough character for the most part. Like Luigi, she’s an orphan but, unlike him, she’s been driven by an insatiable enthusiasm for dinosaurs and bones and struggled with her identity after she was abandoned as a child (…well, egg, to be more precise). Luigi is instantly enamoured by her based on her beauty and, later, her commitment to this cause and she seems taken by his enthusiasm and awkwardness. While she is able to speak up for herself and is largely calm and emotionally stable, she’s little more than a damsel in distress and doesn’t transform into a proactive heroine until the film’s sequel-bait ending. She directs the brothers when they come to rescue her and sets Yoshi free from his bindings but she doesn’t really factor into the finale in a meaningful way beyond being the only one physically capable of interacting with the meteorite (why, though, is never really explained).

He might not resemble his videogame counterpart but Koopa is a zany, scenary-chewing villain.

And then there’s King Koopa himself, Dennis Hopper. Again, Hopper might have distanced himself from the film but he delivers a glorious over the top, scenery chewing performance. For all their buffoonery, the Mario Brothers play mostly as the film’s straight men and, in comparison, Koopa is a cartoon villain; he’s bombastic, melodramatic, and packed full of weird little character quirks while still being cold, ruthless, sadistic, and the more serious of his many underlings. Koopa’s plot is ridiculous in the best way (he wants to take Daisy as his own and use the meteorite piece (the “Rock”) she wears around her next to complete the meteor that split their worlds into separate dimensions and merge Dinohattan with New York, with him as the ruling dictator) and every decision he makes is equally ludicrous: when he’s told the Rock is in the hands of two plumbers, he calls for a “Plumber alert!”; when his underlings defy him (or he faces defiance of any kind), he subjects them to his De-Evolution machine and turns them into incompetent Goombas; and, when he acquires the Rock, his first course of action is the order a pizza!

While Iggy and Spike are bumbling fools, Lena conspires to eliminate Daisy to rule alongside Koopa.

Koopa’s primary minions are his cousins, Iggy (Stevens) and Spike (Edson); while the Mario Brothers are bumbling at times due to their status as unlikely heroes, Iggy and Spike are bumbling full stop; incompetent in every respect, the two act as the film’s comic relief and are thematic parallels to the titular brothers, echoing the Mario’s love/hate relationship through their verbal and physical banter. In an effort to make them more competent, Koopa opts to subject them to a spell of cranial evolution; however, this does little to improve their competency and actually serves to make them smarter than Koopa in many ways, certainly smart enough to cut a deal with the Mario Brothers and, ultimately, turn against their cousin to ensure their own survival. Koopa does have at least one reliable subordinate, however, in the form of Lena (Shaw); however, Lena is intensely jealous of Daisy, since Koopa favours her, so conspires to remove Daisy from the equation while positioning herself as the only woman capable and willing enough to rule by Koopa’s side. Bat shit crazy, she is also a cartoonish villain, literally cackling like a witch when she tries to merge the Rock with the meteorite and pays the ultimate price for her pride and hubris. Before that, though, she demonstrates far more focus in her sadistic desire to off Daisy and even usurp Koopa’s ambitions as she believes that she can rule without him but is blinded by her mad desires just as Koopa is blinded by his ego and libido.

Dinohattan has a very tangible, “lived-in” feel it its dystopian dressings.

At its core, Super Mario Bros. is little more than a fun kid’s movie; an action/adventure piece that needs to be big, bright, and bombastic and, for the most part, it takes all of these boxes. Dinohattan evokes the murky, gritty, industrial aesthetic of Blade Runner, being this desolate dystopian city that (thanks to an elaborate, practical set) feels real and lived in. Covered with a disgusting fungus, the city is full of little background elements and references (the Hammer Bros, Thwomp, Bullet Bill, and Wriggler all get little cameos as brightly-coloured neon signs, advertisements, and businesses but perhaps the most accurate inclusion is that of the much-feared Bob-omb); sparks, flames, and explosions are aplenty in this gloomy dystopia and the film has a very tangible sense of kinetic energy (things are always moving and bustling and the Mario’s are constantly being herded or pushed forward). Furthermore, there are a lot of amusing scenes and moments in the film; the elevator sequence, for example, where Luigi teaches the Goombas to dance is a stand out, the Mario’s bickering in the desert is gold, and there’s an humorous little side plot later in the film regarding Koopa’s pizza and Toad (Mojo Nixon) bringing Daisy a plate of steamed vegetable amidst her dramatic escape from Koopa’s tower. Not every joke lands, obviously, largely those involving Iggy and Spike (who are a bit too cartoonish) but, again, this is a film designed to appeal to kids so, for the most part, the humour really works, in my opinion, thanks, again, largely to the banter and bickering between the titular brothers.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Super Mario Bros. is intrinsically linked with the perceived notion of the film as being a failure and being the first of many big-budget cinematic failings for videogame adaptations. It doesn’t help that the film is largely disregarded by academics (some, like Brookey (2010: 4), who exhibit a blatant misunderstanding about the film’s source material) and critics. Yet, positive reviews of the film can be found, with Thomas Leitch (2007: 263) admirably emphasising the film’s contribution to the field of adaptation by detailing how film-making techniques substitute for the layout of, and interaction with, the videogame world: “[Super Mario Bros.] not only retains but constantly emphasizes the title characters’ absurd names[,] their professional status as plumbers, their unlikely credentials as heroes, and their quest to rescue a kidnapped princess”. I know what you’re probably thinking, though; you’re thinking that the movie is trash because it’s nothing like the videogame. But you’re talking to the wrong person there because, honestly, I don’t care. The only way a Mario movie can hope to recreate the aesthetics of the videogames is to go the all CGI route, in my opinion, and we’ll be seeing that soon enough (hopefully) so, for me, the film does a pretty decent job of translating many of the source material’s more outlandish aspects to live-action.

The film incorporates dionsaurs elements from the videogames in a variety of ways.

The focus on dinosaurs is a bit odd, I guess, but remember that Super Mario World (Nintendo EAD, 1990) was still very fresh in people’s minds at the time and featured a dinosaur setting but also a little film called Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993) was due out the very next month and would go on to inspire a brief dinosaur craze so Super Mario Bros. was potentially influenced by that. It also really emphasises the Mario’s profession as plumbers; while pipes and plumber iconography was rife in the Mario videogames at the time, it was most more heavily emphasised in the various Mario cartoons (and, perhaps even more obscurely, Super Mario Bros.: Peach-Hime Kyushutsu Dai Sakusen! (Hata, 1986), a Japanese-exclusive anime that exhbits a number of narrative similarities to its live-action counterpart) that released before the film (which popularised the notion of the Mario Brothers as both plumbers from Brooklyn and everyday, unlikely heroes). Additionally, there are many aspects from the videogames included in the film; the iconic Mario theme opens the movie (and even plays on the DVD menu, despite never appearing in a prominent way in the film), Daisy ends up in a purple dress reminiscent of the pink attire worn by Princess Toadstool (who was largely interchangeable with Daisy at the time), and the film has a heavy emphasis on jumping and running; the production design features “strong verticals [that] provide many reminders of its heroes’ relative freedom from gravity” (Leitch, 2007: 270) and the Mario Brothers are “constantly jumping, falling, and swinging through a series of unusually vertical sets” to reinforce “the ability of video game heroes to surmount obstacles and enemies by [simply] jumping over them” (ibid: 264). Much of this is thanks to the “Stompers”, gas-powered futuristic boots that allow characters to make superhuman leaps and hover in the air to recreate the jumping mechanics of the videogames.

Toad might have gotten a raw deal but Yoshi and the Mario’s outfits turned out pretty good…

Sure, you can cry about the film’s depiction of Toad and even Koopa as much as you want but do you really believe that early-nineties effects would have been able to render a kingdom full of anthropomorphic mushrooms and a fire-breathing dragon/turtle hybrid? Of course, the counterpoint to that is to simply produce an animated movie but they didn’t and that’s ignoring the fact that many of the film’s effects hold up extremely well. Sure, the computer effects are quite janky but they’re used sparingly; as I said, Dinohattan is this huge, bustling set, for one thing, and the film is full of elaborate locations that evoke their source material in more ways than you might thing (there’s an arid desert, for one thing, and Koopa’s tower is full of ominous spikes, much like Bowser’s many castles). Add to this a pretty exciting and action-packed car chase that is full of practical effects and some nice puppetry and effects work (Yoshi, in particular, stands out but the Goomba’s aren’t half bad either) and you have an extremely visually interesting and exciting movie for my money. Also, while their outfits aren’t overalls and it makes little sense for them to wear them (Mario seems to think wearing them will help them get up Koopa’s tower without suspicion but none of Koopa’s minions are dressed that way…), I absolutely love the Mario’s brightly-coloured outfits and there’s a real sense of thematic significance given to the scene where they acquire them as it represents them embracing their roles as heroes. Furthermore, there’s some fun little Easter Eggs in the film, too, such as Koopa’s portable de-evolution guns being Super Scopes and Mario using a piece of fungus to shield himself from the gun’s effects (like in the games, he uses a mushroom allows him to take a free hit).

The Summary:
Even now, there is a lot to like about Super Mario Bros.; it’s a fun, bombastic live-action cartoon that is geared towards being adventurous and whimsical. What few elements it does take from its source material are incorporated subtly and slavish devotion to fidelity is secondary to telling a quirky story that will appeal, primarily, to kids and be amusing enough for their parents to sit through. In many respects, the film isn’t really geared towards fans of the videogames at all, at least not those who expect an exact recreation of the source material (something no adaptation, live-action or otherwise, has ever done; no matter how accurate an adaptation may be, it will never be 100% faithful as films are a completely different medium to videogames, being passive entertainment over which the viewer has no control). Sadly, though, Super Mario Bros. is perhaps destined to go down in infamy not just for differing so wildly from its source material but also for being the most often-cited example of why videogame adaptations are doomed to fail again and again. It was the first of its kind, however; no one knew how to translate a videogame into a live-action film and, it can be argued, few have really learned how to refine this process since then. Regardless, however, I think it’s best to view Super Mario Bros. in terms of its genre rather than as an adaptation; it’s so far removed from its source material that you kind of have to and, as a result, you’re left with a pretty decent kids movie that isn’t designed to appeal to everybody but is nowhere near as bad a movie as the majority of people like to make it out to be.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

How do you feel about Super Mario Bros.? Did you see it as a kid? If so, what are your memories of it and how do you feel it holds up today? What did you think to the casting and the performances in the film? Do you agree with the majority consensus that it’s a terrible film because it’s nothing like the videogames or do you, perhaps, enjoy it as an entertaining adventure film and nothing more? Do you think a live-action Mario movie could work with today’s technology? Which Nintendo franchise would you most like to see get a live-action adaptation? Whatever you think, leave a comment below and come back next Thursday for more Mario content.

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