Game vs. Watch – Super Mario Bros.
In Game vs. Watch, Tyler takes a look at video games and the feature film adaptations they inspired. Most of these adaptations are terrible.
Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo Entertainment System, 1985)
The player takes on the role of Mario or Luigi, two plumber brothers who must make their way through the various worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom in order to save Princess Toadstool from the villainous Bowser. The Mushroom Kingdom (not surprisingly) is filled with living mushrooms that attack Mario and Luigi, as well as turtles and beetles with deadly shells, giant living bullets, piranha plants, killer squid and more.
Super Mario Bros. (Hollywood Pictures, 1993)
Mario Mario (Academy Award nominee Bob Hoskins) and Luigi Mario (John Leguizamo) are two plumber brothers who make their way into an alternate dimension, where dinosaurs evolved into people, in order to rescue Daisy (Samantha Mathis) from the villainous part-lizard politician King Koopa (two-time Academy Award nominee Dennis Hopper). The dimensions were split apart when the meteorite that “killed” the dinosaurs hit Earth, and Koopa needs the missing chunk that Daisy (really the long-lost princess of the dinosaur world) wears around her neck. Along the way, they must deal with Koopa’s dim-bulb cousins Iggy (Richard Edson) and Spike (Academy Award-winning director Fisher Stevens), angry lady club bouncers and a living fungus which is choking the city but is probably trying to help them.
Within less than a minute, it’s clear that something unexpected happened on the journey from Super Mario Bros. the game to Super Mario Bros. the movie. The film begins with a digital animation of two dinosaurs, speaking to each other in thick Brooklyn accents, agreeing that life’s pretty swell, just minutes before a meteorite renders them both extinct. Then the narrator (Dan Castellaneta) presents the audience with the following question:
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?
This passage sums up both the weird beauty and complete failure of the Super Mario Bros. movie. Whether the line is intentionally comical or honestly hypothesizing that the chain of events in question is a semi-sensible premise for a movie, the finished project follows through on that ridiculous “what if?” question in full. The earliest draft of the screenplay was more like the game, taking place in a pure fantasy world. When producer Roland Joffe hired married Max Headroom creators Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel to direct, they reshaped the movie into a sci-fi action-slash-adventure that took place in a Blade Runner-style universe. The results are memorable and horrible in equal measure.
It’s unlikely that anyone looking forward to the film was expecting to see a car chase involving snowplow-like police vehicles that spray sparks everywhere or seven-foot tall lizard men with tiny heads wearing burgundy war jackets. Then again, even something like The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! takes broad creative license with the characters and universe in order to create a story (granted, a simpler one) for a game that has no real narrative. Viewed today, the cartoon is run-of-the-mill late-’80s and early-’90s children’s entertainment, lethargically delivering awful gags using ugly animation (nostalgia for the show probably leans heavily in favor of the Lou Albano bookends). The film has more of a stylistic signature, mashing together dirty industrial surroundings with leathery, anarchic punk-rock fashion (spikes are a big thing in Dinohattan). World-building is a challenge modern movies frequently fail at, and yet Super Mario Bros. kind of succeeds, in spite of its world being made up of pieces from other, better fictional universes.
When it comes to making sense of “plumbers fight a lizard king in another universe,” the film has a bit of a schizophrenic meltdown. On one hand, screenwriters Parker Bennett, Terry Runte and Ed Solomon don’t waste time making up logical explanations for every little detail; much like the living toons of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, they expect the viewer to walk in knowing whether or not they’re willing to “believe” an alternate universe like this one could exist. Any viewer who would demand an explanation as to how any of this is possible isn’t likely to be satisfied by an elaborate explanation, so there simply isn’t one.
Yet for a movie that doesn’t bother to explain half of its weird ideas, it spends almost 100 percent of its running time explaining the ones the audience has (presumably) already accepted. Nearly every line of dialogue is a reiteration of the film’s “multiple worlds” story, who has the rock, or where the characters are going and why. I’ve seen Super Mario Bros. a number of times, dating back to its original theatrical run, and at some point between the time I was a child and the time I became someone who writes about movies, I became accustomed to the dialogue. I wouldn’t say I know the movie word-for-word, but I’m more than familiar with what the characters say and do. My most recent re-watch brought me back to objectivity, highlighting how often the characters are simply talking about what’s already happening on screen or what the viewers already understand, which is more than a little obnoxious. At one point, Hoskins and Leguizamo are reduced to literally yelling unrelated plot points at another, for no reason at all.
In spite of the script, though, Hoskins, Leguizamo, Hopper, Stevens and Edson do their best to make the movie work, turning in performances that don’t betray their complete frustration with the production. Considering so much of their dialogue is explanatory (and the fact that Hoskins, Leguizamo, and Hopper were all apparently throwing away daily rewrites), it’s impressive how “lived in” Hoskins and Leguizamo’s relationship feels. Similarly, while their jokes are pretty stupid, Stevens and Edson make a good team as Iggy and Spike, playing a two-man act where they trade off being the dumb one. The only weak link in the cast is Samantha Mathis, who is so passive and uninteresting as Princess Daisy that she hardly registers as a character amid the film’s non-stop visual chaos.
Super Mario Bros. is a fascinating movie, not so much because it’s particularly well-made, but because it feels like a strange landmark on the pop culture landscape. It seems so strange that the stars could align in a way that would turn something as potentially lucrative as a film based on one of the world’s most popular video games into something as weird and obscure as the finished film. Although Morton and Jankel don’t appear to have done much but apply their existing “cyberpunk” sensibilities to the property, their freedom to exercise that kind of artistic license on an adaptation is almost pleasing. Brands and properties are as popular for film adaptation as ever, but “rules” have become more strict, even as studios increasingly court the kinds of directors who leave a distinct artistic stamp. It would be ridiculous to suggest that Super Mario Bros. had any impact whatsoever on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the level of freedom they give filmmakers to alter the source material allows Marvel and Mario Bros. to exist on the opposite ends of the same spectrum, where the producers are interested in what the filmmaker is bringing to their property than the other way around.
Predictably, the film fizzled on release, grossing $20m against its $48m budget (intentionally positioning itself two weeks before its other “dinosaur movie” competition, Jurassic Park). Hoskins, Leguizamo and Hopper have all been vocal about distancing themselves from the project in years since; Hoskins, in particular, has no reservations about calling it the worst film he was ever associated with. The film’s failure may be solely responsible for throwing game movies out of whack for the rest of the decade: Mortal Kombat, Double Dragon, and Street Fighter, for better or worse, all clung very, very close to the details of the games they were based on.
(Fans of the film should check out the Super Mario Bros. Movie Archive, which not only collects photographs, earlier drafts of the screenplay, photos and screenplay snippets of deleted scenes, but has interviewed a number of the cast and crew, hosted 35mm screenings for the film’s 20th anniversary in 2013 and has even crowdfunded a comic book based on Parker Bennett’s treatment for the film’s unproduced sequel. They also announced last week that they would be assisting Second Sight Films in producing a Special Edition Blu-Ray for release in the UK sometime during summer 2014.)