One of the first, biggest, most spectacular failures in the history of video game movies, Super Mario Bros. brought the world's favorite red overalled Italian stereotype to the big screen. With a budget of nearly 50 million dollars, Mario Bros. entered the summer of 1993 with big expectations, and left with less than 50 cents on the dollar at the domestic box office. The film has earned derision from fans, critics, and everyone else since its release, yet retains that cult following that absolutely anything made when you were six years old holds for adults. It also remains one of the best examples of the difficulties translating a video game story into a feature film.
We begin our adventure in 65 Million BC, when incredibly badly animated cartoon dinosaurs speak in awful Italian stereotypes until a meteor falls on them. But instead of killing them, it turns out that the meteor launched all the dinosaurs into an alternate dimension, where they continued to evolve until they looked like Dennis Hopper. In what sense is that evolution?
|I hate everything about this. Not only is it awful and unnecessary,|
they got noted voice actor Dan Castellaneta to do a bad Italian accent,
then SPELLED HIS NAME WRONG (Dan Castellenetta).
Back in our reality, Mario Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi Mario (John Leguizamo) can't get any work because a different, larger Italian plumbing company steals their work. Luigi deals with this by watching shows that posit the existence of alternate dimensions. In the meantime, Daisy (Samantha Mathis, fresh off of FernGully), a cute but slightly awkward grad student leads a university dig after a construction site accidentally unearths unusual dinosaur bones. Daisy is targeted by a pair of incompetent halfwits, Iggy and Spike (the first of many, MANY tedious references to the video games). Luigi meets Daisy in line to use the pay phone (hey remember when that was a thing?), and gives up the phone and a potentially lucrative plumbing job to aid in his flirting. In one of the most bizarre scenes in the entire film, Daisy agrees to be given a ride by two almost total strangers in their white van. What makes this even more bizarre is Daisy does this because she's worried about a string of recent kidnappings that fit her profile.
|These guys are clearly brothers.|
Blue sparks fly between Luigi and Daisy and the two agree to a double date with Mario and... Daniella, a girl we're not really introduced to. We get a bunch of exposition here about how Luigi never knew his parents, while Daisy grew up in an orphanage after being mysteriously brought to this dimension, I mean, the city. Why is Luigi the romantic lead?!
The two continue their date at Daisy's dig site, where they accidentally uncover a gateway into the dino dimension. Unfortunately, the kidnappers catch up to them and kidnap Daisy. Mario and Luigi follow her into a strange new world that is basically Hong Kong 20 years ago combined with every video game except Mario. Mario and Luigi's adventures take them to numerous exotic locales: a desert, a police station, a local nightclub, and finally Koopa's tower. Just like in the game!
Perhaps the film's biggest flaw is its slavish attempts to reference its source material, from the unnecessary shout-outs to Iggy Koopa to the incredibly over-elaborate attempts to explain how mushrooms help Mario in his battle with evil. Several sound bits from the game are used exactly, Mario and Luigi happen upon a pair of Red and Green overalls in Koopa's tower, the pair are given a pair of boots that allow them to leap enormous distances, and a tiny bob-omb is key to Koopa's eventual defeat.
As if that weren't enough, during her captivity Daisy befriends a tiny Velociraptor-looking creature named Yoshi. Until the very end, this is the closest we ever see to a dinosaur. We also get Koopa's army of genetically de-evolved lizards, called Goombas, despite the fact that they don't seem to have anything in common with either the video game creature or the Italian slur. Why even include these references if you're going to portray them in a way that will A) annoy fans and B) confuse literally everyone else?
|Hooray, it's Yoshi! Wait, it's just an ugly little dinosaur. He doesn't even get ridden around like a horse.|
The fundamental problem here might be that video game audiences and film audiences have totally different expectations when it comes to storytelling mechanics. In a game, the ability to kill things by jumping on them, shooting fire balls after touching a flower, and using these powers to travel through mountains, deserts and ghost houses is so ordinary that it requires no explanation. Mario is able to travel through pipes because he's a plumber, and that's what plumbers do! But film audiences apparently expect even a basic connection to reality, even if it's just that regular physics apply and a plumber can't routinely leap 5 times his height and then kill a mushroom by landing on it. Because of this, the movie continuously labors under the ever-present need to explain itself. We get parallel universes, fungus creatures, special boots, colored overalls, it just goes on and on. It is pretty much the opposite of "fun."
|Maybe it's just me, but I wouldn't put those buttons so close to each other.|
Because the movie feels the need to make these countless video game references and tedious explanations of a video game plot, we get the worst of both worlds: references that aren't fun or functional except as ciphers for things that video game fans remember, and an ungodly amount of tedious explanation of sci-fi junk that really has very little to do with a plumber that magically fights evil in the Mushroom Kingdom. It's just baffling that a movie targeted to children, based on a video game, would take a "gritty and realistic" approach, but for some reason we get to see the political unrest of the Mushroom Kingdom, a fascist state that suffers from resource shortages and fungus-related air pollution. It's a far cry from the world where gold coins literally floated in the sky, waiting to be taken. Everywhere in the Dino Dimension is ugly, bland, and boring. Why would you make a deliberate choice to make the world more boring?!
For all that though, there are some positives. John Leguizamo is basically the lead as Luigi, and has strong comic timing considering the material he's given. Bob Hoskins is game as Mario, even though it was a pretty baffling casting decision and his attempt at a New York Italian accent basically forces him to grunt out a lot of lines. Dennis Hopper plays King Koopa as a sleazy corporate raider. His performance has been criticized because it's not the type of scenery-chewing excess people might expect from a project like this, but he gives Koopa a barely suppressed madness that takes him beyond the cliche 80's millionaire villain. It's still somewhat disappointing if you know what Hopper's capable of, but as it is he's still one of the best things in the movie.
|In an after-credits gag, two Japanese men think what we just watched will make a good video game!|
While the movie is not good, the problem here isn't the actors, or even the basic story. It's that no film, especially a sci-fi story, can stand up under the sheer weight of exposition given here. In their attempts to explain everything, the creators include a bunch of nonsensical junk that doesn't serve the primary story and isn't entertaining for anyone. It's not that something like this couldn't work: Avatar was practically a video game come to life. But because that movie featured a far higher ratio of "wow look at that" to "explaining why the local ecosystem was fluorescent," it made for fun, simple entertainment.
There's no reason a game as wacky as Mario couldn't have been turned into a fun adventure film. Instead, we get something that spends so much time explaining itself that not only is it not fun, we don't believe it anyway because we feel like it's trying too hard to explain things. Why do we need to know that a parallel dinosaur dimension exists before we ever see it?! It's like opening Back to the Future with a voiceover that explains how time travel is going to work in that film. The story also ends with an absolutely awful nonsense cliffhanger that sets up a sequel that was not to be.
There is stuff I liked though. I loved the Brooklyn girls, each of them more stereotypical than the last. From Mario's girlfriend who works at a tanning salon to the girl who smokes a cigarette while fleeing for her life back to her own dimension. Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson are pretty funny in supporting roles as Koopa's hapless lackeys. My favorite bit:
3 Marios out of a possible 5.
Daniella (to Daisy): Hey I got an idea! Why don't you come down to the tanning salon and I can hook you up with some free tans!
Luigi: Maybe we been sleeping a hundred years and woke up in Manhattan of the future.
Mario: Or the Bronx of today.
Luigi: Trust the fungus.
Daniella: Okay don't say anything, but my boyfriend Mario is right up there.
Angelica: HEY MARIO! He'll get us outta here!