Thursday, August 29, 2013

I'll Watch Anything: Patrick Watches Super Mario Bros.

by Patrick Bromley
The poster says it: This ain't no game! Yes, but it's also not quite a movie.

I didn't grow up with a Nintendo. Or any game system at all. We wanted one as kids, but my mom wasn't too keen on it and we never had one. This means I did not grow up playing video games, which probably explains why I have no interest in them now. I'm actually happy about that. I'm not judging those that play video games (which is everyone else), I'm just glad that I don't have one other thing to which I have to devote my time or interest. It frees me up for more movies and some light taxidermy.

I was always happy to watch my friends play video games, though, because all of my friends had either Sega or Nintendo, which you would think would mean I could have just gone to their houses and played. I was much happier to just observe, probably because I knew I would be no good at it. Why try and fail when you can just not try? It's a philosophy that has served me well. It also means I had a LOT of exposure to Super Mario Bros. (the game) growing up. Hopefully that gives me enough background to understand the nuances of the 1993 movie adaptation and speak critically about it on just one viewing.

Nowadays, video games are so much like movies that it's almost pointless to adapt them. They have actual stories and character development (or so I'm told by Film Crit Hulk's screeds). They are cinematic. They're no more pixelated than most Hollywood blockbusters. The world's have merged enough that maybe we're done with video games movies. I am sure we are not.
The big problem with most video game movies (and by that I mean all video game movies) is that they might have some familiar characters and more than likely an established world, but they have to make up a story wholesale. Story is the hard part. And more often than not, the writers that are hired to adapt the games either don't write enough story or write WAY TOO MUCH story. Super Mario Bros. falls into the trap of having way too much story. It starts millions of years ago when dinosaurs ruled the planet. Yes, in order to tell the story of Mario and Luigi, the filmmakers went back to roughly the beginning of recorded time. From there, it jumps to modern-day Brooklyn (after a few detours), where Mario Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi Mario (John Leguizamo) work as plumbers and surrogate family. Into their life comes Daisy, an archeologist fighting with a construction company (run by mobsters?) over a site at which she is trying to dig. One night, Daisy asks for the Brothers Mario to help her because the mobsters are flooding her site (and they're plumbers, see?); once they get there, though, Daisy is pulled into another dimension by goons. The Mario Brothers follow her and find themselves in a crazy alternate universe created when the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs landed 65 million years prior.

Ok, if you haven't already figure it out, we have a big problem. Why all this shitty setup? Why does the movie need to start in the real world before transitioning to video game world (it is not video game world, but I don't know what else to call it). Why not just start the movie in crazy video game/fake Blade Runner city, and have the Mario Brothers be characters there? Not plausible enough? This is a movie called Super Mario Bros. based on the video game Super Mario Bros. Did the filmmakers not think the film's audience could suspend disbelief? Or only to a point? Didn't they buy a ticket to see the Mario Brothers be super in the world they recognized from the game? It's ok not to "ground" the movie in reality.
And why all the stuff with the archeological site and the construction gangsters? So that we know Daisy has a connection to dinosaurs and it makes sense when (Spoilers? I have no fucking idea...) she befriends one later? She befriends one because he shows her kindness. If it was just her connection to dinosaurs that inspired such a connection, wouldn't she befriend them all? Even the ones trying to kill her? Because she is an archeologist, see? And if the movie HAD to start in the real world, couldn't the Mario Brothers just be doing a plumbing job and accidentally fallen through to another dimension? I know "rescuing Daisy" is a big part of the game/movie (except it's not Daisy, it's a character named "Princess Toadstool"), but that could be set up in about three minutes once inside dino-dimension.

My point is this: Super Mario Bros. suffers from the same thing from which many adaptations of thin source material suffer. They don't know where to start, so they make things overly complicated. If there's enough "business" going on in the movie, viewers will hopefully be distracted by the lack of characterization, sharp dialogue, dramatic stakes or solid storytelling. It's the way a five-year old tells a story, filling in too many unnecessary details because they happen to pop into his or her head during a stream-of-consciousness make-em-up.

So Mario and Luigi run around dino dimension, which the internet tells me is called Dino-hattan. Fucking Dino-hattan. DINO-FUCKING-HATTAN. At least this horrible name/concept explains why it just looks like a nightmare version of New York, only with a bunch of dinosaur references and puns (kind of like how Howard the Duck envisioned a faraway duck planet that was exactly like Earth only with duck shit). Except even most of the dinosaurs have evolved into people, because that saves a lot of money on expensive dino effects (not that the movie was cheap; it cost nearly $50 million in 1993 money). Some of them get yellow eyes sometimes and have hair spikes on their head, but they're just fucking people. There are some lizard people, though. In the game, Goombas were sentient little mushroom things (Koopas were more reptilian, but they were more like turtles; I guess dinosaurs just seemed cooler). Here they are giant guys in trenchcoats with tiny little lizard heads -- one of the movie's many bits of weirdness for its own sake. And not for nothing, but if their heads had been regular-sized they would have looked EXACTLY like The Lizard in Amazing Spider-Man. One more reason why that movie doesn't work -- one of its major influences is Super Mario Bros.
The big bad in Dino-hattan is King Koopa, played by Dennis Hopper. Though this was before his Speed comeback, it has the generic feel of his Waterworld villain (it makes me crazy to think that Hopper called Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 the worst movie he ever made [because I love it] when he was also in this, and I wouldn't even call this his worst movie). He wants a piece of a rock that Daisy wears around her neck, because she HATCHED IN AN EGG in Dino-hattan but escaped with the help of her mom (??), who is also played by Samantha Mathis. Now that I'm typing some of this stuff, I feel like I dreamed a lot of it. This is that kind of movie. Getting the rock back will allow him to merge his dino-dimension with Earth, and the dinosaurs can once again rule. Why this is a need, I cannot say, since they already have an entire dimension to themselves and appear to have industrialized and made a go of it. Oh, and Koopa wants to de-evolve all the "mammals" (the script uses this word A LOT) and turn them back into monkeys.

If this sounds very little like the game Super Mario Bros., that's because it's nothing like the game Super Mario Bros. Only the thinnest of connections to the game are attempted, as though they were almost ready to shoot and someone realized that beyond the title and some of the names, the movie had nothing to do with the property on which it is based. So there's a woman shouting about how she needs "Koopa coins" and Mario busts out a magic mushroom (no, not that kind) at another point. There is a little bomb that walks, too. These are the references. I guess if you were someone who played the game, you can giggle to yourself at the lines about coins and mushrooms. It is, in the words of JB, a moron's idea of cleverness.
The rest of the movie plays out like a slightly nightmarish mishmash of set pieces and half-formed ideas. Bob Hoskins has a dance number with a heavyset black woman. A dino-man turns into a full-blown dinosaur and then into a puddle of green goo. Mario and Luigi bounce around with special shoes. A woman is turned into a fossilized skeleton. Lance Henriksen is turned into a fungus and then back into Lance Henriksen. Mojo Nixon plays a song. There's a super-meta post-credits scene in which two characters meet with Nintendo executives about having their lives adapted into a video game.

But here's the thing about the movie: there's good stuff in it. Read over that last paragraph again; how could there not be? Take out the overt "Mario Bros." elements, write a better script and you might actually have something. Though they don't really have characters to play, Hoskins and Leguizamo really commit to their parts. Samantha Mathis is a welcome addition to anything, even if she has gone on to star in one of those Atlas Shrugged movies just to ensure that Super Mario Bros. isn't the worst movie on her IMDb page. Though the movie was made during that strange period between practical and CGI (which wasn't quite there yet), the effects do a good job of using the right amount of each.The production design, overly busy and tacky though it may be, suggests a specific vision. The '90s were a bad time for genre cinema, and there is a kind of ugly sameness to many of the decade's efforts. The dystopian cityscapes of Super Mario Bros. look a lot like the ones in movies like Tank Girl and Judge Dredd -- both properties that, perhaps not coincidentally, were not particularly well adapted from outside source material, too.

It's photographed and directed pretty well. The pair of filmmakers responsible, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, were the same people who made the Max Headroom TV show in the '80s -- a bizarre slice of sci-fi that became a cult favorite. They made one major film (the Dennis Quaid remake of D.O.A.) before being tapped to direct Super Mario Bros., and they bring with them a lot of the same vision that gave Max Headroom such a fan base. They don't appear to have any interest in actually "adapting" Super Mario Bros. in look or tone, instead using the property and $50 million of Disney's dollars to sneak their own crazy genre movie into theaters. Maybe they were trying to make something mainstream, but what they came up with never stood a chance of being anything but a cult movie. Every inch of it is designed that way. Naturally, the movie bombed both critically and commercially, and they haven't directed any films since. It's too bad, because it's clear that both have talent. Hollywood is a dick.

Oddly enough, as I was working on this piece I read a story about how a pair of writers are teaming up with one of the film's writers to create a sequel in the form of an online comic book; the movie ends on a cliffhanger reminiscent of Back to the Future, and it's one of the things it that works specifically because there was no follow-up. So the film obviously has its supporters, who are devoted to it enough that they want it to carry on in fan fiction. Clearly it struck a chord in some. Just goes to show you -- find a movie you think everyone hates and I'll find you a cult of people who love it.

The internet seems to enjoy acting like Super Mario Bros. is the worst movie ever made. It is not. It is a giant miscalculation, a victim of the '90s genre wasteland, an occasionally interesting failure. It's not good, but it's not the worst movie ever made. I suspect the internet takes it a little personally because the people who are shitting on it these days are the same people who grew up loving to play the Nintendo game and are somewhat wounded that the movie adaptation seems so disinterested in being faithful to it. But I'll pose this question: is there a movie adaptation of the Super Mario Bros. video game that you can picture as being really good? Is there a movie adaptation of any video game that you can point to and say "THAT'S how they should have done it!"

So lay off Super Mario Bros. and let it be the weird little failure it is. I, for one, will be forgetting the movie the minute I finish typing this sent


  1. I am not sure which was worse; you having to watch this movie, or you having to do a serious write up on it. Kudos to you!

  2. Great piece! And, in honor of today's news that James Spader will play the titular antagonist in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, I'd like to make another IWA nomination: Dream Lover, a trippy 1994 noir starring him and M├Ądchen Amick. (The dvd does not, alas, feature the somewhat spicier VHS-released unrated cut, but oh well). It's got a mystical clown, an eerie carnival, and is sort of like Vertigo, only with a lot more bonking.

    Ah, Avengers 2: it'll be the Pretty in Pink/Weird Science crossover reunion I for one already knew I wanted!

    1. Ilan Mitchell-Smith for Quicksilver!

    2. Kelly LeBrock as the voice of Iron Patriot's JARVIS! (Rhodes prefers him some English ladies.) Molly Ringwald as the Secretary of State! Anthony Michael Hall as the same reporter he played in The Dark Knight, just to mess with continuity purists' heads!

  3. Great article, I think you summed it up nicely. Slightly interesting garbage. My friend's dad took a bunch of us to see this opening day in the theater. He saw Cliffhanger instead. He made the right choice.

  4. Interestingly, this was neck-and-neck with "Jurassic Park" as my most-watched movie of 1993.

  5. May the Film Gods bless you for not only taking the time to watch this, but actually finding some good things to say about it!

    I don't really remember much about this movie but, considering I was both a Mario Bros. and dinosaur fan and only watched this once back when it came out, I must've even known at 13 that it was a stinker. It really is a baffling movie because, even though like you say it's not like a much better SMB movie could've been made, most of the deviations are strange and completely unnecessary - I mean, other than Bob-omb, nothing looks AT ALL like anything from the game. I'm wondering if this wasn't the movie that sparked the first instance of Nerd Rage that has been setting the Interwebs on fire over trivial bullshit ever since, because it really gave a big middle finger to Mario fans.

    Oh well, must check it out again just for fun - great article, man.

  6. I remember first seeing this movie when I was a young kid when it aired on the Disney Channel and I rememember liking it (granted I was 8). I didn't see it again until I was much older and I can totally understand the problems "Super Mario Bros" had.

    Speaking of which about the actors, Bob Hoskins considered this movie as the worst he had ever done and revealed that he had no idea this was based on the video game while filming until his son told him about that, and John Leguizamo reveals in his autobiography that he and Hoskins had such a miserable time making the movie that the two would immediately get drunk in order to get through the experience.

    In fact there is a website that is dedicated to this movie called where you can find all the production details, behind the scenes footage, offical media, merchandising and special features, and it is a very interesting view to see how this managed to get made if you would like a look.

  7. Eight comments and no love for Wreck-It Ralph?

  8. Indeed Wreck it Ralph is by far the best videogame related movie ever done but they had to create their own characters with Fix it Felix and the Sugar Rush gang, it wasn't based on a pre existing game.

    As for Patrick's comment that Super Mario Bros isn't the worst movie ever, I agree. Don't get me wrong I hate it and it blows big time but there are far worse video game to movie adaptations out there, I think the bottom of the barrel might be The House of the Dead, which includes multiple clips of the actual game in the movie ugh, the live action stuff is pretty awful too.

    For a future I'll watch anything column I dare, I say I DOUBLE DARE any of the writers of the site to do The Oogieloves and the Big Baloon Adventure, one of the worst kids movies of all time. In fact I'll send you a free movie from my DVD collection if you can do it. That being said life is short and I don't blame any of you guys if you don't write a column on it.