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.
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.
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.
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.
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