‘Super Mario Bros.’ or — The Greatest Video Game Movie Ever Made?!
After watching ‘Uncharted’ (2022) yesterday morning, which left me lamenting the current state of cinema, I realised I had never seen what’s generally regarded as the grand-daddy of video game movies — the much derided ‘Super Mario Bros.’ (1993). Was it as bad as its notorious reputation? I was curious to finally find out so last night I put aside the Rohmer movie I had initially lined-up and settled down to discover just how bad it was.
The first bizarre thing that struck me about ‘Super Mario Bros.’ is that it was produced by Roland Joffé, the guy who directed a film about the Cambodian genocide of the Khmer Rouge. “Well, that’s an odd choice for a movie about plumbers and sentient dinosaurs”, I thought to myself, although it might also be the most fundamental problem with this movie, but more of that later.
What’s also bizarre is the story where the asteroid that hit the Earth at the time of the dinosaurs splits the planet into two separate dimensions — one where humans have evolved and the other where it’s the dinosaurs that control the globe. President Koopa (Dennis Hopper) plans to merge the two dimensions together again so he can rule over both worlds and to do this he captures Princess Daisy (Samantha Mathis) from the human world because she has the last fragment of the asteroid that’s needed for the merging to occur. It’s now up to plumbers, and brothers, Mario Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi Mario (John Leguizamo) to save Princess Daisy and stop Koopa and the Goombas from controlling both dinosaur and human worlds.
What the fuck?!
As you can tell from the above, this movie certainly isn’t playing it safe in the slightest and that might also be the movie’s other big problem but also its saving grace — i.e. it doesn’t give a fucking damn about what anybody watching it thinks about it. It’s almost avant-garde in that respect and also means that practically every other minute something weird, stupid or head-smackingly insane is presented to us.
Take, for example, the Goombas. These are President Koopa’s hench-dinos and every single time they were on screen I was howling with laughter because they’re physical evidence of what happens when a movie is made with total creative freedom but when those with that freedom have no bloody idea what they’re really supposed to be doing with it. So when Dennis Hopper’s President Koopa yells out “Muster the Goombas!” my regrets at forgoing Rohmer immediately evaporated and by the time Luigi Mario had them dancing in the elevator I had lost total control of most of my rational thinking processes. When this sequence is called back to during the climax with the line “Sir! Sir! The Goombas are dancing again!” I knew I was witnessing a work of utter genius.
Not only that but the animatronics work of the Goombas’ facial expressions are seriously well done, the sophistication of the subtleties and nuances of their features only compounding the insanity of it all.
Yet it is all too easy to see, and hear, why this movie bob-ombed big time. For one, the directors aren’t too good at handling action scenes with a sense of chaos coming across rather than focused excitement. Plus the lighting is kinda flat giving it a certain cheap look at times despite some effective production design and effects work at play. Although the biggest technical issue is the huge amount of noticeable and distracting ADR dialogue which really cheapens the tone and suggests that this movie was tinkered with, re-written and generally fucked about with in post production. This movie literally quivers with anxiety, fear and panic as it, and the filmmakers, realise with horror what it is manifesting into and finally becoming.
But this is what happens when you take a hugely popular Japanese video game and give it to the director of ‘The Killing Fields’ (1984) to produce and two directors who obviously had ZERO interest in making a faithful Mario movie and TOTAL interest in doing whatever the fucking hell they wanted. The result is as berserk as you’d expect, and Nintendo must have had a collective heart-attack when they saw the finished product.
Still, the movie isn’t a total mess. It just about hangs together, has spirited pacing and is certainly as far removed from boring as you can possibly get. There’s several story threads — the Scapelli’s and the captured girls — that feel like artefacts of previous script drafts and so don’t quite fit snugly here but the movie is so out of control by this point that it doesn’t really matter anyway.
‘Super Mario Bros.’ is not a good film and is the perfect example of what to expect when a video game company who knows nothing about making movies gives a huge load of money and total creative control to filmmakers who know nothing (and obviously care even less) about video games. And yet, dear god, the result is more interesting, more unhinged and more enjoyable than any video game adaptation attempted since. Movies like this are a delicious rarity and are usually the sort of product that Hollywood studios furiously try to stop from ever being made. For that reason alone we should cherish this movie’s existence and dance with the Goombas.