Monday, February 11, 2013

Cinematic Dregs: Super Mario Bros.

(1993) Directed by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton; Written by Parker Bennett, Terry Runte and Ed Solomon; Starring: Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Samantha Mathis and Fiona Shaw: Available on DVD.

Rating: * ½

Q: “What is the worst job you've done?”

A: “Super Mario Brothers.”

Q: “What has been your biggest disappointment?”

A: “Super Mario Brothers.”

Q: “If you could edit your past, what would you change?”
A: “I wouldn't do Super Mario Brothers."

(Excerpt from Bob Hoskins interview, by Rosanna Greenstreet, The Guardian)

Compared to many of my contemporaries, I wasn’t entirely captivated by the Super Mario Brothers video game franchise.  Sure, I owned a Nintendo Entertainment System, and had at least a passing familiarity with Mario and his pixelated world, but I never considered myself a rabid fan.  This is a circuitous way of stating that I didn’t have an unrealistic set of expectations, nor did I care to judge the dubious source material as canon.  Instead, I chose to assess Super Mario Bros. on its relative merits as a motion picture.  With this in mind, I asked myself: Was the movie really as bad as its reputation suggested?  In a word, yes.

By many accounts, Super Mario Bros. was a troubled production from start to finish. While three writers received credit for the ragged patchwork quilt of a screenplay, up to nine purportedly worked on it.  The frequent script changes became a source of frustration for the cast and crew, who seemed to have checked out long before the film was completed.  Add to this fetid brew the relatively inexperienced husband/wife directing duo of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, who apparently had a much darker vision for the film, and you have a recipe for disaster (You can read more about the film’s myriad production woes here).

The cast of Super Mario Bros., with the exception, perhaps, of Dennis Hopper, appear to just go through the motions.  Hopper has the closest thing to a standout performance in Super Mario Bros. as the villainous King Koopa.  He takes ‘over the top’ to a new level, delivering phrases such as “muster the goombas,” with absurd conviction.  Bob Hoskins, as Mario, seems to be channeling his Eddie Valiant character from Who Framed Roger Rabbit,* with his faux Brooklyn accent.  He does the best he can with what he has to work with, resulting in a professional, if unspectacular performance.  Similarly, John Leguizamo, as Mario’s younger brother Luigi,** does little to distinguish himself.  Samantha Mathis, as Princess Daisy, and Luigi’s nominal love interest, is a bland heroine.  She’s introduced at the beginning of the film as a paleontologist, but this thread is dropped early on as she exists solely to be Koopa’s passive hostage.   

* Another tenuous link to Who Framed Roger Rabbit is Alan Silvestri’s score, which seems to borrow liberally from that 1988 film.

** Hoskins, more than 21 years Leguizamo’s senior, probably would have been better off playing his father.

The filmmakers made poor choices at every turn, starting with the appearance of the movie.  The alternate-universe world that King Koopa and his reptilian-evolved kin inhabit resembles a Blade Runner-esque dystopia, choking under its urban sprawl – a far cry from the cartoonish, kid friendly world depicted in the Nintendo game series.  Mario’s cute pal Yoshi is transformed into a semi-realistic dinosaur, appearing more ferocious than cuddly.  It’s always a bad sign when I’m watching the counter on my DVD player, wondering when the movie will end, instead of being engrossed by the action on the screen.  The action sequences are bewildering instead of exciting, with the lead characters running around pointlessly, seemingly without an objective in mind.   Much like Howard the Duck, Super Mario Bros. mistakes frenetic activity for comedy (when all else fails, add a confusing chase scene to the mix).  All of this left me wondering who the intended audience was.  It’s too lowbrow to interest adults looking for sophisticated entertainment, and too dark for families expecting light entertainment, while fans of the video game would be disappointed by the few concessions to the source material.  In the end, the film simply came off as a joyless and cynical cash grab, banking on the built-in audience from the Nintendo game.

With few exceptions, most filmmakers don’t deliberately set out to make a bad flick.  Everyone doesn’t aspire to be David Lean or Stanley Kubrick, but at the very least, he or she probably wants to leave the audience entertained.  Even by these modest goals, Super Mario Bros. fails miserably.  The film’s basic plot (something about Princess Daisy bridging the gap between two worlds) is needlessly muddled, and begs the question why the story couldn’t be grounded entirely in the fantasy universe.  We don’t care about the real life problems of cartoonish characters such as Mario and Luigi, and how they interact in New York City versus Koopaville (I didn’t make that up).  We just want to see them traipsing through a candy-colored fantasy world and have goofy adventures. 

While Super Mario Bros. didn’t singlehandedly establish the stigma of video game-inspired movies as an inherently inferior product, it helped reinforce the perception.  Are these films necessarily an artistic dead end?  Although the poor track record of video game movies seems to confirm this assertion, the law of averages suggests that a worthwhile product might eventually surface, with the right convergence of dedication and talented filmmakers (think a million monkeys on a million typewriters). When will it happen?  20 years after Super Mario Bros., we’re still waiting.


  1. As a crew member on this flick - I can't refute your review in any way. The movie did not equal the sum of its parts. If you're interested in more behind the scenes stuff about SMB - here's my blog post about it (feel free to delete this whole comment if I'm being rude or stepping on your toes here)

    If that's not enough to put you in a coma - there's a second part that will be in the blog archive about two-three posts later.


    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and visiting my blog, Craig! I look forward to reading your post!

  2. Great review. Why do live action movies of videogames and cartoons have to be set in the real world. I would have loved a movie that is closer to the look and style of the game then what was presented here.

    1. Thanks! I couldn't agree more. The film needed to be much more whimsical, rather than grating.