A dramatic journey through the dreck we all know and love
Why Did I Watch This?
When I was a young lad of eight, I was beyond pumped to see Super Mario Bros. in movie theatres. As someone who was still obsessively replaying the Super Mario Bros. 3 on NES I had been following the production incredibly closely via magazines like Wizard and Disney Adventures (this is how we got our movie news before the internet, kids). So when my dad finally agreed to take me I could not have been happier.
Despite that excitement, I don’t remember much about the film. I recall catching a bunch of references to the game and thinking the dystopian aspect of the film was a strange creative decision. Most of all, I was slightly disappointed. What I really remember though is that my dad was incredibly disappointed. We were promised some action and dino-mayhem and instead received an unexciting mess with one cartoonish-looking, CGI dinosaur towards the end. He felt so unfulfilled by the film that he insisted that we sneak in to another screen and watch the last half of Cliffhanger. It served as a sort of macho palate cleanser for the kid-focused cheesefest. We walked in right before Stallone lifted a guy above his head and impaled him on a stalactite. All was right in the world and we were happy. Even better: this was just an appetizer to actually getting some real dino-mayhem two weeks later when the whole family saw Jurassic Park opening night.
Hey, remember when fellow video game disaster Double Dragon had that terrible techno remix of O Fortuna in the trailer? I’ll see that and raise you an orchestra hit/jazz piano/choral chant remix of the decidedly less epic song, “The Power” by Snap!.
How Did I Watch It?
As with Ninja III: The Domination and Hercules in New York, I watched this at the bar Legends with the funny folks from Wasted Cinema. This time I had quite a few friends in tow, so it was a pretty rad time. We had lots of beers, some pub grub, an often hilarious Twitter feed, and a great group of people to laugh along
What Did I Watch?
Super Mario Bros. is the tale of two unlucky brothers from Brooklyn who keep losing money after being continuously beat to the punch by a rival plumbing company. While looking for a job, the romantic and perpetually hopeful Luigi (John Leguizamo) bumps into the attractive NYU archaeological student, Daisy (Samantha Morton) and instantly falls in love. They go on a date to her dinosaur bone dig site to set the mood, only to find the underground tunnels have been sabotaged and are about to flood. Luigi enlists the help of his older brother Mario (Bob Hoskins) to use their powers of plumbing to fix the leak.
Instead, henchman Iggy and Spike (Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson) kidnap Daisy and take her through a dimensional portal. Mario and Luigi follow and emerge in the frightening, rundown cityscape of Dinohattan. To which they speculate, “Maybe we got knocked unconscious and woke up in Manhattan a hundred years in the future?” “Or The Bronx of today?! No wonder they tell you to never come up here.”
This is the first of many terribly geocentric and hacky jokes about New York City that set the tone for the “levity” of the film to come. Some additional examples:
“They had dinosaurs in Brooklyn?”
“Relax, they had Dodgers too.”
“Sea turtles navigate thousands of miles on instinct.”
“Not in New York traffic they don’t!”
Surprisingly, none of the three credited screenwriters are Jackie Mason. Even more surprisingly, one of them (Ed Solomon) is still getting work as the writer of such movies as Men in Black, Charlie’s Angels, Now You See Me and the upcoming Spider-Man spin-off: Venom. It’s unclear how history will remember the career of Ed Solomon who was hired to “lighten up the script” based on his work on Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Although I should note that according to IMDb the other two screenwriters (although there are a rumored six additional uncredited script doctors) never wrote for another film again. Regardless, when the movie isn’t trafficking in painfully obvious New York or Italian American stereotypes, it’s trying to explain the outlandish transdimensional premise.
Apparently, Dinohattan was created when the meteor that killed the dinosaurs collided with Earth 65 million years ago. Contrary to popular belief, it didn’t make the dinosaurs extinct. It split the world into two separate and distinct dimensions: one where the dominant class of organism was the mammal and one where it was the reptile. Also on this planet is de-evolution technology that turns the citizenry into mindless henchman for the evil leader King Koopa (Dennis Hopper in a sniveling performance). The whole idea of devolving/evolving characters is nothing more than a clunky way to avoid having the Mario brothers fight the villains from the video game and instead have an evil human element. This is fairly frustrating when the dino-men finally do show up, because anyone paying to see this film would much rather see a conflict with fantastical monsters than the Dinohattan Police. Even worse, when the heroes zap King Koopa with the de-evolution gun, we’re privy to a split second of what could have been. The visual effects artists finally relent and show a glimpse of a dinosaur prosthetics job underneath the poorly rendered CGI morphing.
As it turns out, Daisy is a princess (she wasn’t dubbed “Peach” in the video games until this movie was already released) and her father is the true king of this alternate dimension. He had been devolved into a pervasive, sentient, mushroom-producing slime. However I do hear he’s a hit at parties… he’s a pretty fungi (I’m sorry, blame the screenwriters of Super Mario Bros.). Apparently Daisy’s mother had taken her to Earth for safekeeping when Koopa staged his coup, but was killed in the process; leaving Daisy in the foreign world with only a single meteorite fragment endowed with interdimensional powers. Koopa wants to get his hands on the fragment in order to merge DINOhattan and MANhattan (heh, I’ll give them that), and become supreme ruler of both worlds. His counterpart, Lena (the underutilized Fiona Shaw), begins the transfiguration, but Daisy and Luigi manage to remove the meteorite shard. When everyone transports back to Dinohattan, Mario and Luigi team-up to devolve Koopa into a slime that is not nearly as sentient as the king was.
And that’s the ridiculous plot of Super Mario Bros.! No turtle shells, no castles, no underwater level (thank God), no star power, and absolutely no cinematic energy. It’s almost kind of cute how a gun-toting Princess Daisy pops up at the end to say “You gotta come with me! I need your help!” setting the film up for a sequel. Would it mirror the video game sequel and have them pour out acidic elixirs that they use to rob a bank of coins? Could they have Princess Daisy find a pink parachute and glide from one platform to another? More importantly, are there any more terrible, mid-90’s, New York-centric gags that are still untapped? “This quicksand is making us fall faster than property values in Newark!” You’re welcome.
I might be inclined to give Super Mario Bros. points for its oddly unique vision. It requires a wild constitution to reinterpret a light-hearted, fanciful game about two plumbers fighting anthropomorphic mushrooms and turtles into a dark and dire dimension where humans are reptilian instead of mammalian. The filmmakers portrayed Big Bertha (the fish that tries to eat you in the water levels of Super Mario Bros. 3) as the obese owner of a nightclub, King Koopa as an OCD Dennis Hopper with cornrows, and the concept of jumping high as strapping on some rocket boots. That takes true dedication. To that point, however, the wild fever dream that is the nonsensical Mario franchise deserves something better. If going for a “gritty” or “realistic” feel of such a strange property, why not fully embrace the insanity and make something truly batshit insane?
For a movie with extremely shoddy computer generated effects, Super Mario Bros. had a fascinating piece of animatronic work in Yoshi. My primary thought throughout the entire viewing was that such a cool and resonant piece of filmmaking technology really deserved a stronger movie. The robotic puppet provided some much needed heart to the film and I was sad not to see more of him. He may have attacked Lena with his long, prehensile tongue but he didn’t even lay any eggs! Hell, he didn’t even have any scenes with any major character besides Daisy and then he gets stabbed! Can someone Kickstarter a Yoshi spin-off? Or maybe just a Carnosaur reboot? Whatever works for you. I’m flexible. Just promise me you’ll utilize the original Yoshi puppet and give me a “Creative Producer” credit. Thanks.
Either way, I was able to find a very neat “Movie Magic” clip below. It gives a quick background on how Yoshi was created and used in the film:
The humor was juvenile in a way that flat out did not fit the tone of the movie. The Borscht Belt jokes and “Yo Brooklyn!” vibe aren’t just incongruous with the the murky, Blade Runner-lite aesthetic; they’re downright embarrassing. The action beats (while more effectively shot than the lower budget Double Dragon) are simply too safe and have virtually no sense of immediacy. This is primarily due to the jokey atmosphere and an overall lack of strong setpieces. I shit you not, two major conflicts are solved by the power of dancing (seducing the meteorite from Big Bertha and sneaking past a gang of Goombas and Koopas in an elevator). Why?! The only dancing I remember from the game was when Mario reached the top of a beanstalk. And even then, his only move was “The Running Man“.
Meanwhile, nearly all the “villains” turn out to be good guys who help our heroes. Iggy & Spike, Big Bertha, and the Goombafied Toad all switch sides to help the Mario brothers. Even Yoshi and the environmentally ubiquitous fungus (progressive rock band name?) are introduced as dangerous, but end up being strong allies as well. This strange storytelling technique of stacking everything in the protagonists’ favor created a palpable feeling of anti-climax… even to an 8 year-old video game fan.
However, I will admit the much maligned “I’m Mario Mario and this is my brother Luigi Mario… we’re the Mario Brothers” is, at heart, kind of funny. It is a prime example of both Bob Hoskins (R.I.P.) and John Leguizamo doing their best to sell an excessively silly script.
Was It Worth Watching?
I did win a free drink for posting the “best Tweet” of the second half of the film. So I guess that part was worth it. Super Mario Bros. is worth watching if you win free booze! Put that on the back of a DVD.
Despite already not liking the film when I first saw it, Super Mario Bros. was somehow significantly worse than I remembered. On initial viewing I remember it being so unlike any adaptation made by a reasonable person that there had to be something to admire in its execution. Unfortunately, that interpretation of the film does not hold up to scrutiny. It’s always a struggle to gauge the relative success of a children’s movie as an adult… not everything can have the crossover appeal of a Pixar or Hayao Miyazaki film. An easier task is figuring out when an fantasy-action film fails on fundamental levels. The fantasy aspects of the film are less fanciful than the source material and the more grounded live-action premise isn’t believable enough to warrant the lack of imagination. The jokes from Wasted Cinema definitely helped the process, as did my friends and the beers. However, I don’t recommend trying to replicate the ordeal.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention a scene that elicited several “boo”s from the audience at Legends. During the climax, as Dinohattan and Manhattan begin to merge, we see New York start to change for the worse. The major visual sign of the transformation is when our familiar Twin Towers in the distance slowly turn into the decrepit Twin Towers of the alternate dimension. As you’ll see in the picture to the right, Super Mario Bros. apparently predicted 9/11. Someone should put that on the DVD box too.
Without a doubt, it is definitely much worse than the middling Cliffhanger and potentially worse than Double Dragon as well. At least the latter film was committed to not taking the premise seriously. In that write-up, I had said that Super Mario Bros. possessed a “weird originality that makes [the movie] at least (barely) watchable.” I don’t know if i stand by that statement now that I have actually experienced the film again. It tries to have the best of both worlds and suffers desperately as a result.
Zak has been an avid movie fan since his mom made him cover his eyes before the “icicle stabbing” when they rented Die Hard 2 in 2nd grade. As a consolation, in 6th grade he got straight A’s so she gave him the entire Die Hard trilogy on VHS. The rest is history.
All images courtesy of Hollywood Pictures