Sometimes, a movie combines great actors with brilliant dialogue and compelling storylines. Sometimes, great actors can elevate a lesser script and make a movie better than it ought to have been. And sometimes, well, there’s just not a damn thing they can do, except get drunk and try to muddle through.* Sadly, in the case of Super Mario Bros., it is the latter case with which we concern ourselves today.
Based on the classic Nintendo video game, Super Mario Bros. follows heroic plumbers Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo) as they travel to an alternate dimension in order to rescue Luigi’s new ladylove, Daisy (Samantha Mathis). Unbeknownst to them, Daisy is actually a princess in this other world, which runs largely parallel to our own. You see, when a meteor crashed into the earth 65 million years ago, things got split into two. In our dimension, humanity evolved from mammals, and in the other, a kind of humanity evolved from reptiles (namely, the dinosaurs). Daisy’s parents hid her in our dimension to save her from the clutches of the evil Koopa (Dennis Hopper), who has taken things over. Now Koopa wants to capture the princess and use a broken-off piece of the meteor, which is in her possession, to reunite the two dimensions, “de-volve” all humanity back into apes, and rule the world. Naturally, it is up to Mario and Luigi to save the day.
This is not a good movie. It’s got some really good talent (mainly Hoskins and Hopper) and the story is straightforward enough, but the execution leaves a great deal to be desired. To start with, we’ve all played Super Mario Bros. at some point, right? It’s all cute and primary-colored, and there are little mushrooms and even the bad guys are sort of round and funny-looking, right? It’s for kids. The film version? Not so much for kids. The action and language are PG enough, but the look and feel of the movie is something else entirely. It’s really dark and dystopian and weird. Most of the action takes place in the city run, by Koopa, as sort of a police state. It looks like the seedy underbelly of some major metropolis with a serious fungus infestation. Think Blade Runner, or something. Everyone is wearing their crazy, 90s version of futuristic fashions, and there are little dinosaurs running around instead of rats.
Now, the decision to make the movie a bit darker could have been a pretty good one, but for the fact that in 1993, video games were still mostly (please note I said MOSTLY) the entertainment of a younger crowd. As a result, what this movie has something of an identity crisis: it’s a kid’s movie that thinks it’s a grown-up. The dialogue and the action are pretty elementary, and while there are some scary/creepy/icky moments, they’re pretty low-key for the most part. Dennis Hopper doesn’t get to unleash the crazy nearly as much as one would hope for, and Mario and Luigi are plumbers from the Bronx who tell each other things like “Nothing is impossible,” and “I’ve got a feeling about this.” All in all, the look of the movie is its greatest asset, but it doesn’t suit the image of the source material properly.
The cast is somewhat divided as well, in that Hoskins and Hopper (along with Fiona Shaw as Koopa’s evil gal-pal, Lena) do a surprisingly good job with their characters, whereas Leguizamo and Mathis have little to no personality at all and mainly seem to be along for the ride. Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson, as bumbling minions, are supposed to provide some comic relief, but only end up adding to the weirdness of the whole thing. When Koopa gets tired of their incompetence, he has them “evolved” in order to make them smarter. Basically, they’re still bumbling, but their dialogue makes a shift from inane to Shakespearean. Adult audiences may find it funny, but the whole affair would likely go over a younger person’s head, in effect adding to the disconnect.
Finally, the secondary aspects of the storyline are nearly incomprehensible. The fungus that’s taking over the city is somehow a manifestation of the previous ruler, Daisy’s father, and it occasionally holds out a helping tendril, but it’s mainly only mentioned in passing, and a scene between Hopper and a fungus-ridden throne room, clearly designed as exposition, explains nothing at all. The mushrooms that pop up from time to time may have helped to clarify things somewhat had they been utilized more, but again, they’re only mentioned briefly, as though the creators realized they ought to make a few more references to the video game. Another small reference is the appearance of Yoshi, a baby T-Rex, who’s actually quite impressive, effects-wise. Overall the effects here are used sparingly, and thus effectively, but while they add to the interesting environment of the picture, they can’t save it from being a confusing mess.
The key here is that this movie doesn’t know who it wants to be. I actually think that if the producers had gone with a more kid-friendly vibe they might’ve ended up with a better picture. In their attempt to make it more in line with the fantasy ethos of the day (the early 1990s saw the rise of Tim Burton and 1994 would give us The Crow, for example), they lost something inherent in their source material. Mainly, I think that Super Mario Bros. was designed to tap into something gaining in popularity, but it was poorly conceived and executed. It’s a shame, really, given the talent they attracted and the potential for something visually unique and enjoyable based on the Mario world. Maybe Super Mario Bros. was ahead of its time. Maybe with today’s technology Hollywood could produce a better adventure for our plumber friends. It’s just too bad that Bob Hoskins will no longer be available.
*According to John Leguizamo, this is actually how he and Mr. Hoskins got through the experience.