Super Mario Bros was released to theaters in the summer of 1993. Expected in every way to be a blockbuster, the $42 million dollar film was unleashed alongside a full line of action figures, t-shirts, lunch boxes, and trading cards. The film even ended on a cliffhanger, alluding to a future sequel and a video game spin-off. But the film flopped, and all of this went away quietly, only to be a puzzling footnote of my generation’s collective nostalgia. And next to that footnote, we have a question. What the hell was that?
You see, this isn’t even the kind of movie that we’ve seen on TV over the years. It never sunk in or marinated in our brains. We saw it once in 1993 and perhaps once in adulthood when we found it in the five dollar DVD bargain box at Wal-Mart. And we’re still asking, what the hell was that?
I’m going to attempt to break it down in this review, and I’m using the movie trading cards as a guide. Yes, I own a complete set. But not for collecting. For documenting. There is a saying, “those who cannot remember the past will be condemned to repeat it.”
Let’s go back to 1993 for a moment. That was the year I was twelve—the year that happy, idyllic, cherubic childhood slipped away—to be replaced with greasy hormonal awkwardness and bad haircuts. It was the year I began middle school. The kids at the bus stop were tall and mean. One of them even smoked cigarettes.
There would be no more picking out lunchboxes with my favorite character. Brown bags and anonymity were the laws of middle school. No more crayola-colored carpets and posters of Bert and Ernie reading books. No more of the pleasant, smiling teachers who doted on me. The halls of middle school were lined with cold, clanging lockers and posters about the dangers of drugs. The teachers were staid and bloodless. One of them even had a glass eye.
It seemed as though I existed in between two worlds, and many of the films I saw in the theater that year seemed to mirror my predicament. We saw Jurassic Park, and the awe and magic of that film instantly placed me back in my childhood, though it was a world I knew I was leaving behind.
Meanwhile, America’s favorite kid—sweet, lovable Macaulay Culkin—took on a creepy role in The Good Son, where he played this freaking nutso kid. There’s that scene where he drops a dummy off the highway overpass and kills like fifty people. And there’s that scene where his own mother kills him by throwing him over a cliff.
Hold me Free Willy. Hold me tight. The tale of the boy and his whale also hit the theaters in 1993. You knew he was going to make that jump at the end—it was even on the movie poster you before you entered the theater—but you still gripped your seat. Okay, okay. *I* still gripped my seat. SWIM, WILLY, SWIM!
Next there was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, which on the surface, was harmless. But underneath, there was something unsettling about it. I was only twelve, but I was already witnessing the cheapening and cashing out of my childhood. The costumes were terrible, the mouths didn’t move in time with the dialogue, and it had a cheese-ass time travel plot. Despite all of this, I still believe the movie essentially captured the charm of the Turtles. After all, it contains the line, “Help, I’m a turtle and I can’t get up.”
Which brings me to Super Mario Bros. This movie did not simply cheapen my childhood. It utterly pillaged and plundered my childhood. And I’m not overstating it for effect. This was not just a bad movie. It was a toxic slurry of re-envisioned characters, bad writing cliches, and Bob Hoskin’s haunted, empty stare as Mario. If I lingered between the worlds of child and teenager before, this film forever cleaved those worlds apart, leaving me cynical and disillusioned.
The film starred critically-acclaimed actors, Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper, who compete here for best-career-casualty. It was an odd choice for Bob Hoskins to portray a fifty-one year old, balding, and clinically depressed Mario.
On the role, Hoskins would later recount, “The worst thing I ever did? Super Mario Brothers. It was a fuckin’ nightmare. The whole experience was a nightmare. It had a husband-and-wife team directing, whose arrogance had been mistaken for talent. After so many weeks their own agent told them to get off the set! Fuckin’ nightmare. Fuckin’ idiots.”
The film also starred a young John Leguizamo as Luigi, which I’ve always thought was an inspired choice. And I find it fitting that one of the cards depicts Luigi reading GamePro Magazine. What, no Nintendo Power? Well, as you’ll see, the film had absolutely nothing to do with Nintendo.
The story of Super Mario Bros, taken from the original Super Mario Bros Instruction Booklet is that the Mushroom Kingdom has fallen under a spell after being invaded by Koopa. Princess [Peach] Toadstool is the only one who can undo the spell, but she is being held captive by Koopa. Mario, the hero of the story, sets out on a quest to save her. And by now, we all know the next part of the story. The princess is always in another damn castle.
Let’s be objective for a moment and assume the writers didn’t have much to work with based on the Nintendo narrative alone. I’m all for artistic liberty. The plot could have been anything, as long as it involved saving a Princess at the end from an evil lizard king. Imagine a movie rendering of the Mushroom Kingdom. Bouncy mushrooms! Flat tree tops! Clouds with faces! Vines to coin heavens! Imagine live action versions of Bullet Bills, Piranha Plants, and the Hammer Brothers. Imagine all the people living for today.
Now let me begin to cut through the density of what the movie was instead.
A) Complete Bastardizations.
1. Instead, it was 1993, and dinosaurs were THE THING in a post-Jurassic Park world. Instead, we got this convoluted dinosaur plot in which sixty-five million years ago, a meteorite crashed into the Earth, ripping the universe into two parallel dimensions. In the parallel world, a human-like race evolved from dinosaurs rather than the mammalian ancestry of true humans.
2. And it’s almost as if they hastily rewrote the script at the last minute to incorporate the dinosaurs. There was no Mushroom Kingdom. Instead, there was Dinohattan. And the worst part is, the name Dinohattan wasn’t even used in the film itself. It only appears in related media and on the back of the film’s packaging. Suspicious.
3. King Koopa is a human. Played by Dennis Hopper sans eyebrows.
4. In the video games, Koopa’s name had already been changed to Bowser by 1993, but it really doesn’t matter, because seriously, why doesn’t he have eyebrows?
5. Speaking of names, the movie goes ahead and takes the liberty by establishing that Mario and Luigi’s last name is also Mario. Nintendo, however, has stated that Mario has no last name.
6. Goombas, the squishy brown walking mushroom things in the games, are now giant dinosaurs with tiny heads who wear suits.
7. Also, Yoshi is now an adorable miniature pet Raptor.
8. And Toad is some sort of post-apocalyptic punk rocker. Trivia: the last movie the actor appeared in was a film called Buttcrack in 1998. He appeared as Preacher Man Bob.
9. What the fuck ever.
10. In the movie, we have Princess Daisy who plays Luigi’s girlfriend. That’s fine, because Princess Daisy appeared in the Game Boy game, Super Mario Land. But where is Princess Peach, Mario’s girlfriend? She’s not here. Instead, there’s this generic Italian woman, Daniella.
11. And rounding out the main female characters is Lena. Who the hell is Lena? No idea.
B. Somehow Managed To Include Every Last All Time Bad Writing Movie Cliche
1. The pendant. It seems like every bad movie involves a pendant that contains magic powers that must be returned to its owner. Here, it’s only used as a MacGuffin to start the plot, and by the end of the movie, the pendant is largely forgotten.
2. Breaking a huge fall in a dumpster. Always happens in the movies. (Incidentally, last week in the New York snowstorm, a 26-year-old man jumped from the ninth floor of a Manhattan building. But in a twist of fate, the man was saved by a mound of uncollected trash. Crazy.)
3. A harmless-looking frail old lady whips out an Uzi. Seen this before.
5. Side note: If a script absolutely must call for a monkey, have you ever noticed that good films manage to get those adorable little Capuchin monkeys? Bad films, it seems, always settle for a chimp.
6. Group dance sequence! They’re doing the “Dactyl,” which the movie clearly hopes would become a Thing. It never did.
7. White guy rap sequence! Which, according to the back of the card, actually includes the lyrics, “Koopa, the party poopa.” Yes.
8. Bonus points if your white guy rappers also happen to be hapless, bungling henchmen.
9. Vague Mafia-sounding evil corporation. In this case, Scapelli.
10. Bertha. Clearly, the film’s best character. And if you thought she was simply standing in as the film’s need for a caricature of a large sassy black woman with a ‘tude—you would be wrong. Because Bertha is actually based on the huge red fish that chases Mario in the underwater levels in the game.
11. Wait, what?
12. Damn it, I REALLY wish I didn’t waste five bucks on the DVD at Wal-Mart.
13. Hold me, Free Willy. Hold me tight.