Super Mario Bros the Movie: Genuine Failure or Misunderstood Classic?

super mario bros

Hey kids, what do you get when you take an iconic video game universe and combine it with a healthy dose of diminished expectations? Answer: a motion picture that will forever be remembered in absolute infamy.  A commercial and critical failure, Super Mario Bros baffled audiences everywhere, opting for a dark and dingy approach over the video game’s cheerful tone and bright color palette.  Every detail was given a confusing sci-fi explanation, completely forgoing any chance of high fantasy (a genre that Mario games today completely embrace).  To make matters even worse, animal characters from the game series were depicted as humanoid in the movie.  Simply put, Super Mario Bros. didn’t really look (or feel) anything like its source material.

Super Mario Bros. is considered by many as one of the worst movies of all time. But does it really deserve such a harsh title? For the millennial crowd, suggesting otherwise may bring forth ridicule and verbal lashing–hell, you could lose a friend over it–but I’m going to argue that Super Mario Bros. deserves, at the very least, a chance to redeem itself now that it has crossed the 20-year mark. It disappointed us when we were children, but the times have a-changed.  Maybe–just maybeSuper Mario Bros. isn’t as bad as we remember it to be, now the the initial shock of disappointment has faded away.

Let’s take a step back and think about the particular game series we’re going to be talking about: Super Mario Bros.  It’s certainly a classic franchise–one that lives on today, but I didn’t need to tell you that. The Mario we have now is fully realized character, complete with cartoon enthusiasm and a highly emphasized italian accent.  Ask any gamer to describe him and his fantastical world, and they’ll be explaining the difference between a Goomba and a Shy Guy faster than you can say “Mushroom Kingdom.”

But in 1993, Mario was nothing more than an object that you controlled via gamepad.  Sure, the games had plenty of quirk, but Mario didn’t really exist beyond his video game world. And yes, the Super Mario Bros Super Show did exist before our pipe-dwelling hero made his appearance on the silver screen, but it was just your everyday Saturday-morning affair, bringing nothing in the way of mythos expansion or cohesive narrative structure.  So when it came time for a live-action Super Mario Bros. movie, artistic liberties weren’t only provided–they were downright necessary.  Which brings us to our first point…

Several casting choices in Super Mario Bros. were actually pretty good

Bob Hoskins as Mario

Bob Hoskins looked exactly like Mario

Bob Hoskins looked like Mario. He really did! Remember, this was a live-action movie from the early 1990s–they didn’t have motion capture technology to play with back then. If your movie required a short, round plumber, then you needed to cast an effective human equivalent. Hoskins totally fit the bill, and thanks to fantastic acting chops and an impeccable Brooklyn accent (the late, great thespian was British), he made Mario believable. Sure, his interpretation was a little crabbier than one would expect from a cheerful video game character, but it was undoubtedly authentic. Have you ever met a plumber who wasn’t at least a little cranky? As far as real-world exposition goes, Hoskins was spot-on.

John Leguizamo as Luigi

John Leguizamo looks nothing like Luigi

John Leguizamo, on the other hand, looks absolutely nothing like Luigi. But–and I’m probably being too generous here–he did an admirable job given the hokey script.  Think about it: Luigi didn’t really have a voice in 1993. He didn’t have a personality yet.  The filmmakers behind Super Mario Bros. had to work with the thin source material they were given, and in turn crafted Luigi as a bumbling comic relief character.  Say what you will about such decisions, but Leguizamo played it straight, and the chemistry he shared with Hoskins’ Mario made it easy to believe that these two buffoons were actually brothers.  This probably had a lot to do with the fact that the two actors bonded as drinking-buddies on set, but that’s the beauty of movie magic: there’s always something behind the story.

Everyone else? Well, it’s a hit and miss affair.  Dennis Hopper completely hammed it up as President (not king, mind you) Koopa.  His role is not memorable in the slightest, and Hopper’s apparent on-set boredom translates as such on the screen.  We can also argue that his Koopa was completely inauthentic–instead of portraying him as a hulking turtle-monster (as he is in the video games), Hopper’s Koopa is a sleazy humanoid politician.

Dennis Hopper as Koopa

Dennis Hopper sporting a Bowser-esque hairdo

To be fair though, the limitations of the time didn’t really allow for Avatar-esque CGI realism, so for what it’s worth, they probably did the best they could.  And hey, these technical limitations did allow for some quasi-ingenius artistic choices when it came to hairstyling. Take, for example, the roles of Iggy and Spike, two turtle-monsters from the game also given the humanoid treatment for this movie.  Yes, they’re probably the most obnoxious characters in Super Mario Bros, but damn it if their haircuts don’t bear a somewhat passing resemblance to their video-game likenesses. And giving Toad–another shouldn’t-be-human character–a mushroom-like buzzcut? It’s so stupid that it almost works.

Most of the special effects in Super Mario Bros. still hold up

If the Transformers films taught us anything, it’s that great special effects can’t make a crappy movie decent.  But, on the flip side, there are times when special effects have made older, excellent movies feel dated and cheesy (Dark City, anyone?).

Believe it or not, Super Mario Bros. doesn’t actually have this problem.  Though the film was made over two decades ago, it features special effects that still hold up today.  This is made possible thanks to abundance of practical effects–a lost art in today’s everything-CGI movie world.  Even the puppets look good in Super Mario Bros, despite the fact that the goombas from the film look nothing like the goombas from the games.

Goomba from Super Mario Bros.

Oh hi, I’m a Goomba

Yoshi from Super Mario Bros.

Against all odds, Yoshi looks like a Yoshi.

Several sci-fi elements in Super Mario Bros. are kind of interesting

Let’s be honest–nobody expected Super Mario Bros. to be a science fiction outing, and yet, that’s exactly what it is.  Most people will probably argue that the inclusion of alternate dimensions was overkill–this writer included–but it’s hard to deny the fact that, as an explanation for the weirdness, it works.

Take, for example, the rocket boots that allow Mario and Luigi to propel themselves above all the ruckus. It’s a total nod towards the jumping mechanics from the video games, and it allows a reasonable explanation as to how our heroes can lift themselves so high.

Something else: the concept of a “Mushroom Kingdom” as a metropolitan city overrun by fungus.  Again, not exactly what fans of the games were expecting, but you can’t knock them for being consistent in their pseudo-realism.

Granted, the actual science behind most (or all) of Super Mario Bros. is incredibly stupid and misguided. Suggesting that dinosaurs evolved into humanoid creatures is a complete stretch, and making the claim that humans can be de-evolved into chimpanzees is absolutely incorrect.  The entire concept of “de-evolution” is ludicrous to begin with.  The writers behind Super Mario Bros. clearly had no idea as to what evolution really is.  And don’t get me started on sole asteroid piece that acts as a “key” between the two alternate dimensions.  But to nitpick real-world science in a movie like this is a futile exercise.  Super Mario Bros. creates its own rules, and it sticks by them well enough to establish a decent suspension of disbelief.  Almost all sci-fi movies have done this in the past, do it today, and will do it in the future.  It’s part of the genre, friends.

Parts of Super Mario Bros. are actually a little inspired

bob-omb from Super Mario Bros.

This is what a real-lfe Bob-omb looks like

It’s impossible to suggest that, as a whole, Super Mario Bros. is a good movie.  It really isn’t.  Take it in bits and pieces, though, and there are parts in this film that are actually decent–entertaining, even.  The latter half of Super Mario Bros. is a jumbled mess, but the first hour has moments of movie magic that are genuinely clever.

Going back to the sci-fi explanations for everything–the discovery of a reptilian alternate dimension isn’t quite awe-inspiring, but it’s initially interesting.  And if you take the “what-if?” speculation introduced in the very beginning of Super Mario Bros with a grain of salt, one may even call it intriguing.

Characterizations also plays a big role when considering the quality of the set-up phase in Super Mario Bros.  Mario and Luigi are introduced as regular Joes; there’s nothing about them that is inherently special.  Our hapless heroes stumble across this adventure completely by accident, a refreshing departure from “chosen one” narrative structure that tends to plague sci-fi movies directed towards the younger demographic.  The titular characters are totally relatable, and it’s fun watching how they react to the oddities presented in the first part of this movie.

Misunderstood Classic or Genuine Failure?

super mario bros

“So much for that sequel, eh Mario?”

So what is it?  Is Super Mario Bros. the disaster we all remember, or is it lost classic that truly deserves a second chance?

The answer: neither.  As mentioned earlier, there is no alternate dimension where Super Mario Bros. is a good movie.  It has a nonsensical, confusing script, and it retains none of the source material’s classic charm.  This Mario film is so far removed from the Mario games that it really has no decent reason to exist.

But, in many ways, Super Mario Bros. is slightly ingenious, and least in parts.

It’s a controversial stance, to be sure, but if you really think about it, maybe we’re just jaded when it comes to movies like Super Mario Bros.  Video game movie adaptations almost always get a bad rap, after all. Based on what we’ve been given thus far, it’s hard not to see why–Tomb Raider and Doom, anyone? At this point, movies based off of games are relatively pointless–thanks to artistic and technical advances from these past few console generations, games that have stories worth telling provide them within the games themselves.

This hasn’t always been the case, though.  Once upon a time, video games didn’t really have narratives. What little stories they told were detailed in instruction manuals, and everything else was left up to the imagination–and that’s exactly what Super Mario Bros. is: someone’s imaginative interpretation of the Mario universe.  The filmmakers behind this film did what they could with what little they had, and the end result is about as good as a Mario Bros. movie could be in 1993.  Whether or not this is a good thing is completely up in the air.

If you have never seen Super Mario Bros., then maybe you owe it to yourself to give it a try.  As long as you keep your expectations low, there’s a chance it’ll provide a decent level of entertainment.  For everyone else, play the games instead.  They’re so much better, and this movie really isn’t worth a second viewing.  It may not be as bad as you remember, but it certainly isn’t good.

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