Super Mario Bros. (film)
Hollywood Pictures, Lightmotive/Allied Filmmakers, Cinergi Productions, Nintendo
For the 6 month anniversary of this here retro gaming blog, I've decided to select an item that would be a bit of a challenge, both in the content itself and in the medium. I told myself after the Road Rash reviews I'd back off the reviews for a little bit since I'd been churning them out pretty frequently, but I felt such an occasion demanded one.
Nowadays, videogame films have a rough reputation. It's widely assumed, even in 2017, that a movie based on a specific videogame will have low standards and will somehow struggle to meet those low standards. Now, there are exceptions; games based on videogames in general seem to do alright nowadays. “Wreck-It Ralph”, “Tron”, and “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” are all good/great films in my humble opinion (one of those specifically I intend on reviewing at some point in time). But for the most part, videogame films as a whole are seen as being somewhere between “not that good” and “flat out horrible”.
However, when Super Mario Bros. released in theaters in 1993, there was no broad expectation or stigma for videogame films. And the simple reason for that was...well...there weren't any videogame films! Sure, there had been TV series referencing videogames, with Mario himself having a couple of cartoon series at this point in time. But a major motion picture based on a single videogame had never been done. Because of this, the novel concept of a hit videogame becoming a motion picture sounded monumental.
But once the movie was released, the film was considered a critical and financial flop. Most of the (few) moviegoers that saw the film hated it. The development hell this film went through is something I won't spend much time on here, both in the interest of time and staying on-track (The Gaming Historian and the book “Console Wars” do a much better job than I possibly could of describing it anyway). But pretty much everyone involved with production, from the actors to staff, even Nintendo themselves are on-record as knowing they had a stinker on their hands, and just hoped the idea of a “Super Mario Bros.” movie would be enough to make the film a financial hit based on name recognition alone.
I remember seeing the ads when I was younger and finding the prospect of a “Super Mario Bros.” film interesting. However, there were a couple of major flaws in my little-kid mind. This film came out in the height of my Sega fanboy days. I mean, I liked the Mario games I played and watched my family play when I was little, but c'mon. I was a loud and proud Genesis advocate and would laugh in the face of any fool with the gall to tell me any Mario game was on the same level of excellence of Sonic The Hedgehog 2. On top of that, the whole film just looked so “dark” and “gritty”. I was still a 6 year old boy in 1993, and those kind of things just looked boring to me. I wanted bright colors and familiar landmarks. This just looked like the whole film took place in some nasty city street, a location no Mario game before had ever visited. Why would 6-year old me want to watch a “dark” take on a videogame hero that I had decided was “old news” in the light of Sonic the Hedgehog?
And to this day, I've never really given this film a true “no breaks” watch. I've heard many reviewers say the film sucked, and talk up how much of a black mark it is on Nintendo's history and videogame history altogether. And while the last point is a different argument for a different day, I believe it's flawed to view this movie as if it's still 1993, as if you don't know the reputation this film and videogame films in general have.
Before the proper film even starts, we get a series of logos set to a variation of the Super Mario Bros. 1 theme. It seems like a real mistake to me that this is the only instance the song is played. There are a few other sound cues throughout the movie that serve to wink-and-nod at the games (specifically the first SMB game), but that's about it. They don't even play the jingle again or sample it in the film's music. After that, we get this strange (both in the quality of animation and in what's actually going on) animated bit that sets the stage for the story.
Gotta give the CD-I credit. Back in 1993 this level of animation on a game console was cutting-edge...
...huh? What do you mean this is from a film?...like a theatrical one? Shut up!
Shigeru Miyamoto was once quoted in an Edge Magazine interview, saying he believed the greatest flaw of the film was that "...the movie may have tried to get a little too close to what the Mario Bros. video games were. And in that sense, it became a movie that was about a video game, rather than being an entertaining movie in and of itself". I stumbled upon this quote after watching the film, and to be honest, I have no idea where he comes to that conclusion. Far be it from me to challenge the word of Mario's creator in regards to something involving Mario, but I feel like they took liberties to the source material early, often, and powerfully. I'll give other examples as I go on of these liberties, but just in the sound alone, it seems pretty clear to me they wanted to separate this film from the games as much as they could get away with, regardless of how much of a detriment that might be.
The Mario Bros. are played by two rather different actors. Bob Hoskins played Mario, and a fairly-unknown at-the-time John Leguizamo played Luigi. Hoskins was most well known by movie-going audiences (at least, the audience that would have been most likely to have seen this film) as Eddie Valiant, a past-his-prime investigator in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, and the age difference between him and Leguizamo's Luigi is pretty jarring. Sure, you can have older and younger brothers (and yes, they do make reference to being actual brothers, despite some lines of dialogue hinting at them being father and son), but Hoskins' Mario looks like he was 20-30 years on Leguizamo's Luigi. Considering a quick IMDB search has their birthdays being about 22 years apart, it's kindof hard to believe they're true-to-blood brothers. Would it have killed them to have made Hoskins look younger somehow, or Leguizamo older?
In fact, one thing that stuck out to me in this film, is that it seems to mostly be about Luigi. Luigi seems to do most of the talking, Luigi has the love interest in Princess Daisy (portrayed as an archaeologist who's unaware of her royal heritage), Luigi is the one who grows the most in the film, and there's even moments where Luigi is more brave than Mario, a strong contrast from the Luigi that's portrayed by Nintendo these days as not being so courageous. One particular scene involving them jumping a gap inside King Koopa's lair comes to mind, where Luigi attempts to jump right across, and only after goading Mario does the namesake brother try to make the leap. It's so strange to see Mario have to be the one convinced to take action. This is a far cry from the image of Mario Nintendo had established through the games. This isn't a knock on Hoskins, but on an awfully written and conceived script, the dagger this film ultimately falls on.
As a side note, it's interesting to observe Luigi's fascination with the supernatural in this film, well before Nintendo established that aspect of him through their games. It almost makes it feel like Luigi is the true hero of this film as opposed to Mario. If Mario didn't get the final face-off with King Koopa (played by Dennis Hopper, and we'll be getting to him quickly), it'd be hard not to argue that Luigi is the hero and Mario is the sidekick here. In fact, it's flat out jarring that Mario is the one who is less brave and is skeptical of everything. They try to play this off as him being more logical, but it falls flat.
Both of their performances throughout the film are decent enough. Despite them recalling they had a hard time with the film and oftentimes drank during shoots, they deliver a decent performance. It's not oscar-worthy by any means, but Hoskins carries a lame script (infamous for having been re-written and revised a ridiculous number of times) as well as an actor of his caliber could, even though Luigi seems to have more to say and do. Leguizamo also does a decent enough job too. Sometimes he gets a little too cheery and seems unaware and naive to a degree that borders on idiocy, but again, that comes more from the script than Leguizamo's performance. Both of these actors looked unfavorably in their performances long after the film was done, but I didn't think they were offensively bad. In fact, from Daisy to Koopa's underlings, even some of the various bit-players throughout, I don't think anyone delivers a memorable performance, but isn't truly bad neither. A movie meant mostly for kids (though, considering the atmosphere, it's obviously trying to reach a tween/teen demographic) isn't likely to deliver anything Oscar worthy. The only truly bad performance belongs to Toad (a street musician who'd be totally indistinguishable as its videogame counterpart if he wasn't called by name). He delivers each line with such a deadpan delivery that he sounds like he'd be right at home in a House of the Dead game.
Dennis Hopper plays King Koopa and gives what I feel is the best performance in the film. Hopper's Koopa is a total slimeball and a tyrant. His presence carries a swagger, arrogance, and attitude that make him come off as someone that totally has a rough side that nobody can hang with (a rough side that comes out near the end of the film). He delivers his lines with a cheesy panache that serves a film like this well...at least, it would if the film wasn't trying to be so dark and serious all the time.
The vast majority of the film takes place in “Dinohattan”, a King Koopa-ruled offshoot of Manhattan that sits on the other side of a dimensional portal that was left from the meteorite that struck the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs (...no, really). A dark, seedy, gritty city that is a STRONG contrast to the environments in the Mario Bros. games. And when I say that the “vast majority of the film takes place” here, I mean the entire movie, save the first 15-20 minutes, a very small pocket of time near the end, and the last few minutes. And never is there any color or any beauty in the world. It's a dystopian landscape filled with busted up cars, citizens dressed poorly (who are supposed to be evolved from dinosaurs but mostly share no visual representation of such a trait), building interiors that look urban and machine-filled, all leaving a very dark, cold setting for this film. Now, I'm not the kind of guy that thinks all of his videogames need to be sunshine and rainbows and cotton-candy clouds. But the game series itself (while still in its infancy at the time compared to where it is today) had already established a pretty happy setting, save for a few exceptions such as a castle or a cave.
Yes, that is Yoshi. Yes, that's a Goomba standing about as tall as Andre the Giant. Yes, they are both that ugly. And yes, this film was released mere weeks before "Jurassic Park" .
The settings aren't the only liberties taken with things in this film. There are references to other Mario related items in the film, but they often are just on storefronts. In fact, the “Thwomp” enemy that you used to have to run past to keep from getting flattened, is now the name of a pair of “jet boots” that the characters use to get around, with the “Bullet Bills” serving as their source of energy. These seem to replace the games' flying items such as the tanooki tail and the cape (though they seem to change functions from just allowing long jumps to “flying” at will). In fact, the character that introduces this item is “Big Bertha”, named after the big red fish that tries to eat Mario and Luigi in Super Mario Bros. 3. However, the character is now a large woman who serves as a club bouncer, and has no connection to water or even wanting to defeat the Mario Bros. On top of that, King Koopa is seen using a flamethrower instead of shooting fire himself, and a weapon often seen in the film, a re-painted SNES Super Scope dubbed the “De-Evolve Ray” (not “devolve”, “de-evolve”...this angers the English graduate in me), seems to replace any projectile weapons.
Time has NOT been nice to the de-evolving scenes in this film.
So that's really all I have to say without spoiling a bunch of the film. In the end, this film just seems like it has a real identity crisis. It's trying so hard to be a Super Mario Bros. film for an older demographic. I feel like it doubts the timelessness of a franchise like the Super Mario Bros. Sure, you can't be overly obnoxiously cute, but I feel like an animated film would've done SO much better than this confused live-action mess.
But, to be honest, I don't find it to be an absolutely terrible film. I know that sounds like a very blasphemous thing to say, but it's true. In fact, it reminds me a bunch of E.T. on the Atari 2600. Set aside the history of the film, set aside the fact it was a financial flop, set aside its place in history, set aside the hype and hooplah, and watch it simply in the vacuum of being a Super Mario Bros. film. When you do that, you're left with something that is certainly far from good, and maybe not even an OK film, but the performances from the talented trio of Hoskins, Leguizamo, and Hopper keep this barn from completely collapsing. There are much worse videogame-to-film adaptations than this. My friend Sam gave me this as somewhat of a “gift” he found at a garage sale about a month ago (as I write this), and hey, it's worth keeping in that regard, and I'm glad I got to watch it, if only to sate my curiosity for this film. If you find this for just a couple of bucks, or see it available to rent at a Vintage Stock or some other store, it's worth picking up if you've not experienced it.
It's a film I feel deserves to be seen once, with all the pre-conceived notions set aside. And I know full well some might do this and still decide the film sucks, and that's fine by me. It's not great, not good, OK is a stretch, but it's harmless to me, and is worth watching once if you haven't seen it or can't remember. But I wouldn't give it any more of a consideration than that. And I certainly wouldn't drop coin on the steelbook Blu-Ray that was recently released, unless you're specifically collecting for Mario related items (and even then, I'd hesitate a bit).
RATING – 2 out of 5