Revisiting the Reviled – Super Mario Bros. Is a Downward Trendsetter

GameStop, Inc.

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Not all trailblazers are good. Prior to 1993’s Super Mario Bros., there had never been a major motion picture based upon a video game. Super Mario Bros. would set the standard for nearly all video game movies that followed – it was a commercial and critical bob-omb. As the first fiasco in a burgeoning subgenre, Super Mario Bros. is a schizophrenic mess of a film – all of the behind the scenes creative difference show themselves onscreen. In a split-second the film will transform from fluff intended for toddlers to a dark, dystopian sci-fi film designed for a more mature audience.

The basic problem concerning video games movies has never really evolved. It’s always been about story, or lack thereof. Even as games have grown more ambitious in their storylines, gameplay will always trump story. If a game is fun and involving, we’ll easily ignore crummy characters in a shoddy story and continue playing. It’s not like the children of the ‘80s played Super Mario Bros. for its fantastical story about plumbers transported into the hallucinatory psyche of a Japanese guy, we played it because it came with the system and was a fun game.

So how does one adapt a game like Super Mario Bros. for the big screen? To this day, nobody knows for sure. Having carved out a reputation as the director of awards-bait prestige pictures, two-time Oscar nominee Roland Joffé secured the film rights for the characters from Nintendo. After a search that included Harold Ramis, Joffé hired the husband and wife directing team of Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton. Before heading into production there were no less than 6 wildly different scripts commissioned. The final script, credited to Ed Solomon, Parker Bennett and Terry Runté, would be constantly tinkered with during production.

The product of 1,000 monkeys working on 1,000 typewriters this is not. To explain all of the plot developments would send me into a slow, Lovecraftian descent into madness, so forgive me for keeping this relatively brief. 65 million years ago, a meteorite crashed into the Earth killing all the dinosaurs. Only the dinosaurs didn’t die, they were transported to another dimension where, through some evolutionary perversion, they evolved into human-like creatures. This dimension is ruled by King Koopa (Dennis Hopper), who seized control when he staged a coup and killed the benevolent monarch who ruled over Dinohattan. In order to merge the two dimensions and rule over everything everywhere, Koopa must obtain a piece of the meteorite which is in the possession of the King’s secret daughter, Princess Daisy (Samantha Mathis), who was raised in Brooklyn. Eventually, Daisy meets two hapless plumbers trying to eke out a living in Brooklyn, Mario & Luigi (Bob Hoskins & John Leguizamo). While the two plumbers are dealing with a subterranean plumbing emergency, Daisy is kidnapped by Koopa’s goons, Iggy & Spike (Fisher Stevens & Richard Edson). Now the fate of both worlds rest in the hands of two plumbers.

For illustrative purposes, let’s compare Super Mario Bros. to Edge of Tomorrow (which I called the greatest video game movie ever). Both films feature outlandish premises, but what separates the two is how they treat these premises. Edge of Tomorrow explains its premise quickly and concisely, rarely dwelling on exposition. On the other hand, Super Mario Bros. keeps repeating its asinine premise, reminding us at every turn that this film’s script was possibly constructed following a huffing session gone awry.

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“DON’T LOOK AT ME!”

Repeating the film’s bleak premise was likely an addition for the younger viewers, as evidenced by the film’s completely unnecessary opening narration performed by the voice of Homer Simpson, Dan Castellaneta. The addition of exposition for kiddies still doesn’t negate the more mature themes that are prevalent in the dystopia known as Dinohattan, all of which are embodied by Hopper’s King Koopa. It’s like there was decision to have Hopper recreate his iconic role as Frank Booth from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet for a kid’s movie. In one particularly unnerving scene, Koopa is expressing his sexual interest in Princess Daisy, exposing his lizard tongue in a creepy, Gene Simmons-like manner. I feared that if the scene ran any longer we’d see Koopa with an oxygen mask screaming, “Mommy!”

Much in the same manner that Hopper is playing off an iconic role, the same goes for Bob Hoskins’ Mario who feels like an extension of his character from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Both Eddie Valliant and Mario reject fantasy for a more grounded worldview, but embrace fantasy as it becomes necessary. Even in a doomed and dismal project as Super Mario Bros., the late, great Hoskins proves that he never took a role for granted. Conversely, John Leguizamo as Luigi proves that he is an actor best taken in small doses. His performance does little to assuage the rumors that he was drunk during filming.

Alcoholic indulgence wasn’t the only thing affecting the cast’s performances. As Koopa’s hapless henchmen, Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson were allowed to improvise their roles, drastically altering their characters’ purpose in the film. The two prominent female characters, Princess Daisy and Lena (Fiona Shaw), are nothing more than outdated character archetypes – Daisy being the damsel in distress and Lena being the jealous, manipulating, scornful woman.

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It’s easy to see how the film left a sour taste in the mouths of devotees to the video game. Little, if anything, resembles what became so familiar to so many. In the game, Goombas look like Hershey’s Kisses with feet. In the film, Goombas are strikingly tall creatures with incredibly shrunken heads – despite the changes in design, the film’s Goombas do look great. Toad, a miniature mushroom man, is played by rockabilly oddity Mojo Nixon and looks like a generic punk rocker, only appearing for maybe 5 minutes before he is transformed into a Goomba. If the filmmakers named the character anything but Toad, a lot of grievances would be silenced. The iconic power-ups from the game, mushrooms, are morphed into the reincarnation of the slain king – a helpful, sentient fungus. A cute cartoon dinosaur in the games, Yoshi takes the form of an animatronic dinosaur that was likely rejected by Spielberg during pre-production of Jurassic Park. The pipes that transport Mario & Luigi throughout the game provide the film with one of its most useless, uninventive sequences. Attempting to elude a gaggle of Goombas, Mario and company slide down a pipe like it was a new X-Games event, X-treme Sledding.

The film glosses over, changes, or ignores other iconic elements from the game – fire flowers, jumping without the aid of super-powered boots, mystery boxes – but none is as egregious as the film’s misuse of music. Regardless of personal tastes, the music from Super Mario Bros. is instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up in the ‘80s or ‘90s. It transcends genre and transports us to moments from our youth. For one reason or another the filmmakers opted for a light, whimsical score by Alan Silvestri that sounds like it was plagiarized from Danny Elfman’s score for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. The sounds and images feel like they’re from two vastly different films. But even if the filmmakers chose to discard the iconic sounds from the game, they could at least find music that would fit the feel of the film. Even with the world being separated in to two dimension 65 million years prior, Dinohattan does have crummy cover bands playing Roxy Music’s Love is the Drug in its nightclubs. Nothing is quite as misleading as the Devo Chamber, a device Koopa uses to devolve his enemies, which has nothing to do with Devo. A soundtrack consisting solely of the worst ever Devo tracks would present a significant upgrade over the flute-driven soundtrack of whimsy.

Had Super Mario Bros. not been based upon an iconic game or didn’t suffer from weird tonal shifts, it could’ve been a weird, interesting work. As it stands, however, it is not. The film was an infamous box office bob-omb, destroying the directing careers of Jankel & Morton, neither has directed another feature since. Hoskins, Hopper, and Leguizamo have all said publicly disparaging things about the film and its directors. Whether or not future video game adaptations such as World of Warcraft or Metal Gear Solid will buck the trend of mediocrity remains to be seen. What we do know is that it all started with Super Mario Bros. As I said earlier, not all trailblazers are good.

 

The inaugural induction into the Revisiting the Reviled Hall of Fame: Mark Goldblatt

Goldblatt-Hall-of-Fame

Super Mario Bros. is the third straight entry in Revisiting the Reviled that features work by Mark Goldblatt – director of The Punisher and editor of X-Men: The Last Stand and Super Mario Bros. Which is not to say that Goldblatt is a hack. Goldblatt served as editor on fine films such as The Terminator, The Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Starship Troopers, and The Last Boy Scout. Congratulations(?), Mark Goldblatt.

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