Written by: Parker Bennett, Terry Runté and Ed Solomon
Directed by: Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel
Famed actors Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper star as Mario, Luigi and Bowser in an adaptation of a whimsical, sort-of-narratively-coherent video game: sounds intriguing, right? Unfortunately, the live action Mario film was panned for its lack of similarity to its source material. While I certainly had this reaction myself there’s nonetheless a way in which the film and the video games its based upon have a similar spirit.
Mario video games features the titular Italian(-American(?)) plumber, jumping around, overcoming hostile mushrooms (“goombas”) and turtles (“koopa troopas”) in order to rescue a princess from a turtle-dragon hybrid (King (Bowser of the) Koopa). In other words, they are an action series, yet have the trappings of a quirky comedy.
The same is true of the Super Mario Brothers movie. It shares the video game’s titular characters, two plumbers, Mario and Luigi. Mario is gruff but affectionate and gets annoyed at everyday mundanities like traffic. Luigi is younger and a bit naïve and starry eyed. This combination of personas leads the pair to engage in corny exchanges, most notably when Luigi, in a wonderfully-misplaced Disney fashion, tries to tell Mario “nothing is impossible.” Corny and odd exchanges between various characters: humans, dinosaurs, and “mushrooms” (who look more like dinosaurs) are in fact a key element of the movie, whether it’s King Koopa proclaiming his love for mud, or Princess Daisy (Samantha Mathis–Princess Peach does not feature in the movie for some reason) explaining to a goomba that she is a vegetarian. Simply put, all this sappiness, despite the gritty, sombre context in which the film takes place, makes it as whimsical as the source material.
Nonetheless, as with the video games, the movie has an overall action-oriented feel. When Mario, Luigi and Daisy are brought into Dinohattan (the closest thing the film offers to The Mushroom Kingdom) they are instantly on the run: enemies of a dictatorship where plumbers are loathed. Granted, lots of the action scenes have humorous premises: the distraction of goombas, the anthropomorphization of seemingly non anthropomorphic mushrooms and, the film’s most diabolical element “de-evolution.”
So why did the film not win over critics? I would argue one of its problems comes from its tonal confusion. Comedy is all about delivery, and while its well known that timing is important for the delivery of a joke, the Super Mario Bros. movie is evidence that aesthetic is as well. Darkness and car chases simply do not set one up to laugh: one instead prepares for some sort of dystopian creativity. When what gets instead is a whimsical world with limited logical coherence, one can be left underwhelmed. If the film’s creators had made just a few more tweaks to make the film capture more of the game’s 8-bit joys: more jumping, goofy music, allowing Mario and Luigi to wear their signature red and green for the duration of the film, etc. the film’s other whimsical elements might have stood out more and been more comedically effective.
That all said, it’s hard for me to say which of the film’s modifications of the games were justified and which were not. The reimagination of goombas struck me as a good idea, but felt like a disappointment in the context of the film where other similarities to the games were few and far between. Similarly, I had no problem with the reimagining of koopa troopas, though I don’t understand why they couldn’t simply have been given turtle shells. The reimagined Yoshi was underused, but was a pleasant surprise, and the reimagined Toad (Mojo Nixon) was interesting, though again, frustrating in a film that had so little else from the video game to cling on to.
Super Mario Bros. may sound like a bad movie to those who rigedly refuse to appreciate the silly: those who do not want to see a plumber fight mushrooms as reptilians. The actual disappointment of the movie, however, is that it doesn’t fulfill that promise. It pits a plumber against sinister humanoids (Hopper’s Koopa, Fiona Shaw as Lena, a character original to the movie, and Izzy and Spike (Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson)) who are of dinosaur descent but offer no pizzaz in that they don’t actually resemble dinosaurs. The film’s corny charm is also undermined by the writers’ indecisiveness about who the film’s protagonist should be. While Mario is the ultimate hero, his potential as a non-conventional protagonist goes underdeveloped, as, for much of the film, he comes across as Luigi’s sidekick. Luigi meanwhile, is a far more conventional hero, though John Leguizamo’s Sid-the-Sloth traits do give Luigi some necessary, naive color (apparently Tom Hanks had been considered for the role, which would have made the movie an even cooler novelty, but also stripped the role of even more of its charm).
My hope in watching Super Mario Bros. was that I would see things fundamentally differently than the killjoy critics from back in the day. Unfortunately, that was not the case. At the same time, I would still encourage viewers to give this film a try. Perhaps it won’t be all you hope the first time, but once you get to know its quirks a bit, it may very well be the kind of thing you like to talk along with at a midnight screening.