Sure, Super Mario Bros. is most famous for being a colossal trainwreck, but video game movies hadn’t been done before 1993; it was trying to break new ground. The film wanted to be for all audiences, but never really found a single one to latch onto — other than in people’s living rooms as they got friends together to laugh at it (something I did earlier this year). It’s a bad movie, but what it lacks in sensible storytelling, it makes up for in ambition — even if that ambition is misplaced and very poorly executed.
Super Mario Bros. takes the popular video game characters of Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo) and thrusts them in a plot involving a kidnapped princess and a plan to have dinosaurs take over the entire planet. This plan is of course led by King Koopa (played by Dennis Hopper), a dinosaur that was forced to live in an alternate dimension after a meteor hit Earth 65 million years ago and split his species and humans apart. Up until the last it, this sounds relatively close to a Mario story, doesn’t it? There are plenty of versions of earlier screenplays where that alternate dimension dinosaur stuff isn’t even in the movie, and it’s by far the part that immediately throws people off — a Rocky Morton (co-director of the film with Annabel Jankel) idea that has literally nothing to do with the games.
I’m not going to sit here and situate blame on everyone involved in the film, or even the directors. Yes, they had an idea for a darker movie, one which would take the franchise in a much more serious direction. The movie’s main setting of Dinohattan is very evocative of Blade Runner’s dystopic Los Angeles, and though the city has a lot going on with tiny references to the game every now and then, it also feels nothing like anywhere explored in the Mario games. The basic plot might seem familiar, but even still, the roles of Mario and Luigi feel different. Luigi winds up being the real hero of the story, while Mario is the only one with any semblance of a character arc, though very minor in impact.
None of this is to say that Super Mario Bros. ever had to be like the games. I think what has given the film a lot of its charm is that it bears very little resemblance to its source material. It feels like its own weird thing, created with a specific audience in mind, but with no real vision of how to execute it. Its darker setting is at complete odds with every character cracking wise, as well as Dennis Hopper chewing scenery left and right. Everything feels divided and separated; nothing comes together seamlessly, and even narrative threads feel arbitrarily tangled up in each other. It’s a mess.
The legacy left behind after twenty-five years is staggering. Video game movies continue to be bad (I enjoy a couple, but for similar reasons that I watch Super Mario Bros.). The behind-the-scenes drama is still talked about today, and the film has left itself a stain on Bob Hoskins’ legacy. Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel are two directors that basically fell out of Hollywood after the release, and we can’t help but breathe Mario’s name in almost every remark about bad video game movies. Super Mario Bros. is a trainwreck that has been remembered in cinematic history.
Yet, for all the harm its done, it can’t be blamed for not trying. No one sets out to make a bad movie, and Super Mario Bros. wears its effort on its sleeve. I’ll continue enjoying watching Hoskins and Leguizamo try to maneuver through a film that was being re-written as they were filming it. Hopper still makes me laugh with how gloriously cheesy his performance is. The dark aesthetic feels so much from a bygone era that I can’t help but smile seeing it. It’s a movie that tried to be something — it’s just almost impossible to see what that something was supposed to be.