Film Reviews

Super Mario Bros.: The Legacy of Hollywood’s First Go At Gaming

This year is a big one for the Super Mario Bros. The 1983 game Mario Bros. turns forty, Universal Studios Hollywood welcomes Super Nintendo World, and Illumination Pictures’ animated film is coming to cinemas. There is another milestone in 2023 though – the thirtieth anniversary of the live action Super Mario Bros. film. Long before Arcane, Sonic the Hedgehog, and The Last of Us were receiving rave reviews, Super Mario Bros. was the first attempt to adapt a game to the big screen. Instead, it laid the foundations for how not to make a video game adaptation!

For years, it has been considered a bad movie, the first of many, many bad game movies. But, is it as bad as people say? Let’s jump into a warp pipe to find out. Or should that be travel across dimensions to Dinohattan?

Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo play the titular brothers, working as plumbers in Brooklyn. Hoskins and Leguizamo do the best they can as Mario and Luigi, but Hoskins described the film as the worst of his career. So much so that the actors relied on alcohol and drugs to get through production. The film introduced us to their shared surname of “Mario”. Yes, they are called “Mario Mario” and “Luigi Mario”. Guess their parents couldn’t come up with better names.

They meet Daisy (Samantha Mathis), a young palaeontologist who tries to defend a dig site from mafia businessman Anthony Scapelli (Gianni Russo). Luigi falls in love with Daisy, which may surprise some readers, since Daisy – who is an adaptation of Princess Peach – tends to be smitten with Mario. Instead, Mario is dating another woman named Daniella. Daisy is then kidnapped and taken through a portal to Dinohattan, pursued by Mario and Luigi.

Dinohattan is a Blade Runner-esque stand-in for the Mushroom Kingdom, ruled by King Koopa (Dennis Hopper). Koopa and all other Dinohattan residents have evolved from dinosaurs, who were sent to an alternate dimension by the meteorite that historically wiped them out. Daisy happens to be the long lost princess of Dinohattan, carrying a piece of the meteorite which can merge the two worlds together. Koopa himself, based on Bowser, is an evolved Tyrannosaurus Rex, ruling Dinohattan by de-evolving people into Goombas, who resemble leather-clad humanoid dinos instead of frowning mushrooms. His de-evolving guns are Nintendo Super Scopes!

As you might tell, very little of this film sounds like a Mario game. The closest replica are the Bob-ombs. Yoshi appears as a more realistic dinosaur; an impressive puppet for the time. Toad, played by musician Mojo Nixon, is reimagined as a singer, who is later mutated into a Goomba, all of whom are voiced by Frank Welker. Koopa has two minions, Iggy and Spike (Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson), who start off as morons, but later gain intelligent through Koopa’s evolution machines. They are named after one of Bowser’s children, and a recurring enemy.

The most weirdest change was turning the fish boss Big Bertha, into a tough-as-nails seductress played by Francesca P. Roberts. Bertha steals the meteorite, prompting Mario to dance with her in a club and snag the necklace hanging down her front. Even the iconic jumping is reimagined to be possible via rocket-powered jump boots labelled under the “Thwomp” brand line. Not exactly what you would imagine in a Mario movie.

The production can best be described as a tug-o-war between the producers Jake Eberts and Roland Joffé, and directing duo Rocky Morton and Annabel Jenkel. Initially, the group agreed on making a film akin to Ghostbusters as a dark comedy, whilst the originally screenwriters leaned for The Wizard of Oz in terms of tone. A second pair of screenwriters were brought in to change the script to fit the new tone. However, when Disney bought the film’s distribution rights, Eberts and Joffé worried the dark tone would alienate a family audience. So, without telling the directors, cast, or crew, they hired two more writers to pen a third script that matched their new agenda. The directors are said to have responded by burning all the movie’s storyboards outside in the lot.

This clash of tone and scripts led to chaos on-set, with the directors wanting to add new scenes during filming, leaving cast and crew wasting hours for the alterations to be done. Supposedly, Hopper got so furious with the directors, he went on a two-hour tirade on their shoddy filmmaking. Nintendo had given the green light to the film, confident that Mario’s brand was strong enough to be adapted into a successful movie. If only that had been so.

If there is one positive to come out of the movie, it was the impressive production and use of both practical and computer-generated effects. Morton and Jenkel were pioneers of the use of CGI, having created the TV series Max Headroom, which happened to also be set in a satirical, futuristic dystopia. The animatronics and puppetry were very advanced for the time. The film’s greatest technical achievement was using the then new Autodesk Flame software, commonly used nowadays within the industry.

It may come to no one’s surprise that Super Mario Bros. was a box office disappointment. The careers of the directors and producers were obliterated after the film’s release, though they have spoken fondly of their involvement. Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto spoke positively on the film, who praised the effort put onto it, though lamented its attempts to get “a little too close” to the feel of the games. What movie was he watching?

Super Mario Bros. has developed a bit of a cult status, most notably through the “Super Mario Bros. Archive” founded in 2007. To some, the movie is amongst the worst ever made. In comparison to other video game adaptations that would follow, Super Mario Bros. has aged relatively well. The upcoming animated movie looks particularly enjoyable and faithfully recreates the recognised characters and world of the games. Let’s just hope Chris Pratt, who has been criticized already for his role as Mario, doesn’t come to hate the movie as Bob Hoskins did for his own version.

Do you have fond memories of Super Mario Bros. or would you have cast it into a lava pit? Are you excited for the upcoming film? Leave a comment below, or on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell