The Live-Action Super Mario Bros. Movie Still Ain’t No Game at 30

Movies Features Super Mario Bros.
The Live-Action Super Mario Bros. Movie Still Ain’t No Game at 30

Here’s the thing you need to understand about the early 1990s: Summer movie seasons were in full industry-dominating swing, but they didn’t look that much like the summer movie seasons of today. There were often explosions, plenty of stars, and occasionally superheroes, but there were also middle-aged men (and sometimes women) in courtrooms, kids doing grown-up jobs, and Whoopi Goldberg comedies – in other words, movies that did not require the vast special-effects and world-building resources that would be tapped just a few years later. Brand names still ruled, but studios were still exploring how far these brands could be extended beyond the usual sequels and remakes. Sometimes, they entered new territory with great confidence. This was presumably how Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, the filmmakers behind a live-action version of Super Mario Bros. produced for Disney’s Hollywood Pictures, were given such leeway on such a massive property (even given the fact that the movie was hastily rewritten and recut against their wishes).

Of course, older comics fans may recall how typical it was to see beloved source material more or less discarded during the filmmaking process. In the case of Super Mario Bros., the owners of the source material were somewhat complicit; supposedly, Nintendo requested little to no creative control over the project, assuming it would sink or swim based on the brand name, a stark contrast with today’s valorization of corporate IP-protectors. (It’s a fitting coincidence that the new Super Mario Bros. movie opens opposite Air, a tribute to the can-do spirit and ingenuity of, uh, high-level Nike employees who licensed Michael Jordan’s name for a bestselling sneaker.) A harbinger of the world to come, it was Disney that eventually insisted on greater changes to the 1993 film, though the film’s machinery was too great to reverse course and produce a straightforward adaptation of the game.

What would that look like, anyway? Like music videos, gaming aesthetics have been a part of film for nearly half a century at this point; unlike music videos, there haven’t been many purveyors of the art form who actually wind up sitting in the director’s chair on movie projects. (Morton and Jankel, for example, made plenty of music videos.) The Super Mario Bros. games have a general rescue-the-princess adventure narrative that the new movie happily approximates into a hero’s journey, albeit one featuring a rescue of his sibling Luigi rather than the newly girlbossed Princess Peach. To its credit, the 1993 Super Mario Bros. went a different way, though there’s still a princess in need of chivalrous intervention. Mario (beloved Italian-American fixture Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (beloved Italian-American fixture John Leguizamo) are Brooklyn plumbers who enter a parallel dimension where dinosaurs have evolved into a dominant, humanoid species, hoping to save Luigi’s crush Daisy (Samantha Mathis). Daisy learns she is actually a royal descendant of these dinos, and the humans must outwit the cruel King Koopa (Dennis Hopper) to liberate the oppressed citizens of his reign and find their way home.

That’s the simple version that doesn’t get into matters of sentient fungus, a powerful meteorite, and a device that can evolve or devolve creatures at will. The movie itself feels like a parallel world to the bouncy, colorful video games, a fungal hallucination involving many of the basic elements, distorted and multiplied into a kind of cheerfully bustling semi-nightmare. (My seven-year-old gamer, aghast at one of many design changes to the Mario boys themselves: “They aren’t wearing their iconic hats!”) Like a select few big-studio boondoggles of the era, the whole movie looks both insanely expensive and pervasively fake.

It’s a more tactile version of today’s vast and unconvincing digital sets. In fact, Super Mario Bros. capped off a decade and change of expensive set-design movies that began with 1982’s Blade Runner, a major influence on contemporary fantasy filmmakers if not necessarily their corporate bosses. The early ’90s saw a great divergence in set-design cinema, with Tim Burton’s Batman reaching a apotheosis of sorts, building its must-see factor into its Anton Furst art direction and set decoration from the ground up, much moreso than its negligible actual storyline (and the corollary of Batman Returns, with art direction by Burton regular Bo Welch, reaching an artistic peak three years later). On the opposite side of this divide sat elaborate-set projects like Barry Levinson’s Toys and, yes, Super Mario Bros., where childlike whimsy and darker impulses noisily feuded on gigantic soundstages, in front of everyone – or rather, hardly anyone, because these movies flopped spectacularly and expensively. These were movies that wanted to make their production design into, as Twitter would put it today, their entire personality. The downside is that actors like Hoskins and Leguizamo get lost in the visual and literal noise. (They reportedly took to drinking on set to ease their difficulties.) The bless-this-mess upside is that the movie has personality, something the 2023 edition painstakingly avoids.

The noirish corruption, frantic pace, Disney-for-adults studio, and casting of Hoskins suggest that maybe someone, somewhere thought that Super Mario Bros. could be turned into something like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Roger Rabbit turned out to be a simultaneous effects revolution and last glorious hurrah of those very same effects. Super Mario Bros. also found itself perched on the edge of a special-effects revolution — a wannabe blockbuster with the particular misfortune to feature its own dinosaur effects just a few weeks before the release of Jurassic Park. Spielberg’s dino-thriller is a sleek and perfectly machine-tooled piece of summer entertainment; Mario is as unruly onscreen as its young audiences must have been in the crowd. (I wish I could report more directly, but I saw it months later, at the $1.99 second-run theater at the old mall, across the way from the new mall.)

If Morton and Jankel, probably best known for the short-lived but cultishly adored TV series Max Headroom, couldn’t tame this material, they could at least make it a memorable travesty, a visually auspicious, artistically dodgy and entirely fitting beginning to the practice of translating video games to the big screen. The new Super Mario movie is far more faithful to the game, in that it lazily turns some of its iconography into ritualized plot points; the idea that a movie might interpret these things, imbue them with different (or any) meaning, seems entirely foreign to the filmmaking apparatus. Trying to sell the frantic, junk-strewn dystopia of Mario ’93 as genuinely visionary is probably an elaborate lizard-populated, fungus-coated catwalk too far. It does, however, make for an impressive cultural landfill; it’s the Mario version of that hole where they buried all the Atari E.T. cartridges, perhaps blasted with radioactive energy. Some of the best movies based on video games (mostly from Paul W.S. Anderson) have emerged from this wreckage, and a certain junky integrity will be lost now that games have joined comics and YA novels as holy-text IP. It’s like the poster says with perfectly value-neutral truth in advertising: This ain’t no game.

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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