I grew up in New Zealand. It’s that place where they made the Lord of the Rings films, where Flight of the Conchords are from, it’s south-east of Australia, and it has lots of sheep. But if you don’t know any of this it’s fine. However for the purposes of this article in any case, New Zealand was not a Nintendo fan location, rather a Sega stronghold in the early 90's and Mario was almost non-existent for a lot of people. There was a lack in success for the earlier Nintendo made consoles until about the time the N64 launched. But from 1993 onward I had a poster on the roof of my room, and that poster was for Super Mario Bros. - The Movie.
Game Over #19: Super Mario Bros.
Dir: Annabel Janke, Rocky Morton
Box Office: US $20,915,465 (Worldwide Unavaliable*)
To this day I still have no idea why I had that poster up there. I know I was given it for free. I wasn’t a giant fan of the movie or anything like that, and realistically while I had played some of the Mario games, I wasn’t a massive hardcore fan of them either. I saw the film at the movies in 1993, and I have little memory of it from that time, and I doubt it stayed in theaters here for long. But due to that poster up above my room I somehow also never forgot about the film either.
For the reasons outlined above, most people in New Zealand didn’t know much about Mario back in the early 90’s where as they probably knew about Sega’s Sonic. So a film based on a video game people in my country were hardly playing wasn’t going to stick around. Whenever anyone saw that poster in my room, if they knew what it was then I either got “there was a Super Mario movie?” or the occasional “You liked the Super Mario movie?” It was mostly embarrassing either way.
But of course in the US of A (and elsewhere!) playing on the latest Nintendo console with a copy of the latest Super Mario game was clearly THE console and one of THE video games to have (and for large numbers of people still is). So the hype behind this film when it was getting ready to come out in 1993 was massive in America, and there seemed to be no lack of promotion from my understanding. This probably didn’t help it’s eventual outcome at all. To explain Super Mario itself seems redundant, as I’m certain just about any video gamer at any level knows of Nintendo’s major character and the variety of titles he appears in since the release of the original Super Mario Bros. in 1985 (and that’s ignoring the characters earlier ‘Jumpman’ origins), and trying so sum up this 30+ year history can be done better by so many others so I will just move on.
The film release of Super Mario itself however is a long one of legend now of poor decisions, bad behaved directors, daily script rewrites, low and over budget work, and, many, many regrets. It’s something that the take in the US clearly shows. But can this be separated from the film itself?
In short, well not really.
Watching the film now, or probably even then, for a film that probably should have appealed (or tried to appeal) to an audience of kids; it’s actually more than a little dark and scary for younger children and has some stuff in it clearly aimed only at adults. Five year olds might have marvel at the effects and designs in 1993, but if they were anything like me when I saw the film even around my early teens it’s not surprising nothing really stuck when it came to memorable parts of the film. And the rest of it wasn’t made for their age.
Immediately as well the film falls well within some obvious expectations while also being counter designed in ultra wacky and cheesy mode, making it a confusing piece of work without an actual specific audience. Lots of content perhaps too much for young children, but often too childish for adults either. Considering the directors made Max Headroom maybe that shouldn’t be too surprising that they would create something counter to the studio system. Production design is amazing and generally everything that should make a good film in production is there (especially given the reported budget was $48 million USD) but things just stop the whole thing from working as a film.
This also shouldn’t surprise anyone who does any reading on the film’s production. The more digging you do into the film, the more you realize the fact that there is even anything coherent on the screen is astonishing. But I also personally believe after watching it that it’s not as bad as everyone says it is, rather the crushing disappointment of seeing it in the 90's and not being what it was expected to be only adds to it’s “bad movie” brand. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The first thing you see in the film is some production title cards, while the familiar Super Mario Bros. theme plays over the top. No doubt so many people in those audiences in 1993 were giddy with excitement when that tune started, and probably had no idea what they were about to watch but within seconds they’d have an idea.
So yeah it’s a 8-bit style image of a forest for that direct game connection. We follow this with an animation of dinosaurs and voice over (by Dan Castellaneta of all people) explaining the setup of the film. Supposedly this was added in last minute to explain the setup to the audience what is going on. But basically it’s parallel dimensions and humanoid dinosaurs. I can already see the start of the trend towards adults here already when the words “parallel dimensions” are actually used rather than just say “another world” which a 6 year old could actually possibly understand.
We see a flash forward to Brooklyn but 25 years before the film, where a woman leaves an object on the steps of a church, and places a crystal “rock” inside the top. This is inter-cut with her returning underground and our first sighting of Koopa (Dennis Hopper), who she escapes by collapsing the underground chamber she’s in on top of herself - killing her but stopping Koopa from getting the rock. Back with the nuns who collect the object, an egg is revealed inside and the egg opens to reveal a baby was inside the egg. Clearly taking this as some sort of odd miracle rather than a freak show, the Nuns seems calm about the whole thing. So it’s the old abandoned royal child trope, but with a dinosaur twist.
Flash forward to “Now” and we meet The Mario Brothers, two Italian plumbers in Brooklyn, played by a guy from the United Kingdom (Bob Hoskins as Mario... Mario) and another from Colombia (John Leguizamo as Luigi Mario) respectively. Luigi watches a TV which expands on the ideas of other dimensions to hopefully help explain the vague description at the start, but probably not really. The brothers are broke and bicker like small children, but have a call from a hotel for a job. Arriving they are shafted as a large company has already beaten them to the job, run by a guy called Anthony Scapelli and his construction company.
Scapelli is building something large on some prime NY real estate and some NY Uni Archaeology students are looking over the dig after bones were found on the site. The leader of the group being Daisy (Samantha Mathis). It’s obvious we’re going to get to know that she was the baby/princess in the egg. Scapelli, in full creep mode, threatens Daisy while she goes off to call the University about whats going on. Eventually we see two weird acting characters, Iggy (Fisher Stevens) and Spike (Richard Edson), who are following her to try kidnap and take her underground to Koopa, who is their cousin. It turns out they’ve been kidnapping random women in NY trying to find the right one, and they finally have tracked her down.
Eventually via a van breakdown and a pay phone, Daisy and Luigi meet and with the offer of a ride and the bumbling of Iggy and Spike creeping her out, eventually takes the ride and end up going out for dinner together - thanks to Mario’s help. At dinner, a double date with Mario’s girlfriend along as well, we learn about the dinosaur remains she’s been looking at on the site and that Daisy has the crystal around her neck at all times. Mario takes his girl home, for her to kidnapped after he leaves by Iggy and Spike. Daisy and Luigi return to the dig site that night so that Daisy can show him what they’re doing. Instead they find a couple of Scapelli’s men, who’ve broken open a pipe to flood the location in the tunnels.
Luigi gets Mario involved to use their plumbing expertise to stop the flood, however they are knocked out and Daisy is kidnapped by Iggy and Spike. The brothers wake get up to hear her being kidnapped and eventually, via what would have been cool effects for 1993 (and clearly inspired by the pin art toy - which Luigi is seen playing with early in the film), jump through a portal wall after Luigi grabs Daisy’s necklace before she disappears.
With the logical setup created and the Brothers now in “Dinohatten,” the wackiness can truly begin.
Dinohatten is a mess, covered in fungus (the movies take on the “mushroom kingdom”) and clearly filled of mean streets and crooked people. As the signs attest this isn’t the environment for kids and certainly not one from the games. The design is fungus-underground-meets-Blade Runner (David L. Snyder, the production designer worked on that film as well). Koopa’s over the-top, obsessed, and has a germ phobia. His world has posters telling people to Vote Koopa while clearly everything is named after him, including currency, making him a clear dictator in this world (not a King, and certainly not “President” as they keep calling him).
But what he really wants is to use the crystal to merge the two worlds and allow their world to exist above ground. Daisy of course is the princess of the world here, long lost, and her mother was the one who used the portal to take her to the other world in the events at the start of the film. She is needed to make the merge happen. Koopa finds out the Mario brothers have “the rock” and orders “the plumbers” to be found, offering Koopa Coins as a reward.
The brothers lose the rock to a woman in jumping/stomping boots, Big Bertha, and are arrested by the local cops along with a guy called Toad who was singing anti-Koopa songs. Toad explains to them while in jail about the multiple dimensions that exist and that the proper king of the world they’re in was turned into the fungus that plagues the world here by Koopa. Then the brothers are hauled away to talk to Koopa himself, pretending to be a lawyer. Negating the fact his face was all over the place earlier, somehow the brothers missed this, they fall for the ruse until Koopa demands the rock and attacks Luigi. The cop who brought them is in is still hanging around and calls him “President Koopa” giving away the secret. Great going guy. Koopa orders them to be taken to the “De-vo Chamber.”
The chamber de-evolves things in it back to earlier stages of evolution, which Koopa uses on Toad first to de-evolve him 65 million years and turn him into one of his creepy Goomba henchmen. The brothers overthrow Koopa and his staff, throwing Koopa into the machine briefly, while they escape leading to a car chase and them escaping, fungus assisted, into the desert. Koopa instead uses the chamber now to evolve both Iggy and Spike to make them less idiotic, which leads to them tracking down the brothers but joining their side when realizing the scheme Koopa has planned with their newly found er... intellect.
In the meantime, the Princess has been placed in Koopa’s chambers (at the top of the Dinohatten equivalent of the World Trade Center Towers - Koopa Towers), where she meets his “pet” Yoshi, a small dinosaur. Koopas girl/assistant/whatever-it’s-vague Lena (Fiona Shaw) doesn’t seem happy about this, but her priority seems to be to help getting the rock to help the merge. While she’s away, Koopa decides to have creepy one-on-one time with Daisy but between his lizard tongue (!) and his face starting acting up, a result of the brief time in the de-evolution chamber not really taken anywhere. He instead demands she be taken away, by the Goomba version of Toad, because he’ll “use her later” in some gross sounding subtext.
Teaming up with Iggy and Spike, they steal a truck and return to the city and make their way to the Boom Boom Club in order to get the rock back from Big Bertha. Mario achieves it by dancing with her and stealing it when he can. But their appearance brings in Lena and the Goombas (complete with a cover version of ‘Walk The Dinosaur’ - good grief) who try to capture them. Trying to escape the brothers throw around the rock until Lena gets a hold of it. Escaping the club with Bertha’s help, and the help of the jumping-stomping shoes, they decide to take Koopa and his tower head on to try rescue Daisy.
Changing into these convenient jump suit outfits, the brothers make their way up the tower, including leading a bunch of Goombas into a dance in an elevator. Lena however decides to go behind Koopa in the meantime, due to his interests in the princess, by not telling him that she has the rock straight away. She confronts the princess instead and tries killing her, only to be foiled by Yoshi, who Lena stabs. This allows Daisy to escape into the tower. Here she bumps into Toad as well as Iggy and Spike, being held captive. They all escape and they show Daisy her “father” - a giant ball of fungus hanging from the roof of a de-evolution chamber.
Koopa, due to a convenient and massive jump to conclusion, deducts Lena has the rock when she orders the plumbers to be de-evolved, using his new portable de-evolution guns. The brothers manage to meet up with Daisy in the chamber with her fungal-father. She also lets Mario know about his girlfriend and the other women being held by Koopa that need to be rescued as well, but while Mario is off rescuing them Koopa captures both Luigi and Daisy, and his personal police manage to capture Lena and get the rock from her. Mario managed to free the woman, and escape on a mattress down a frozen pipe, which in turn lands - also conveniently - right where Luigi and Daisy are, taking out their Goomba guards.
Koopa has other plans however and captures them immediately himself, but is knocked off his platform by a rogue stomping boot activated by Mario, who uses another on some Goombas, before Luigi utters the immortal phrase.
Trust the fungus.
Mario attacks Koopa, who drops the rock which Lena catches. She runs off to activate the merger of the worlds, while Mario tricks Koopa into thinking he has the rock himself. This leads Mario to picking up a Bob-Omb, which freaks everyone out.
Meanwhile Luigi leads an escape for the women while also chasing Lena, who they find her merging the rock shard into the rest of the meteor. Lena succeeds, but in doing so kills herself. This reveals to Koopa that Mario was tricking him and he didn’t have the rock at all. As the worlds begin to merge, Koopa’s towers replace the WTC in New York and Mario, Koopa, and some Goomba’s appear at the dig site, where an also convenient media mob has appeared.
Koopa attempts to attack Mario with a de-evo gun but ends up shooting Anthony Scapelli and turning him into an ape. Mario instead “trusts the fungus” which reflects Koopa’s next shot and knocks his gun out of his hand. Daisy and Luigi manage to begin moving the rock out, which returns Mario and Koopa back to Dinohatten. Daisy and Luigi return with de-evo guns from Toad Goomba, who also strikes up a song which keeps all the Goomba’s busy and Bertha turns up to give Luigi some more boots. The Bob-Omb keeps on moving while this is all happening, but Luigi arrives first and he and Mario attack Koopa with two de-evo guns turning him into a half-man-half-tyrannosaur. The Bob-Omb turns up below Koopa and blows up at just the right time, knocking him into a vat.
It’s worth noting that for some odd reason in the world of product-placement oddities, the Bob-Omb is wearing Reebok feet.
Mario and Luigi shoot him one more, de-evolving him so far back he turns into sludge, saving the day and freeing Dinohatten. The King, somehow on Koopa’s death, immediately returns back to normal. Luigi tells Daisy he loves her, but she decides to stay to help clean up after Koopa and spend time with her father.
Luigi and Mario instead return to Brooklyn, where three weeks later they’re on the TV telling their story about the events involving the brothers, where the reporter says he’d call them “The Super Mario Brothers.”
The end of the film arrives on a cliffhanger with the Princess returning to ask for help setting up a sequel obviously never due to ever happen. Daisy, looking like she’s ready for battle, asks the brothers to help her and says, “You’re never gonna believe this!” A post-credits sting showcases two Japanese game developers with Iggy and Spike pitching The Super Koopa Cousins.
As I mentioned early in the article, it’s amazing the film came together at all which kinda takes the wind out of the sails of how bad the film actually is against what it could have been. The problem really comes from how it’s viewed as a connection to it’s origins and the fact that on a budget it’s still a box office bomb, making back likely less than half it’s reported $48 million dollar budget. However the more you read into the issues that surrounded the film, especially going well over schedule, you begin to see where the costs mounted up.
But they also got plenty for that budget that should have never meant that making a movie on such a hit licence should have been an issue in the first place, and it’s shortfall comes entirely from how the production went and the outcome of that right from the start on the choice of direction and directors.
Indeed the more you look at the troubled production the more amazing it gets. The original development script pitched to both Nintendo and provided to the actors, was much more closer to the idea of the game in worlds and the setting but not proceeded with due to budget concerns. However with the directors chosen for the final project, and their choice of tone, plus constant rewrites, on set arguments, injuries and accidents, etc. it got out of control. The directors were eventually forced off their film to get it finished and the movie was edited in post with heavy audio recordings to make the plot they did have work. So the fact there is an actual narrative in here is impressive when they didn’t shoot properly in the first place. Of course we’ll never know if the original plan would have been a better film, but it’s the one everyone agreed to originally so it has to count for something.
The legacy it leaves behind however is that it was the first proper licensed video game movie, which also says a lot. There had been movies about games made up until that point or incorporating them as plots throughout the 1980's in particular, and Nintendo backed The Wizard at the end of the 80’s basically to sell games and consoles, but this was the first true movie based on a game to be made. It was a risk, and it sadly didn’t pay off. Sadly also Super Mario Bros. set the trend game movie too... even if just in suggestion which is made all other films after kind of suffer due to it’s “brand” sad to say. It certainly was not like anyone could turn around and point to this film and say “look, that’s how you do it” in the first place. 23 years on and the fact I’m looking at a history of possible disappointment says as much.
Marketing probably also had a lot to do with that original disappointment in 1993, and these days possible the nostalgia of being so disappointed at the time as well. But the clues about the issue the film does have are almost shown by how the trailer is.
The average shot in that trailer is very short, even by today’s standard’s where we are use to even faster cutting than before - this would must have seemed extremely hyperactive in early 1993. But it also cuts a lot without showing a lot, which shows they weren’t really sure how the final film was going to end up and of course we know now with hindsight on how the films production went. Also how 90's is that music choice?
But as I alluded to before the write up on the film itself, I feel the film make so many top lists for being the worst video game film when really it’s not that bad of a film in general. Misguided, sure, but it’s still entertaining for absurd reasons and really people just have memories of it being much worse than it is for their younger self. However for those who don’t like it very much, they’re not alone - the film’s own cast weren’t fans either.
The late Bob Hoskins, considered the role as something he ended up very much regretting over the years. In fact in an interview Hoskins gave to The Guardian in 2011 stated that he thought it was the worst job he’s ever done, was his biggest disappointment, and if he could change his past in one way he’d never have done the film. Harsh comments indeed, not even including his direct statements about the directors I won’t repeat here. Prior to his death, he made other comments as the film being the worst set he’s worked on, including being injured and also nearly killed... so perhaps these issues also weighed heavily on these comments and his memories. However it wasn’t just him.
Leguizamo too mentioned several incidents over the years, including a number in his autobiography in 2006, about the production, including comments on the directors’ tone issues, attitudes, and the cast spending a lot of time drinking on the set in order to get through what they knew would be a seemingly horrible movie.
Aside from seemingly being a blight on Hoskins career down the track, Dennis Hopper also listed it as one of his biggest regrets before he died as well (and given his wide range of career ups and downs that says quite a fair bit). Back in the mid 2000’s he had the following to say about the film:
“I made a picture called Super Mario Bros., and my six-year-old son at the time — he’s now 18 — he said, ‘Dad, I think you’re probably a pretty good actor, but why did you play that terrible guy King Koopa in Super Mario Bros.?’ and I said, ‘Well Henry, I did that so you could have shoes,’ and he said, ‘Dad, I don’t need shoes that badly.’”
When your cast look back on a film with this much hate, it’s not surprising so many find it so poor. The tag line fittingly was “This Ain’t No Game” – indeed, it for many people it also wasn’t much of a movie either.
There are plenty of connections to the game world that someone has crafted into the film wherever possible, and it’s hard not to say at it’s exact core that the basic idea of rescuing a princess isn’t in there - it is. But it’s undermined by an inconsistent vision by the directors in tone, and buried in weird creatures and ideas that seem quite removed from the original material as well. There is a list of connections, however minor, at the same fan site I linked above for the game. It’s worth having a look at if you’re at all interested. Having the different worlds might have gone towards that. And not changing the enemies into weird looking creatures but something more akin to their origins also. So perhaps that is a good start.
Not to ignore the creator of the game, Shigeru Miyamoto discussed the live action film with Edge Magazine several years ago. While I might politely disagree that the film got too close to what the games are, I certainly can agree that it potentially felt like a movie about a video game rather than being an entertaining film on it’s own merits. And that might be an important hidden lesson here.
“The one thing that I still have some regrets about is that the movie may have tried to get a little too close to what the Mario Bros. video games were. And in that sense, it became a movie that was about a video game, rather than being an entertaining movie in and of itself.”
Positives? Plenty! Surprisingly.
Talent. They might have hated the experience and drank their way through it, but it doesn’t really show. Talent can elevate above even the stuff they think is terrible it seems.
Production design, effects - both practical and CG for their time in early 1993 were more than passable. The concepts were there, but they were funneled down the wrong path. These people could have made lots of interesting worlds and props and everything if given the right story.
To be honest everything except the direction and script probably was fine, it entirely hinged on sinking the idea of making a video-game film
Lessons learned? One major one.
Don’t pick a kid friendly licence and then decide to turn it into an adult affair. And if you still do the latter, don’t half ass it and get the tone so muddled no one knows what the audience is.
* As mentioned in my original rules, I have to take the data available from BoxOfficeMojo... and sadly no worldwide box office is listed for the film from on it’s release in 1993. It’s then almost $21 million US take is the only stat I have to go by, but given trends for worldwide takes at the time it’s unlikely to have been much more higher 50-odd million worldwide, unlikely placing it any more higher on this list anyway. But it’s a good place to start anyway, so here we are.
Next time - The first sequel on the list, and the first game movie sequel - one that destroyed all expectations for it’s audience.
#20 - House of the Dead (2003)
About ‘Game Over: Failure of the Video Game Feature Film’
A series looking at the top 20 profitable video game feature films to figure out what is lacking and what should be done to make a successful adaption of game to film. There are a set of rules to stick by, so for an introduction on the whole series I’m doing please check out the original post located right here.
Movie fanatic, writer and publisher of numerous gaming and movie websites of the past, and former video game guide writer. Started making content in 1997 and ran or assisted with several successful sites, mostly in the realm of Horror and Survival Horror gaming through the early and mid 2000's. Includes sites such as ResidentEvilFan.com, Streets of Silent Hill, EvilGaming.net, SurvivalHorror.org, ShenmueDojo.com, VGN, Gamers Alliance, GamersLounge.com, and BHXnet/BIOHAZARDextreme among others. Usually under the name Rombie. Still occasionally appears around on old video game and Resident Evil forums and semi-frequently appears on the ProjectUmbrella.net Resident Evil podcast.
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