Super Mario Bros.
The other dinosaur movie of 1993. And it was out of the gate two weeks before Spielberg’s. And it stinks. A whole lot has been written about the disastrous decisions that accompanied Hollywood’s first attempt to make a movie from a video game (endeavours to make a really good one are still ongoing). I actually went to see it in a cinema back in 1993, and even given it’s positioning near the front of the UK summer –back when release dates were rarely day-and-date globally – it managed to squander any accompanying goodwill. The cardinal sin of movies of this type is to test the patience, and Super Mario Bros. was and is big and noisy and tiresome, with lots of moving parts but none of them in alignment.
Iggy: He’s not going to kill us. He’s not that nice.
I’m always more than happy to go to bat for an unfairly maligned movie. Last Action Hero would come out a few weeks later and ended up being “celebrated” as the season’s biggest bomb, one that officially started out as the big challenger to Jurassic Park for the summer movie but fell victim to the hubris of a star overestimating where he could lead his audience (Bruce Willis tried the same thing with Hudson Hawk, another unfairly eviscerated summer disaster). Last Action Hero has numerous problems, but it also has a whole lot going for it. Super Mario Bros. only has that host of problems, which seem to have started out on a conceptual level and escalated progressively from there.
Bertha: Dance with me, and I’ll hit you all you like.
Then-husband-and-wife directing team Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel tend to cop most of the flack for the movie, amid tales of star villain Dennis Hopper screaming at them for three-quarters of an hour for rewriting his lines and their bent to pursue a darker, more adult vision of the kids’ computer game (albeit, one beloved by adults). The main reason I went to see the picture, despite the bad reviews, was that I was a big fan of their over-directed D.O.A. remake of five years prior; I assumed, whatever else was wrong with it, that Super Mario Bros. would be visually engaging. I was wrong.
Mario: Great. A building with athlete’s foot.
Somewhere along the line, any verve or inventive enthusiasm drained from them. Or perhaps they simply never had a clue how to tackle the material (a “husband and wife team directing, whose arrogance had been mistaken for talent” as Bob Hoskins put it). Known as “The Hydra” on set because of their many-headed and contradictory instructions, if you leave aside for a moment the tonal approach to the material, the problem is that the movie has a look (art direction) but no sensibility, attitude or style. Super Mario Bros. is entirely lethargic and unmotivated. These directors weren’t hacks in the sense that they knew their way around camera – they were innovative in advertising and Max Headroom was massively influential, if never quite the success its attention suggested – but they contributed absolutely nothing of merit.
Iggy: Where’s the rock, overweening rogue?
Still, their pursuit of a dark, adult take on Super Mario Bros. so paving the way for such future projects as Pan and Man of Steel, cannot be put entirely down to the directors, even if the dystopia of Max Headroom and the use of Blade Runner art director David L Snyder and Mad Max DP Dean Semler suggest as much. No, it was producer Roland Joffé who flagged through the initial rot. He “wanted a wider audience than kids” and “to redefine the characters for young adults”. Prior to a career nadir with torture-porn outing Captivity, Joffé had achieved some acclaim as a director – albeit, notably not from screenwriter Bruce Robinson, whose work on The Killing Fields and Fat Man and Little Boy was hacked about. Joffé’s been in a qualitative freefall generally since the ’80s.
Mario: Luigi, we’re the aliens.
It seems the script went through numerous writers as the concept of “a parallel dimension where the dinosaurs continued to thrive. And evolved into intelligent vicious beings, just like us”, took root.* This was based on Super Mario World’s Dinosaur Land (“The dino world was dark. We didn’t want to hold back” said Joffé, a man with a vision of one day putting Elisha Cuthbert through the ringer). Eventually, umpteenth writers Parker Bennett and Terry Runté (Mystery Date) and their dark/comedic take were out and Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were in with a more adult tone. Now, those two have written some marvels in their time – but also the Peter Sellers The Prisoner of Zenda – and it seems the directors liked the script (dark and adult, after all). But then the producers got nervous again, wanting more comedy and family appeal (Bill and Ted’s Ed Solomon comes along, and gets a credit). This messed up the version that appealed to Hoskins, in particular. Bennet and Runte even returned, and Morton and Jankel had to marry the tonal shifts with what had now been designed as a dark movie.
Koopa: That Koopa clown is one evil, egg-sucking son of a snake.
Which all rather sounds like six of one and half a dozen of the other. Hoskins, John Leguizamo and Hopper may have badmouthed the movie, but they were under no illusions this was other than a pay cheque motivated deal (Hopper boasted as much). The directors’ vision may have been dented, but even as an occasional-at-one-time player, I’m fully aware that Super Mario is fundamentally associated with fun, colourful, kinetic, and poppy design. Not sub-Blade Runner grunge and grimdark. Joffé should just have gone the whole hog and tried for a genuine Italian flavour: Martin Scorsese’s Super Mario Bros. (“I’ll get you Koopa, you fuckin’ mook!”)
Iggy: Was she corpulent? Very corpulent?
There are a precious few things here that deserve a positive mention. Fisher Stevens (a master of ethnic stereotypes and brown face in Short Circuit) and Richard Edson (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Strange Days) survive with something approaching self-respect intact as Koopa cousins Iggy and Spike (Edson reports they were allowed to write their own dialogue; you can tell, as they’re the only ones creating any discernible chemistry). The practical effects work is decent, notably Yoshi and the Goombas, the latter about the only aspect of the picture with an appropriately cartoonish design, all oversized bodies and tiny heads. There’s even an amusing sequence in which the Goombahs begin swaying and dancing to lift music (Lara’s Theme from Dr. Zhivago). There’s an occasional gag that boasts such spontaneous inventiveness (a Goombah with a dinosaur colouring book and crayon), but they’re few and far between.
Luigi: If you touch her, I’ll kill you.
Koopa: I’ll meet you in the playground after school.
The “conflict” revolves around President Koopa (Hopper) attempting to merge the separated dinosaur world with the human world and rule over the results. Other bits and pieces of game lore end up in here too, such as Samantha Mathis as Princess Daisy and mushrooms repurposed as invasive fungus. Hopper shouts a lot and occasionally lands a line. Mathis’ student archaeologist is very plausibly digging up dinosaur bones that are perfectly intact – as opposed to ones evolutionists may well be fashioning as they go along – before she gets snatched for being a descendant from the dinosaur world with the key to its merging.
Mathis has to be a trooper and look keen in response to the attentions of John Leguizamo’s mentally-challenged sex-pest Luigi. Hoskins tends to receive good notices for this, but I don’t think he’s so great; maybe the character would have fared better with Kevin Kline in I Love You To Death Italian-caricature mode. Fiona Shaw seems to know the movie this should be, but after this, The Avengers and Pixels, any Hollywood casting director worth their salt would be wise to deem her the kiss of death to a blockbuster. Lance Henriksen gets two sentences at the end as the reconstituted King Bowser and coughs some Rice Krispies. Henriksen probably got off lightly.
Spike: The Super Koopa Cousins!
There are massive sets and lots of lumpen wirework. This kind of big SF set design that looks like big SF set design – there’s no sense it functions in any capacity other than as a movie set – is present in quite a few movies of this period (Total Recall, Demolition Man, Freejack) but it’s at its most derelict here. Alan Silvestri services an awful wacky comedy score to emphasis the lack of fun really is fun.
Joffé claimed “It has strange cult status”. Well I guess anything can, just as it seems anything can have “cult classic” thrown around. And as happens with almost anything just now, some gobshite will even attempt to dress it up as suddenly relevant and offering comfort value (“The video game movie for our trying times”), when the likelihood is more that it will be the last straw that sends you out into that oncoming traffic. Universal is planning a new CGI version of Super Mario Bros. Which, since they delivered a serviceable The Grinch after the godawful Jim Carrey one, may actually turn out okay.
*Addendum 16/08/22: Not quite Draco, then, but neither is it attempting to present reptilians as misunderstood.