“Super Mario Bros: The Movie” 30 Years Later: The Baffling Feature Film Adaptation

Kids today will soon know their Mario Brothers as CGI animated sprites in the upcoming “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” I, for one, am psyched. But back in 1993, my Mario Bros. (beyond the video games) were found on television and in the movies. After Captain Lou Albano and Danny Wells ended their run as Mario and Luigi in “The Super Mario Brothers Super Show!” in 1989, the studios decided to finally bring the Super Mario world to the big screen in 1993. Said movie was called “Super Mario Bros: The Movie.”

You’d probably think: “How they could possibly get such an easy concept so wrong?”

But they did. They really did.

Truth be told, in 1993 the general consensus among NES and Super Mario fans was that the movie simply did the games no justice. Even in 1993 at the age of ten, I fondly recall watching “Super Mario Bros: The Movie” on VHS, and being so utterly disappointed. Sure, the movie threw us a bone every now and then by the inclusion of elements from the games, but the movie itself was dark. And grim. And menacing. And not too fun. These days time has been pretty kind to “Super Mario Bros: The Movie.” Sure, it was pegged as one of the many doomed adaptations of what the media defined as “The Video Game Movie Curse” that became a pervasive topic well in to the aughts.

But as television and movie studios have finally learned how to deliver a proper adaptation (Respect the material! It’s not rocket science!), “Super Mario Bros: The Movie” has grown to become regarded as something of a cult classic. Even though the movie itself is still not too much fun to sit through, there are some plot points and Easter eggs that shine through here and there. Your mileage on “Super Mario Bros: The Movie” depends on how much you’re willing to divorce yourself from the source material. I think they could have offered up a fun movie had they embraced the original games with a more whimsical fantasy based temperament. But directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel opt for something darker and considerably bleak.

Here Super Mario Land was depicted as a Dystopian, Industrial Wasteland that feels modeled very much in the vein of “Theodore Rex.” True the latter film would come out years later, but there’s just so much here that seems less than coincidental. Of course, there are the obvious influenced from “Blade Runner,” and “Max Headroom.” In the nineties, futuristic films were less about optimism and fantasy and a lot more about edge, and being extreme. That bled right over in to the look and feel of the “Super Mario Bros.” despite the general library being about as light and fun as you could possibly imagine.

In “Super Mario Bros: The Movie, Brooklyn plumbers Mario and Luigi get the shock of their lives when they discover a parallel world populated by the intelligent descendants of dinosaurs. That would be “Mario Land” (?). It seems they weren’t actually destroyed by a meteor millions of years ago but hurled into another dimension and, now, they have plans to rule our human world. It’s now up to our unlikely heroes to battle the evil King Koopa—who is masquerading as a human industrialist–and his Goomba guards, free the beautiful Princess Daisy and save mankind from being consumed and transformed in to anthropomorphic dinosaur people.

One thing I vividly remember most about “Super Mario Bros: The Movie” was the marketing campaign. Despite the movie fully embracing a PG-13 rating with material concerning gross, giant fungi, mutant experiments, and bizarre monsters, the publicity was aimed squarely at kids. The massive one page ad for the movie was plastered on almost every comic book and hobby magazine you could find. They spared no expense on the ads for it. And they even marketed a large toy line for the movies featuring Mario and Luigi in the likenesses of the actors that played them on-screen. The only thing that we never really got was a game based on the movie a la “Street Fighter: The Movie Game.” 

A lot of what’s explored in this new vision of the Mario Bros. is both weird and depressing. They’re both plumbers from a long line of career plumbers struggling to make ends meet. Along the way we find out that Mario and Luigi’s last name is Mario. Younger brother Luigi makes a point of explaining that his name is Luigi Mario and older brother Mario is named Mario Mario. This has been somewhat embraced as concrete canon for the Mario universe, with even creator Shigeru Miyamoto confirming this. I’ve always been in the middle ground of this reveal, as the last name is so silly, but also on par with the general tone of the film.

The movie stands on the shoulders of its trio of stars, and all things considered the eccentric casting works. Despite the major age gaps between Hoskins and Leguizamo, the pair have considerable chemistry. Leguizamo gives Luigi more of an urban edge as opposed to how he’s typically depicted as the taller geekier pairing in the pairing. Despite their genuine disdain for the film and starring in it, Leguizamo and Hoskins’ casting is top notch and even manages to think outside the box. Despite Hoskins’ age, he even lends Mario a somewhat youthful enthusiasm that you instantly root for. Dennis Hopper never has a hard time playing eccentric bad guys and as President Koopa, he chews the scenery and leaves no crumbs behind.

There’s also Samantha Mathis as Princess Daisy who is depicted more as an angry heiress than a princess. Despite that she works with what she’s given and plays well off of Leguizamo. The big mistake is the writers try to give logic to everything we see in Mario’s world. Most of those aspects involving bob ombs and koopas were written off as part of the fantastic fantasy world that Mario was a part of in the video games. The approach here is to give the Mario world more of a realistic framework, suspension of disbelief be damned. So everything is basically explained away, with the Koopas being genetic experiments, The Mario Bros. super jumps being attributed to mechanical high powered boots, and turning Yoshi in to an actual dinosaur.

Yoshi was always a dinosaur (or Yoshisaur), sure, but in “Super Mario Bros: The Movie” he’s merely a meek dinosaur akin to a Chihuahua who is given only about two minutes of screen time, total. Mario never rides him, he doesn’t really see any action, and there’s no real moment for him to shine. Sure the animatronics for the live action Yoshi were stellar then and they’re still pretty damn good, by today’s standards.

“Super Mario Bros: The Movie” shockingly ends on a stinger promising a more action packed sequel that… well… we never actually got. The writers seemed to put the cart before the horse ending the entire film on a “To Be Continued…” closer that only hints at what they were likely planning for a follow up. If you were in the theaters during the film’s original opening, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the audience giggled at the prospect that we were getting a sequel. I mean how do you follow up a movie like this? Who would challenge the Mario Bros. and the Princess after knocking off President/King Koopa? They already borrowed heavily from “Super Mario” 3, and “Super Mario World,” so what would have been the big storyline?

“Super Mario Bros: The Movie” has grown to be more and more appreciated since 1993, and that’s good to see. I say that especially as a big Leguizamo fan who can still do pretty much any role and is still so damn underrated. Despite the movie still failing to be remotely entertaining, it has its moments and choices in character changes that are still interesting. It’s also still a pretty good bit of cringe nostalgia for nineties kids, when the hype was deafening for a movie that landed with a thud.

Fingers crossed the new animated movie fares so much better.