VIDEO GAME WEEK: Super Mario Brothers (1993)

My wife has never played Super Mario Brothers. She first saw this film at the now Hollywood Theater in Dormont as a child and it became one of the many films she rewatched over and over again as she grew up.

I’ve never seen the movie Super Mario Brothers, but the Mario character was a big part of my childhood and I played every one of his games as I grew up.

Together, we watched the film and came at it from two very different perspectives. Imagine, if you will, someone who has no bias toward this movie for how different it is from the property that inspired it and only sees it as a film about two adopted plumber brothers battling a parallel world ruled by dinosaurs.

When seen through those eyes, perhaps Super Mario Brothers is a good movie. To everyone else, it’s either a movie they hate — like lead actor Bob Hoskins — or one they can’t even begin to understand.

Producer Roland Joffé pitched the film to Nintendo, telling them that they’d have more control over the film working with his small Lightmotive company. Draft after draft of the film was made with Harold Ramis being considered as the director. Finally, the husband and wife team of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (who created Max Headroom) were selected.

At that point, they jettisoned everything that came before. The original script, by Jim Jennewein and Tom S. Parker, was a more fairy tale retelling of the plot of the video games. Instead, the new directors wanted the film set in Dinohatten, a dark alternate version of New York City where dinosaurs ruled. Here’s the first issue — this world appears nowhere in the universe of the Super Mario Brothers games. The team wanted a dark satire instead of a bright, colorful world. Amazingly, they convinced the producers and Nintendo to go along with their vision.

Over the next year, five scripts were written by nine writers. Sets were built and scripts were even written without the directors being on board that tried to soften their narrative ideas and make a more kid-friendly film. That said — the sets had already been built.

None of the original script remained when filming started. The principal actors, Bob Hoskins as Mario and John Leguizamo as Luigi, began drinking through much of the filming. This led to an incident where Leguizamo crashed the plumbing van and broke Hoskins’ hand (he wore a flesh-colored cast for the rest of the production). Dennis Hopper, playing the lead villain Koopa, had open contempt for the directors, seeing them as control freaks.

Yet there was a great early buzz for the film, with an L.A. Times article comparing the set design favorably to Blade Runner (they share production designer David L. Snyder). Then Disney bought on to the film. And then the directors were shut out of reshoots and lost their final cut.

Everyone believed that kids would love the movie. Mario was such a big deal to them, this was a can’t miss bet. Kids will watch anything, right? Even if what they come to see has nothing in common with the video games and cartoons and the actual property that they loved so much, right?

Let’s get into it. The film starts with a poorly animated retelling of how the dinosaurs died off. I’m not sure if this is supposed to look like a video game or have been created in Mario Paint, but with the budget of the film, it sure feels weird. We learn that the meteorite that crashed into Earth made another dimension where dinosaurs rules.

In present day New York City, Mario and Luigi are struggling plumbers who are getting put out of business by the Scapelli Company. Those guys are also messing with an NYU sponsored dig where dinosaur bones are found under the Brooklyn Bridge by an orphaned archaeology student named Daisy (Samantha Mathis, Pump Up the Volume). While on a date, the villainous Iggy and Spike (Fisher Stevens from Short Circuit and character actor Richard Edson, who was also Sonic Youth’s original drummer) kidnap Daisy and take her to the dinosaur dimension.

This leads to King Koopa (Hopper) and his minions trying to get both Daisy and her necklace so that they can take over our world. Daisy ends up being the princess of the other side, with her father being devolved into a fungus (he’s played by an unrecognizable Lance Henriksen).

Along the way, Spike and Iggy realize that their cousin Koppa is evil and help the Mario brothers, all while Daisy meets Yoshi and Toad (Mojo Nixon!) is introduced as a musician who writes anti-Koopa music before being devolved into a Goomba. And Fiona Shaw shows up as Koopa’s would-be love interest who really wants to show him up by enacting his plans.

The two worlds become merged, with Koopa devolving the owner of the Scapelli Corporation into a monkey before Mario attacks him with a Bob-omb (one of the few video game references that happen in the film). Koopa then becomes a human Tyrannosaurus Rex before getting filly devolved into slime and Daisy’s father being saved. Whew!

Luigi tells Daisy he loves her (you know, Mario’s usual role) but she can’t leave her home behind. But weeks later, she returns, dressed as a warrior and asking them to return.

Want an example of how weird the film is? Hoskins didn’t even realize he was working on a video game adaption until his son asked him what he was working on. When he told him the title, he showed his dad the game on his Nintendo.

Here’s another father and son story: when asked why he did the film by his son, Dennis Hopper replied, “So you can have shoes.” His son replied, “Dad, I don’t need shoes that badly.”

Hoskins further described the shooting of the film in a 2011 interview with The Guardian:  “It was a fuckin’ nightmare. The whole experience was a nightmare. It had a husband-and-wife team directing, whose arrogance had been mistaken for talent. After so many weeks their own agent told them to get off the set! Fuckin’ nightmare. Fuckin’ idiots.” In that same interview, he also used the movie as the answer to the questions “What is the worst job you’ve done?”, “What has been your biggest disappointment?”, and “If you could edit your past, what would you change?”

Ryan Hoss, the webmaster of the Super Mario Brothers Movie Archive, says that the end result of the film is, for some, “an interesting, unusual, entertaining, compelling, and inspired look into this fantastical world. Others have had a hard time accepting the way the 8 and 16-bit games were adapted onto celluloid, calling the movie a complete disaster and disgrace to the video games. The goal of this website is to help its visitors better understand an often misunderstood film. What the filmmakers were trying to do with this movie had never been done before, so we think it’s important to appreciate the immense amount of thought and respect that went into creating the final product. In the end, the filmmakers did something wildly revolutionary—by making the first ever theatrical feature based on a video game property.”

We’ll talk to Ryan soon and learn more about how the site was created and how he was able to transform so many people’s love for this film into a blu-ray release.

As for my take on the film, I think I’d love it if I saw the film like Becca, as a youngster with no idea who any of the characters were supposed to be, just ready to enjoy a world where two plumbers battled evil dinosaurs. Perhaps if we all see it that way, the film is a little but better.

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