Game Over: a critical analysis of Super Mario Bros. The Movie

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By Rob Horsley

How did one of the most beloved video game franchises get turned into such a disaster?

From his debut as Jumpman, the protagonist of Nintendo’s Donkey Kong (1981), to his newest adventure on the upcoming Wii U console, there is arguably no character in video game history as recognizable as Super Mario.

Mario simply epitomizes video games for many people.

Pac-Man?

Sure, he’s been around longer, but what has he done lately?

Sonic the Hedgehog?

Maybe at one point the “Blue Blur” could compete with the loveable plumber from Brooklyn, but in the modern era, Sonic has been largely reduced to third-party mini-star status without a console of his own to call home.

If you grew up in the 80s or 90s, Mario was larger than life. He was huge. So huge in fact, that someone decided it would be a really good idea to adapt the beloved Super Mario Bros series into a feature-film.

What followed was one of worst received films of the decade, a movie that star Bob Hoskins called “the worst thing I ever did,” in a 2007 interview with The Guardian.

Despite featuring a few solid cast choices (Hoskins, Dennis Hopper as King Koopa, and debatably, John Leguizamo as Luigi), the film bombed. Bob-ombed even. But how was this allowed to happen?

Plot Summary

For those who were unlucky enough to see it, you may want to skip the next section. For those who haven’t, here’s a summary of the basic plot points:

Just when it seems like things can’t get any worse for the Mario brothers (who are literally named Mario Mario and Luigi Mario), the struggling plumbers from Brooklyn meet Daisy, an archeology student specializing in dinosaur fossils.

Daisy is also unknowingly the long-lost princess from a parallel dimension in which humans have evolved from prehistoric reptiles. Yup, you heard right. Daisy is eventually kidnapped by Iggy and Spike, the bumbling henchmen of Koopa, leader of the parallel dimension, which prompts Mario and Luigi (who is romantically involved with Daisy) to take chase through the portal.

“Goombas”

Upon their arrival in the strange reptilian version of New York City, the Mario bros are promptly arrested, but soon escape, allowing them to regroup. It’s revealed that a prehistoric meteor was the cause of the dimensional rift, and that Daisy, daughter to the true king of the reptilian reality, carries the key to merging the dimensions once more (a meteorite necklace she’s carried since birth).

True to Super Mario form, the plumbers travel to Koopa’s fortress and stage a rescue of the princess, eventually culminating in a battle in which Koopa is devolved into a Tyrannosaurus Rex, before finally being further devolved by the Mario brothers into primordial slime.

Mario and Luigi return to Brooklyn, but Daisy chooses to stay behind, having just recently discovered her father is alive. The film closes with a few weeks later with Daisy returning to Brooklyn and recruiting the Mario brothers for another adventure.

Super Mario Bros was directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, and written by Parker Bennett, Terry Runte, and Ed Solomon.

Understanding the context for Super Mario Bros (1993)

In order to give a proper assessment, the film must be examined within its original context. It would be unfair to criticize the film for being unfaithful to the entirety of the Super Mario franchise, as there were simply far fewer Mario games at this point in history. It may be hard to believe, but Super Mario had only existed for eight years to this point, amounting to three NES titles, two Super Mario Land games for the original GameBoy, and Super Mario World for Super NES.

As such, many of the things that strike modern audiences as odd about SMB may not have been so outlandish for 1993. For example, the choice of Daisy as the main love interest for either Mario brother may seem strange, given the longstanding focus on Peach (who at this point was still being referred to as Princess Toadstool by North American gamers).

Rocket launchers were mandatory props for all movies made between 1987 and 1995

But at this point, Daisy had been featured as the token ‘damsel-in-distress’ only four years prior—not such a stretch for early 90s viewers. The choice of Daisy over Princess Toadstool (who some gamers may have believed to be two different names for the same person) also makes sense given the realism approach of the film, which will be discussed later.

The character of King Koopa may also be of confusion to modern audiences, given the familiarity of Bowser as the main villain of the Super Mario universe. Interestingly enough, Bowser’s Japanese counterpart has always been referred to as “Kuppa,” and the 8-bit and 16-bit eras had offered alternating mentions of the series’ villain.

With that in mind, it’s not out of the question that SMB would use the “Koopa” moniker at this point in history. And as such, SMB can only be examined as an adaptation of the titles that came before it, not after.

Super Mario Brothers Super Flop

As a standalone film, SMB fails for several reasons. Aside from a few solid picks in the aforementioned casting choices, there isn’t much going for this film. Hoskins, Hopper and Leguizamo do fairly well with what they’re given in terms of a script, which isn’t much. The whole screenplay reads terribly, and the film’s stars do the best they can with it, but it really isn’t pretty. It’s clumsy, it’s cliché and it’s given no support from the film’s secondary cast, probably one of the worst factors of the entire project.

SMB falls into that unfortunate class of movies that really can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be. Conceptually, the film has interesting potential: going for a more realistic approach to the fantastical world of Super Mario, and a number of interesting sci-fi elements are featured throughout.

Koopa is not a fire-breathing reptilian monster (save for his final scene, minus the fire-breath), but rather a reptilian-evolved humanoid whose menace is more that of a corrupt dictator than a savage beast.

The parallel version of New York seems to operate on an electrical power-grid, as there are no gas-related fuel resources used to propel vehicles of the dystopian society. The enhanced jumping ability prominent in the Super Mario game series is explained as being the product of “Thwomp Stompers,” a high-tech type of spring-loaded footwear.

Goombas are the devolved, reptile equivalent of Neanderthals and thus a loyal army of minions for the Koopa King. Fireflowers are replaced with flamethrowers. Not particularly subtle, but a plausible take for a realistic Mario movie.

But as interesting as these concepts may be, the film’s ultimate downfall lies in its execution. The script could perhaps be forgettable if it wasn’t for the unforgettably bad actors used to deliver it. Perhaps the easiest examples are the characters of Iggy and Spike, the awful, out of place comic relief—two characters who could make the movie a lot more watchable if they simply weren’t there.

What could have been…

At various points, SMB alternates from a dark, dystopian, sci-fi concept into silly gag-humour. It’s hard to take the dramatic elements (if any) seriously with a musical score composed of cliché plucked string arrangements. It’s unclear exactly which demographic these types of clues are supposed to appeal to, though one could venture any number of guesses.

In the end, even the potentially interesting sci-fi aspects become heavy-handed, to the point where they’re simply no longer interesting, and even tiresome—kind of like hearing a once-funny joke five too many times. Which is an ironic illustration, given how incapable this movie is of making audiences laugh.

The Ultimate Game Over

Super Mario Bros seems to be the exact wrong mix of plausibility and absurdity—a perfect storm that alienates everyone in one swift stroke. It’s a film too light and carefree to be adapted into a compelling, dramatic, real-world narrative.

A glimpse into the bleak, dystopian future.

On one hand, it contains a number of elements that actually make more sense than the games do: Daisy doesn’t go for a fat old plumber, but rather his younger, better looking (but oddly un-mustachioed) brother. Daisy is a far more plausible name for a damsel in distress than “Toadstool.” And a dark, slimy, electro-powered version of New York makes more real-world sense (in sci-fi terms anyway) than a bright sunny kingdom with giant mushrooms popping up in the background.

Which is why video game fans hate it. It’s too much real and too little fun.

Its execution on the other hand, is wholly unbelievable. The supporting cast is terrible, the script is farfetched, and the film does little to make the believer invest in anyone. The serious characters can’t be taken seriously. The funny characters are incapable of inspiring laughter. Aside from the two-and-a-half legitimate actors in the cast (sorry John), there’s not much that resembles actual acting here.

Which is why cinema fans hate it. It’s too little story for this much movie.

The decision to make Super Mario Bros into a science-fiction film is, in itself, not a bad idea—it’s actually kind of appealing. But the attempt at a realistic portrayal of a fantastical story seems to undermine the carefree escapism that makes Super Mario so appealing as a character, and a franchise.

This all begs the question of whether a more ‘true-to-form’ adaptation of Super Mario would be any better—would anyone really want to see Bob Hoskins chasing after a girl 20 years his junior, fighting some fire-breathing reptile? While it’ll likely never be known for sure, it’s doubtful such an adaptation would work for anyone.

Super Mario as a character, and as a franchise, roots its success in its ability to be carefree, vibrant, and lighthearted in nature. It offers a much needed sense of escapism from real-world problems. People don’t play Super Mario games to catch a glimpse of the real world. They play these games to be entertained, and to get something they can’t get from the bleak realism all-too-common in modern titles.

While the story has remained effortlessly basic, it’s a concept that continues to bring joy into the lives of gamers young and old—one too simple to be contained by the real world.

 

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