Throughout my life, Mario has been there for me. He’s my very own Giving Tree. As a Mountain Dew-addled young person, I whiled away many a happy hour leaping over obstacles, smashing barrels, and racing up construction sites to save a damsel in distress. Then I’d stop by a pizza place on the way home and play Donkey Kong.
When I was 12, my entire family got pneumonia and moved in with my great aunt and uncle to recuperate. As soon as I was well enough, I’d walk over to the nearest convenience store and lose myself in the mushroom-addled fantasy world of Super Mario Bros. It was, to my neophyte mind, the perfect videogame, and I’m not just saying that because it’s the only one I’ve ever beaten. It was elegant in its simplicity.
As a teenager, I played Super Mario Kart in the videogame demo area in the Blockbuster Video where I worked. I was such a dyed-in-the-wool Mario aficionado that I even used to watch The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, with Captain Lou Albano as everyone’s favorite overachieving plumber. I can’t do basic algebra or remember the Hebrew alphabet, but I still know the show’s theme song:
When Nintendo became Super Nintendo and then Nintendo 64, Mario led the way. His was a comforting, reassuring face easing gamers into terrifying, exhilarating new technologies. When I began collecting pop art, the piece below is one of the first things I picked up. When I have children someday, I look forward to sharing Mario and possibly Luigi with them.
Mario is the alpha and the omega. He is the light and the way. He’s like Jesus, only even more awesomer. When pollsters quiz Americans about who they admire most, the list invariably reads:
1. Nelson Mandela
2. Abraham Lincoln
4. King Koopa
Why is Mario such a resonant figure in pop culture? Perhaps because his games are such potent metaphors. Donkey Kong thrillingly dramatized man’s need to overcome obstacles in dogged pursuit of his goals. It gets a little dodgier with the sequels, but I’m pretty sure that the vegetables Mario uses in Super Mario Bros. 2 represent the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Or maybe abortion. Or the French Resistance.
Yet in spite of my decades of Super Mario super-fandom, I was never tempted to see the game’s ill-fated 1993 feature-film adaptation, until now. Making Super Mario Bros. into a movie should be relatively easy. After all, the game had a pretty clear through-line: Plumber with mad hops must race through eight worlds to save a princess from an evil lizard despot named King Koopa.
People don’t expect logic from videogames or kid shows. I don’t remember ever worrying, “Wait, who is this King Koopa? Where did he come from? What are his goals and origin? What is his relationship with the mushroom king? And Princess Toadstool? And Yoshi? And how do a pair of crudely stereotyped plumbers from Brooklyn fit into this equation?”
But people expect a minimal level of coherence and logic from movies, even movies called Super Mario Bros. So the screenwriters had to find answers to those and many other burning questions. Put yourself in their Italian loafers: One day you’re studying Dostoyevsky at Yale, the next you’re trying to figure out why King Koopa is suddenly a man descended from a Tyrannosaurus Rex instead of a turtle. (One possible answer: he was deemed insufficiently turtle-y for the Turtle Club. Turtle, turtle, turtle!) [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbBpwW3i7dc&feature=related]
Super Mario Bros. devotes half its run time to lumbering exposition, yet still makes no fucking sense. Seldom has a film done such heavy lifting to such meager effect. The exposition begins with opening narration from Dan Castellaneta explaining that 65 million years ago, a meteorite hit earth and ripped the universe into two dimensions. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a pair of henchmen played by Richard Edson and Fisher Stevens explaining how this strange new world came into being:
In one dimension, mankind evolved from apes. In the other, mankind evolved from dinosaurs. In the third, true, dimension, the one that involves our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, God created the world in six days and chillaxed on the seventh, and Satan created a false fossil record and an alternate dino-universe solely to bedevil and confuse the children of God. Got it?
The movie had barely begun, and I was already confused. It turns out that an orphaned NYU graduate student played by Samantha Mathis possesses a meteor fragment that has the power to bring the two disparate universes together under the malevolent reign of King Koopa (Dennis Hopper), an evil dictator descended from the proud Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Before Bob Hoskins’ Mario and John Leguizamo’s Luigi can slip through an interdimensional portal into the dino-world, their personalities and relationships are sketched in the blandest, most arbitrary fashion imaginable. Leguizamo is a romantic, a dreamer, and a big believer in believing in things. Will those qualities figure prominently in the climax? [Robert Evans rasp.] You bet your ass they will.
Hoskins, meanwhile, is gruff and practical, a consummate skeptic. Last week, I watched Heart Condition as a potential My Year Of Flops candidate. It’s a hacky, perfunctory posthumous buddy comedy, but Hoskins works wonders in it. He delivers a soulful, funny, poignant, complex performance that accomplishes the formidable feat of giving audiences a rooting interest in the soul and destiny of a corrupt, alcoholic, racist cop bedeviled by a silky-smooth ghost played by Denzel Washington.
Hoskins works no such magic here. With tens of millions of dollars and a pair of gifted, perfectly cast actors at their disposal, the filmmakers deliver a take on the iconic videogame icons only slightly more sophisticated and multi-dimensional than Wikipedia’s description of the Mario brothers as “a mustached man wearing red overalls over a brown shirt, or, in the case of a second player, Luigi, Mario's younger brother, a similar man wearing white overalls over a green shirt.”
It is a testament to the film’s surreal miscalculation that Hoskins and Leguizamo don’t even wear the iconic red and white overalls until 66 minutes into the film. It’s heresy, I tells you! Heresy! It’s almost as bad as the shameful dearth of jumping throughout the film. Somewhere, an army of enraged children are muttering angrily about these heathens fucking up the Gospel of Mario.
It might seem silly to harp on a movie for betraying the spirit and the specifics of a videogame, even one that sold 40 million copies, but it isn’t like Mario has anything going for it beyond the audience’s affection for its characters. Screenwriters Parker Bennett, Terry Runte, and Ed Solomon create such a convoluted mythology that they tie themselves into knots just trying to explain it.
Even in the honeyed voice of a veteran thespian like Mojo Nixon, dialogue like “According to history, a long time ago a big meteorite came and blasted our universes into parallel dimensions. You know what else I think? All that fungus out there, that’s our old king. It’s true! He’s been de-evolved. That’s right, he’s been de-evolved into fungus. Now he’s wreaking his revenge on the city!” feels terminally clumsy and labored, though it should be noted that all the fungus out there is, in fact, an old king eventually played by Lance Henriksen.
But that’s not all! Confused about how exactly this whole evolution/de-evolution thing works? Then let Hopper’s scenery-chewing King Koopa explain the whole process to the dummies in the audience—I mean Hoskins and Leguizamo.
In his memoir, Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas, And All The Rest Of My Hollywood Friends, Leguizamo writes of a fundamental culture clash between the directors, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, and everyone else. As the too-cool-for-the-room creators of Max Headroom, Morton and Jankel set out to make a dark, dystopian, Blade Runner-derived science-fiction film about pie-eyed innocents trapped in a world they never made. Everyone else wanted to make a fun kids’ film about loveable plumbers having adventures.
Morton and Jankel come closest to their stupid, stupid dream of an “edgy” Super Mario Bros. with the following scene, which finds Hopper channeling his Blue Velvet hellraiser Frank Booth as he sexually menaces Samantha Mathis’ Princess Daisy. Yes, I just wrote a sentence that contains the phrase “sexually menaces Samantha Mathis’ Princess Daisy.”
Incidentally, I cannot watch Samantha Mathis in anything without thinking of the big scene in Pump Up The Volume where she corners Christian Slater’s hip-talking radio prophet of the pop apocalypse and gushes, “Hey, you’re dark and tormented, right? I dig that. Here are my boobs!” and then doffs her shirt. Oh, but that scene instilled dark and tormented teens (unlike my younger self) with false hope.
Like so many My Year Of Flops Case Files, Super Mario Bros. is more concerned with showing off giant, flashy, insanely expensive sets than in making audiences care about the characters running around inside them. It’s always problematic when a film is product-designed instead written or directed. When the production designer has the only important job in a film, that film is profoundly fucked.
Super Mario Bros. is largely devoid of the fun, excitement, loveable characters, and momentum of the game that ostensibly inspired it. But it does feature a scene of Dennis Hopper menacing a blob of fungus. You can’t make this shit up. (Actually, you can, but then you’d be one of the screenwriters of Super Mario Bros.)
Even though it’s based on the second-best-selling game of all time, and it’s the first live-action videogame movie ever made, Super Mario Bros. bombed with critics and audiences alike. There would be no spin-offs or sequels, no teaser trailers promising “This Christmas, Daniel Day-Lewis is Donkey Kong.” Leguizamo and Hoskins resorted to binge drinking to get through the harrowing, pointless ordeal that is Super Mario Bros. Though we here at The A.V. Club would never promote the deplorable practice of drinking alcohol, I would encourage any viewers to follow suit.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure