It’s a miracle the Super Mario Bros. movie is as barely coherent as it is. That much is clear from reading the many interviews and in-depth reports about its nightmarish production that have been published in the 25 years since it hit theaters. As they tell it, the husband and wife directing duo of Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton were the great struggling artists of the production, visionaries who shunned the idea of a colorful, kid-friendly movie that would try its best to replicate the games. No, they thought they’d be working with an emotional script about brotherhood and planned to bring it to life with the grungy sci-fi look they cultivated for their Max Headroom TV movie. At least, that was the plan until their ambitious vision took the independent production way over budget, a big studio got involved, and the meddling began.
That’s the story Morton has established, anyway. Chances are the truth is more complicated, but watching the movie all these years later definitely bears out some of what he’s said. If you’re willing to take it at face value—as the harmless Hollywood experiment that even Nintendo reportedly considered it to be at the time—it’s not the movie’s blatant unfaithfulness to the games that undoes it; it’s the inability to pick a tone. Jankel and Morton’s sci-fi concept is very much in there: in every bit of the still-impressive production design, in the ridiculous lengths the movie goes to to explain things like Mario’s improbable jumping abilities (it’s jet boots) and fireballs (it’s a gun), and especially in the totalitarian dystopia led by Dennis Hopper’s dino supremacist King Koopa (don’t call him Bowser). There’s no telling how much better off Super Mario Bros. would’ve been had the movie picked that direction and stuck with it, but it at least would’ve been interesting, an elaborate, edgy reimagining of a narratively empty inspiration before such a thing became a cliché. Today it’d sit comfortably alongside descendants big and small, from Michael Bay’s Transformers to Battleship to YouTube’s countless gritty fan reboots, like Mortal Kombat: Rebirth and Adi Shankar’s Power/Rangers.
But that movie, the one the directors supposedly signed on to make, is completely at odds with the abysmal Home Alone-wannabe kiddie comedy that Morton says was shoehorned into Super Mario Bros. during its production. Every scene that establishes some strange, intriguing image or dystopian idea is immediately followed by an unfunny slapstick gag and the reemergence of Alan Silvestri’s cartoonish, atmosphere-destroying score. (Nothing says cyberpunk dinosaur city under tyrannical rule like a twinkling soundtrack that quotes “Funiculì, Funiculà.”) The whiplash from one scene to the next is brutal, and the combination of these incompatible halves dashes any slim chance the movie had at successfully being either a wacky family film or a halfway clever remolding of the Mario lore.
And you know what? It’s a shame, because even in this watered-down form, what’s there of the movie’s interpretation is crazy enough to work. After 30 excruciating minutes of setup, the plumbers finally make their way to an alternate reality where dinosaurs, not mammals, evolved into humans. Since they crossed over through a cave below Brooklyn, they land in this world’s version of New York. It’s a dino-themed take on the dark, crime-ridden urban landscapes of countless ’70s and ’80s movies, covered in filth and neon. The set itself is legitimately impressive—bustling, multi-tiered, and packed with references to the games. There’s also Hopper’s tyrannical mug staring down from his stark campaign posters (“Koopa for jobs,” “Koopa the gentle,” and my favorite, “Koopa the environmentalist. Don’t worry. We’ll get more.”), looming over the city’s oppressed weirdos as they cause havoc in the overcrowded streets.
It borrows the visual language of so many dystopias and seedy cityscapes that came before it and jumbles them into a whacked-out combination that’s not high-tech enough to be cyberpunk but is certainly chasing that feel. It might better be described as trashpunk, with everything from the sets, to the props, to all the leather-and-studs costumes looking like they were cobbled together using spare parts and garbage that magically crossed over from the human world. At least the movie has a look.
But it’s definitely not a look intended for a kid-focused adventure. The filmmakers went all-in on channeling that ’70s Times Square grime, to the point that alongside the city’s nightclubs and tattoo parlors is a prominent porn theater playing I Was A Teenage Mammal. And aside from the grandma who sticks up the Mario brothers at gun point, the city’s citizens are almost always dressed in some amalgamation of biker and fetish gear. That includes Koopa’s police, who strut around in spiked leather jackets when on patrol (which, if I’m being charitable, is a clever nod to Bowser’s spike-heavy video game form) and have scantily clad women digging their heels into their backs when they’re at the station, a sight fed to us during another surreal, violent scene that’s immediately followed by Mario and Luigi getting cold air shot down their pants as the movie begs for laughs.
More baffling are the dancers bearing their asses in the nightclub scene, a sequence that really shows off the film’s adult undercurrents. It’s not just that we get to see Bob Hoskins’ Mario, dressed in a fine-as-hell oversized yellow suit and seducing a woman to surreptitiously steal back a necklace. That part is played with all the sexiness of Bugs Bunny buttering up Elmer Fudd, but then the music shifts from The Divinyls’ cover of “Love Is The Drug” to a slow jam by one-hit wonders Charles & Eddie, and she’s grinding on Mario and he’s slamming his head into her chest trying to bite off the necklace. Even if the whole thing is meant to be a horrible, cringe-worthy joke played for fat-shaming laughs, it feels like it belongs in a completely different movie from what follows once the tiny-headed goombas, the visual embodiment of cheap comic relief, show up and the soundtrack switches to a Mario-themed cover of “Walk The Dinosaur” that’s somehow even goofier than the original.
The thing that definitely sends the movie tumbling into familiar dark and gritty territory, though, is its portrayal of Bowser as a dino-supremacist dictator. Even today, the Mario games aren’t exactly a font of exposition and characterization, but there was even less to work with when the movie was produced. The games’ surreal world and lack of narrative definition have always made it fun to fill in the blanks with a grimness that’s at odds with the series’ endless positivity. In this butchered state, the film is so incoherent and poorly written that it’s tough to tell what exactly the backstory of this city is, but the writers may have stumbled into a novel, speculative take where Mario and Luigi arrive in this world—whether it’s supposed to be the Mushroom Kingdom or Super Mario World’s Dinosaur Land or Super Mario Land’s Sarasaland or some combination of the three—after Koopa had already won.
He’s devolved the king into an unrecognizable fungus, sapped the world of its resources, and turned the city into a police state. The movie goes out of its way to depict his tyranny. We see Toads exist in some form, but Koopa regards them as an underclass, and when one serenades the plumbers with a protest song, he’s thrown in jail for bad-mouthing the supreme leader. Once Koopa’s dunderheaded minions Iggy and Spike evolve into articulate good guys, they don’t waste a single moment before throwing truth bombs, calling their evil uncle a “fascist” and “oppressor of the proletariat” straight to his face. But because things can’t get too serious, Koopa also loves pizza and spends an inordinate amount of time waiting for a delivery to show up.
There’s no reality in which this movie would be anything like the actual Super Mario Bros. that the world knows and loves. Even when it comes to Mario’s newly announced big-screen return, one that Nintendo will actually oversee, I’m not sure it’s material that could ever be adapted well. It was built entirely to put an appealing and understandable facade over the abstract concepts that make up the skeleton of every video game. But if you’re going to completely distort what is there, as Morton has said he and Jankel set out to do, you might as well swing for the fences. And turning Mario’s gentle surrealist fantasy about living mushrooms and angry turtles into a sleazy dinosaur-themed New York on the verge of apocalypse is a hell of a leap. The movie it became in this reality ended up a muddled, unfunny mess, one so disastrous it kept Nintendo away from Hollywood for decades. Maybe there’s a different reality somewhere out there where Jankel and Morton got to make the dystopian Mario movie they so obviously wanted, one that’s at least daring enough to be entertaining. Lord knows, it couldn’t get much worse than the one we got.