MARIO BROS. (1993)
Directors: Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel
It goes without saying that one of the most famous video game characters in the history of the medium is Mario, the legendary mascot for Nintendo. Mario made his first appearance as the heroic "Jumpman" in Nintendo's classic 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong, but Mario finally came into his own four years later when he and his brother Luigi starred in another classic game, Super Mario Bros. Initially bundled with the Nintendo Entertainment System, the release of Super Mario Bros. in 1985 put Nintendo on the map and brought the video game industry out of the drastic financial slump it had fallen into two years prior. In the years that followed the game's release, it earned a spot as the highest-selling video game of all time, inspired numerous sequels, spin-offs, Saturday morning cartoons, and various forms of merchandise, and contributed to its main protagonist becoming a true icon of pop culture. The franchise's continuing popularity as the '80s became the '90s even led to a live-action Super Mario movie, the first major motion picture to be based upon a video game. Released by Hollywood Pictures in the summer of 1993, the movie debuted to critical scorn and low turnout at the box office.
Oh boy, this is going to be a rough synopsis to write. I say that because the plot is absolutely nonsensical, disjointed, and downright goofy. But I guess it's my duty to put something together, right? Sigh.
Anyway, as you can probably surmise, the story centers around the titular siblings. After losing out on another plumbing job to their apparently Mafia-affiliated rivals, cynical Mario (Bob Hoskins) and upbeat Luigi (John Leguizamo) end up crossing paths with a cute archaeologist by the name of Daisy (Samantha Mathis). Luigi and Daisy hit it off quick, which leads the pair going out on a double-date with Mario and his girlfriend Daniella (Dana Kaminski). The two couples go their separate ways following the date, and Daisy takes Luigi to the underground site of her current dig. Things go well, until a few of the local Mafia kingpin's goons start screwing around with the plumbing and flood the area. Luigi and Daisy retrieve Mario and the busted pipes are quickly repaired, but their celebration is cut short when two more goons knock out the plumbers and kidnap Daisy.
Mario and Luigi give chase, following Daisy and her abductors through a mystical portal and into an alternate dimension. See, the meteor that killed the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago split our universe into two separate worlds. One became the world we know, while the dinosaurs survived in the other, staying the dominant species and evolving into human beings. How's that for a slice of wacky pie? This dinosaur dystopia is ruled by the tyrannical King Koopa (Dennis Hopper) and his scheming wife Lena (Fiona Shaw), who have eyes on conquering our world as well. It turns out that Daisy holds the key to unifying the two dimensions, and Koopa's idiot cousins Iggy (Fisher Stevens) and Spike (Richard Edson) have kidnapped her in order to find the key. And since they're incredibly stupid and don't know any better, they've also kidnapped four other women that they believed were Daisy, including Daniella. Naturally, it's up to Mario and Luigi to save the day, rescue the girls, defeat Koopa, and escape the fungus-choked hellhole they've found themselves in.
I'm going to come right out and say it: Super Mario Bros. is not a good movie. It's thoroughly indicative of why video game adaptations have developed such a negative reputation over the years, and as the first of its kind, it really got the genre off to an incredibly bad start. But truthfully, it's hard to really put a finger on just one specific thing that causes the movie's ultimate downfall. Perhaps it's a combination of things. There's the dreadful script, the uninspired direction, lame effects, a cast that doesn't really seem motivated. Perhaps any and all of these things could be to blame. In any event, this movie is a poor attempt at not only a game adaptation, but as a movie in general as well.
Let's go with the direction first. Max Headroom creators Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel are at the helm, and though there are a handful of decent moments, their work here is way too generic to be taken seriously. Morton and Jenkel appear to have no idea how to properly tell a story, and fail to contribute any sort of visual flair to these disappointed proceedings. The same could be said for Dean Semler's cinematography, which is flat, mundane, and just way too plain for its own good. Things could have at least been saved a little had the movie's special effects not sucked, but they're poorly done as well. You're not supposed to notice when people are sitting in front of a green screen, but when you do, it's horribly distracting. That happens in this flick, and if you're still emotionally invested in the movie when it does, then I'm sure it'll take you completely out of the story. The lame effects are right up there with being able to see the wires that pick up Christopher Reeve in Superman III, and that was bad enough. I know that CGI barely existed at all in 1993, but couldn't someone have at least tried to make these things look believable?
In a movie full of flaws, the biggest of them has to be the completely inept screenplay penned by Parker Bennett, Terry Runté, and Ed Solomon. There are a few funny moments, but the script is so poorly put together that it barely qualifies as a script at all. There's one subplot that goes absolutely nowhere and contributes almost nothing at all to the movie as a whole (as such, I left it out of my plot synopsis), the dialogue is laughably lame, and there is very little that actually connects one scene to the next. Things are just strung together with no real rhyme or reason. And then there's the oft-lamented fact that there is very little to tie the movie to the games. While the core story Mario and Luigi try to save a princess from King Koopa is there, along with a multitude of inside references, there isn't a whole lot of resemblance between this cinematic offering and its 8-bit source material. Since when are Goombas seven-foot-tall lizards with tiny heads? Since when are King Koopa and Toad actually humans? (To that aspect, am I supposed to believe that dinosaurs could somehow evolve into humans despite there being as far as I know no real genetic link between us?) And where did they get the idea that the Mushroom Kingdom looked like someone sneezed all over the sets from Blade Runner? I'm beginning to think the writers just threw a bunch of crap at the wall and used what stuck. For shame, writers.
And then there's the cast, who apparently have an incredible lack of motivation. I got the impression that each member of the cast either wasn't bothering to try that hard, just doing a piss-poor job, or realized just what kind of movie this was and chose to overact like crazy. Bob Hoskins, who supposedly didn't know the games even existed prior to accepting the role, is likeable as Mario. He apparently knew that the movie wouldn't amount to much, so he lets his outrageous fake accent take over and tries to have a little fun with it. Hopkins is almost always solid, and his performance here is no exception. John Leguizamo also does an acceptable and humorous job as Luigi. He's entertaining enough, though the character has him acting like either the world's biggest ten-year-old or a blithering idiot for the majority of the movie. Samantha Mathis is cute and charming as Princess Daisy and Mojo Nixon is funny in his brief appearance as Toad, while Fiona Shaw is just kinda there in her role as King Koopa's conniving consort. (Hooray for alliteration!) Meanwhile, Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson are unfortunately inconsistent as bumbling lackeys/comic relief Iggy and Spike. They're funny on some occasions, while they're gratingly annoying at other times.
But the real standout is Dennis Hopper as King Koopa. Hopper is one of those guys who can take any random lame movie and make it a little bit better by merely showing up. (Go rent The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or The Crow: Wicked Prayer if you don't believe me.) That theory is reinforced here, as Hopper puts forth a frenzied, over-the-top performance that makes the movie worth watching just for him. He, like Hopkins, seems to realize the poor quality of the material and does what he can anyway. He plays King Koopa as an egomaniacal psychopath, and he's obviously having a good time in the role. That sort of thing can certainly go a long way, for sure.
Although the movie isn't all that great, it at least has some decent set design, a fine musical score composed by Alan Silvestri, and a certain childlike energy that can make it appealing if it catches you in the right mood. Unfortunately, those factors aren't really enough to salvage and redeem the movie. I mean, you can tell a movie's a bit on the screwy side when a song ("Almost Unreal" by Roxette) gets the highest billing in the closing credits. But what could have been a simple, straightforward fantasy adventure movie somehow managed to get turned into... this. How do you screw things up that badly? The truth of the matter is that even though I wanted to like the movie, there are just too many problems with it. Ergo, I really can't justify giving the Super Mario Bros. movie anything higher than two stars. With all the remakes Hollywood is doing, you'd think somebody would do a remake of this and finally do the Mario brothers justice.
Final Rating: **