Adapting any art form into a movie presents a tricky proposition. It is, after all, easy to fall into the trap of being too reverential to the source material. Whether it happens to be a play, novel, or old television show you’re making into a feature film, there has to be an element of invention, of reworking the source material into something that stands on its own as a piece of entertainment and – dare we say it – art.
This would go some way to explaining why the 1993 feature-length adaptation of Nintendo’s hit video game series only vaguely resembles the property on which it was meant to be based. Released in a busy summer season – one dominated by another flick with dinosaurs in it, Jurassic Park – Super Mario Bros. was a critical and financial flop.
Made for a lavish $48 million (just $15 million less than Jurassic Park cost to make), its $20-or-so million returns were surely grim reading for its investors. And given the talent involved, from its actors (Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper) to its filmmakers, exactly why it all went wrong is something of a mystery.
Join us, then, as we dig into this frequently maligned film, to see if we can find a few remarkable things to report about it…
It’s Surprisingly Murky
For the army of kids who played Super Mario Bros. through the 80s and 90s, setting eyes on the movie adaptation must have been a bizarre childhood moment. The blue skies, cartoon landscape, and bouncy effervescence of the game are nowhere to be seen. Instead, there are animatronic dinosaurs, long shadows, and strange hints of sexual menace.
As in the game, Mario and Luigi are a pair of Italian American plumbers based in Brooklyn. They’re played, respectively, by Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo. Unlike The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, a late-80s/early 90s attempt to turn the video game into a sitcom, the movie makes no attempt to replicate the colors of the game or its suggestions of cartoon humor. Instead, Mario’s a sullen, somewhat cynical middle-aged man, while Luigi is in his 20s, idealistic and oddly fascinated with pseudo-scientific TV shows.
The plot sees Mario and Luigi drawn into an alternate universe created by the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. This meteor, we learn, formed a parallel Earth where a few dinosaurs survived and evolved into cold-blooded humanoids. Princess Daisy (Samantha Mathis) is one of their reptilian number, and she’s been kidnapped by Iggy and Spike (Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson respectively), the underlings of the evil King Koopa (Dennis Hopper).
Koopa, who rules over the dystopian city of Dinohattan, hopes to use Princess Daisy and her meteorite fragment necklace to fuse the two parallel dimensions together, and conquer the realm of humans. Needless to say, it’s up to Mario and Luigi to head into the lizard dimension to stop him.
The story’s actually a bit more complicated than this, and there’s all sorts of stuff in here about fungus and reptiles and resources. Really, though, the movie’s more about spectacle than story, with directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (previously of Max Headroom and D.O.A fame) seemingly more interested in exploring the gigantic dark sets they had constructed in a disused cement factory in North Carolina.
Here, lizard women push their eggs down the street in pushchairs, street vendors sell fried salamanders in bread rolls, and neon King Koopa propaganda posters glower down from skyscrapers. It looks less Mushroom Kingdom and more Blade Runner noir.
Bob Hoskins Didn’t Know He Was Making a Video Game Movie
There’s a lot to be said for researching a role before you sign up to play it. Legend has it that Bob Hoskins had no idea that Super Mario Bros. was based on a video game when he agreed to take the lead – it was only later, when his son happened to ask what he was working on, that the truth was revealed.
The late Hoskins, who later admitted that he took the part for the money, would soon have his hopes of an easy pay check thwarted. In a rather tight-lipped interview on Entertainment Tonight in 1993, Hoskins said, “If you’re going to survive this film, you’re going to have to be very, very careful […] I got stabbed four times. Electrocuted. Broke a finger. Nearly got drowned. And that’s just what happened to me…”
These Rasputin-like brushes with death were only a small part of the grim things going on behind the scenes. The directors’ desire to make a dark fantasy clashed with what investors’ had in mind – namely, a cute family movie. A creative tug-of-war ensued, in which the script was repeatedly rewritten, often while scenes were actually being shot.
In the nightmare of sets being built and torn down, accidents happened. It was John Leguizamo who reportedly broke Hoskins’ finger when a van driving sequence went wrong. Hoskins was forced to wear a flesh-colored plaster cast for the rest of the shoot – look carefully, and you’ll spot Hoskins’ frozen, plastered-up hand in some scenes.
Leguizamo and Hoskins apparently found the production so depressing, they’d frequently drink between takes to relieve the tension. Years later, memories of Super Mario Bros. are still emotionally charged – even after almost two decades, the late Hoskins still counted the movie as his worst professional experience.
Mario’s Last Name Is Mario
Not long after Mario and Luigi arrive in Dinohattan, they’re arrested by the Police, who drive squad cars that look like something out of Mad Max. It’s when they’re hauled down to the precinct that we learn Mario’s last name, which is, imaginatively, Mario. Exactly why the screenwriters bothered adding this detail in isn’t clear – it’s not even written in as a gag, like that episode of The Simpsons, where Homer goes on a quest to find out what the ‘J’ in his middle name stands for.
It’s one symptom, perhaps, of Super Mario Bros.‘ nightmarish pre-production, where different writers were brought in to have a go at sculpting the script. The first, which imagined Super Mario as a straight fairytale fantasy movie along the lines of The Wizard of Oz or Shrek, was abandoned when original director Greg Beeman was replaced by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel.
Two other drafts were written by Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais – the writing duo famed for TV shows such as Porridge, and movies including The Commitments and Flushed Away. Their drafts were darker and more action-packed, and one even included a cameo from Bruce Willis, who would have been glimpsed in John McClane mode, crawling around a duct in Koopa’s lair.
It was Clement and la Frenais’ script which attracted much of the acting talent – particularly Hopper, Hoskins, and Fiona Shaw, who plays Koopa’s evil muse. Unfortunately for them, Clement and la Frenais were soon replaced by a new writing duo, and the script gradually mutated out of all recognition as the production went on. Willis had a lucky escape.
An Old Lady Is Thrown Off a Balcony
Whether you approve of the direction Super Mario Bros.‘ makers took with the Nintendo property or not, it has to be said that some of the ideas in the resulting movie are quite interesting. Taken on its own terms rather than a video game adaptation, it’s a weird, often surprising jumble of bickering humor and grungy action, complete with car chases and outlandish shootouts.
It has to be said, though, that nobody involved seems particularly interested in the property’s origins. It’s even said that the directors had the desire to make a parallel universe fantasy movie before they took Super Mario Bros. on, and simply adapted the property’s characters to fit their pre-existing ideas. This might explain why the characters bear no resemblance to the (immediately sketchy) ones in the video game, with King Koopa (otherwise known as Bowser) now a half-human, half lizard instead of a monstrous turtle with a shock of red hair.
Similarly, the game’s cheerful mushroom fellow Toad is a busker played by Mojo Dixon in the movie, and later turned into a Goomba (here imagined as a breed of shrunken-headed reptiles). Yoshi, the adorable dinosaur sidekick who first appeared in 1990’s Super Mario World, makes an appearance here as a realistic yet still quite cute animatronic lizard who could have wandered in off the set of Jurassic Park. Even Mario and Luigi spend much of the film in a selection of hooded tops and baggy trousers – it’s not until well past the half-way point that they finally get to don their more familiar red and green overalls.
Bertha is perhaps the most outlandish character adaptation in the whole movie. In Super Mario Bros. 3, Big Berthas are giant red fish. In the movie, Bertha’s a large-framed woman who possesses uncanny physical strength. In one of the film’s more surprising moments, she picks up an old lady who threatens Mario and Luigi, and throws her over a balcony like a rag doll.
By this point, one begins to wonder what would have happened if the directors had adapted Alice in Wonderland as a dark dystopia instead. The Mad Hatter probably would have been a crack dealer played by Harvey Keitel or something.
Koopa Tries to Seduce Princess Daisy
Following his astonishingly unfettered performance in Blue Velvet, we struggled to watch a subsequent movie starring Dennis Hopper in quite the same way. So when Hopper shows up in a movie with a family rating in a low-lit room with Princess Daisy, we’re nervously wondering when he’s going to start yelling, “Mommeee,” or “Don’t look at me!”
Actually, what happens is only slightly less disturbing. With Princess Daisy holed up in Koopa’s lair (which appears to be a parallel universe version of the Twin Towers, if we’re not mistaken), Hopper drinks a few shots of alcohol and starts making all sorts of discomforting comments. “You’re so fresh, so clean,” he hisses. “…you know what they say about little girls, don’t you? They never forget their first kiss from a lizard…”
Just when we thought the scene couldn’t possibly get any creepier, Koopa lolls his long, lizard tongue around suggestively, while the princess looks on in horror. It’s likely that Samantha Mathis didn’t have to pretend to be frightened in this scene.
Yoshi Is Stabbed
As if Dennis Hopper’s CG-assisted seduction of Princess Daisy wasn’t enough to freak out the under-10s in the audience, a late scene in which the princess is attacked by a knife-wielding Lina (Fiona Shaw) would probably have had them weeping into their popcorn. As Yoshi helps Princess Daisy escape by tripping up Lina with his massive tongue, the latter stabs the poor little creature in the back.
It’s a surprisingly cruel moment, even leaving aside the fact that, in one of the weirder collisions of pop culture, it’s Harry Potter‘s Petunia Dursley sticking a knife into one of video gaming’s most adorable characters. It’s a bit like seeing Jon Pertwee setting fire to Bagpuss, or Sean Bean throttling E.T.
Mario and Luigi Go to a Nightclub
It used to be an unwritten rule in the 80s and early-90s that all films had to contain a scene set in a strip joint or seedy nightclub. True to form, Mario and Luigi put on a pair of gaudy suits and head to a dingy night spot, where scantily-clad dancers cavort to the Divinyl’s cover of “Love Is the Drug.”
As if all the leather and tights weren’t incongruous enough in a family movie, we’re then treated to the edifying sight of Mario doing the bump n’ grind with Bertha, as he attempts to seduce her into giving up the meteorite fragment/necklace thing she stole earlier.
If the scene has a decidedly kinky, 90s vibe as it stands, an earlier cut of the nightclub sequence would have seen Iggy and Spike clamber on stage to perform a rap song. A production photograph shows actors Richard Edson and Fisher Stevens joined on stage by a dancer in a decidedly PG-13-unfriendly outfit – which is possibly why the scene was cut. In case you were wondering what the rap was like, here’s a sample of the lyrics, courtesy of SMB Movie:
Well, we just met two plumbers who had an idea.
They showed us the light and new frontier.
Mario and Luigi – they know what’s right.
We gotta take a stand and put up a fight!
Bob-omb Is Actually Quite Cute
In a film in which we’ve already seen Yoshi stabbed and Princess Daisy menaced by Dennis Hopper, we were beginning to wonder whether any of the video game series’ childlike whimsy had survived the transition. And then, somewhere around the 80 minute mark, a Bob-omb shows up – and for once, it looks almost exactly like its counterpart in the game. It’s simply a little wind-up bomb with eyes, and looks adorably hand-made – like something from a Michel Gondry film.
For a brief moment, as the little device trundles along the ground causing panic (its destructive power being far greater than its diminutive size implies), the sense of cruelty and cynicism lurking in the rest of the film briefly disappears. But then you happen to notice that the Bob-omb’s wearing Reebok trainers…
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There’s a Cameo from the Super Scope
The Super Mario Bros. movie may have made only passing references to its video game source, but one particular Nintendo product did make a brief yet prominent cameo appearance. The Nintendo Super Scope was the company’s next-gen replacement for its NES Zapper lightgun. Because of Nintendo’s sensitivity over guns and violence, it decided to make the Super Scope look less like a pistol, and more like some sort of shoulder-mounted mid-point between a bazooka and a periscope.
This ungainly yet immediately recognizable peripheral appears in Super Mario Bros. as a devolution gun – a device which is used to turn a member of the Mafia into a chimpanzee in one scene, and Koopa into a puddle of primordial goo in another. Oddly, no one in the film mentions how annoying it is to have to fill the Super Scope (sorry, devolution gun) with six AA batteries, nor how sore their shoulder gets after wielding the thing for more than half an hour or so.
Okay, so this isn’t the most remarkable point you could make about Super Mario Bros., but bear this in mind: the movie marks the first and only time Academy Award-nominated actor Dennis Hopper was spotted holding a Nintendo product. The scene illustrated above is also noteworthy for the repetition of one of the film’s few potential catchphrases: “Trust the fungus!”
Lance Henriksen Shows up for Approximately Three Seconds
Super Mario Bros. opens with a bizarre computer-animated sequence that set the tone for the whole movie. With a voiceover by Dan Castellaneta, it simultaneously introduced the notion of an alternate universe full of dinosaur/human hybrids, and also left audiences wondering if they’d showed up for the wrong picture. (Legend has it that this opening scene was added at the last minute after executives worried that the film’s premise didn’t make sense.)
Fittingly, the movie ends in an equally bizarre manner. Throughout the last act, Princess Daisy has been pointing at a huge pile of fungus and goo, and insisting that it’s her father. On our first viewing, we simply assumed she’d been drinking, but in the final scenes, we discover that Daisy’s been telling the truth all along: as the now dead Koopa’s spell is lifted, the pile of goo morphs back into the King, played by none other than Lance Henriksen.
Incredibly, this brilliant actor is given little more than one line of dialogue: “[Cough]. I’m back. I love those plumbers.” Exactly why such a great actor was brought in for such a brief scene isn’t clear – like the opening, the sequence was shot way after principle photography was finished – but it’s possible that Super Mario Bros. filmmakers thought Henriksen might make a bigger contribution to the sequel.
With the movie’s producers clearly expecting lots of money to be made, Super Mario Bros. ends on a cliffhanger; Princess Daisy comes bursting into Mario and Luigi’s apartment dressed like Ripley, triggering the start of another adventure. Needless to say, that next adventure was never filmed – which is probably just as well. With the production of Super Mario Bros. proving to be such a nightmare, Bob Hoskins may have been difficult to coax back into the role. It’s perhaps fair, then, to give him the last word about the whole ordeal.
“The worst thing I ever did? Super Mario Brothers.” Hoskins said in a 2007 Guardian interview. “It was a fuckin’ nightmare.”