Super Mario Bros. the Movie! Dystopia hits the Mushroom Kingdom

Super Mario Bros at 30 - Luigi

To mark 30 years since Mario’s arrival in homes, a look at one of the Italian plumber’s rare misfires: 1993’s Super Mario Bros. The Movie! A side-line to Jokerside’s summer of dystopia, it even features a villainous spin for Dennis Hopper. Time for a reappraisal?

IT’S 30 YEARS SINCE MARIO WENT SOLO, WELL ALMOST SOLO. ENLISTING HIS MALACHITE SIBLING, THE SUPER MARIO BROS OFFICIALLY HIT THE NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM ON 13 SEPTEMBER 1985. The plumbing brothers had appeared on arcade machines two years before of course, not quite getting the look down pat while they battled strange invaders in the sewer system under New York. And two years prior to that Mario, the everyman masquerading for a bit as Jumpman, had conquered the misguided Donkey Kong as he rescued Lady Pauline in the arcades. But it took four years from that first pioneering stab at putting narrative in a videogame for the Mario we all know to arrive in homes across the globe. On consoles. In living rooms.

And it was then that everything slotted into place like Tetris (invented a year before, but yet to turn the videogames industry on its head). With Super Mario Bros. Mario was suddenly in the brightly coloured Mushroom Kingdom. Princess Toadstool has been kidnapped by the forces of the dastardly Bowser and only the pipe-travelling plumber Mario could save her. Coins abounded, as did invincibility stars. Enemies were stomped and blocks head-butted, granting 1-ups and special abilities including that brilliant and powerful lil’ fire flower. Everything was pretty much set in this much ported game. And you could even introduce Luigi by picking up another controller.

From there the games piled up. Sequels, and the arrival of Super Mario World on the SNES and Super Mario Land on Gameboy. The Italian icon diversified as he took on sports like tennis, golf and baseball. Guest appearances in the broadening Nintendo home franchises saw him juggling, typing, karting, studying for a doctorate, dealing with over excited dinosaurs and even merging with the blocks in Tetris Attack. It was all going swimmingly for Mario and his brother, and then Hollywood came calling for the Brooklyn plumbers and everything changed…

Super Mario Bros. The Movie (1993)

“Strap your belt on kid, we’re going in”

Of course, the Mario bros are from Brooklyn, The animated shows and the brilliantly absurd Super Mario Brothers Super Show in 1989 proved that just as much as the games. But still, nothing prepared us for their arrival on film. Its starts off promisingly as we meet idealistic Luigi, telling his pragmatic older brother who mysteriously raised him, that “anything’s possible Mario, you just have to believe!” It’s a sterling message that weaves all the way through to the film’s punchline. But then, something soon gets in the way. And it’s not just Bowser.

Mario origins

“No leak too small”

Let’s step back a bit. It’s important to note that this wasn’t really Nintendo’s idea, but masterminded by the eclectic Roland Joffé, already boasting a diverse CV boasting Coronation Street, The Stars Look Down, The Mission and the Killing Fields (the last two for which he received two Best Director Oscar nods). In the early 1990s, Joffé’s prolonged dedication to meeting with President Yamauchi of Nintendo resulted in his production company Lightmotive gaining temporary custody of the plumber. It was a curious state of affairs, and key to the end result. It’s a mishmash of ideas that interprets the characters’ platforming heritage as a chase movie, propelled by a simple plot where Bowser, sorry, King Koopa’s first main appearance unleashes a torrent of exposition, and a slippery pendant shard of meteorite is the MacGuffin to oddly merge our ‘world of the free’ with the parallel Manhattan of the Mushroom Kingdom, the ‘land of the trapped’.

Narrative from nothing

“The name’s Mario, I’m your main man”

There are two broad approaches to adapting a known property that allows creators to reference the familiar while creating some room for their own manoeuvres. There’s the prequel approach (see the recent Man from UNCLE and Star Trek reboot), or the status quo reversal of conspiracy (see every Mission Impossible film). Mario brought a blanker canvas than usual. But while the film follows the very loose plot of most Mario games, a rescue mission, it also opted for the prequel approach. Instead of establishing a status quo, it just twists the nature of the platformer in the first place. Even Super Mario Land, a fair influence that took Mario to fight an alien, didn’t stretch things this far. Nintendo were excessively kind, apparently granting the film-makers a free reign while they concentrated on the game series. What probably no one expected from this approach was for everything to get quite so dark and nasty.

It didn’t help that it was a fraught production process, described by co-director Rocky Morton as “harrowing”. In-built as a counterbalance to the freedom that a smaller production company granted the film. Behind the scenes, co-writer Parker Bennett, one of the third generation of writers who’d inherited a darker script of fraternal conflict and resolution from legendary comic writers Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, acknowledged that previous writers had realised that this was a “movie that would be great for six year olds”. But a flighty animated fantasy hadn’t appeal to film-makers Morton and Annabel Jankel, picked for their work on Max Headroom, who wanted to appeal to the whole family. Unfortunately, multiple effects teams, writers, money strains and studio interference led to a final script, in need of retrofitting and daily work, just 10 days before production. The end result of poorly mashed light and dark was inevitable.

The land that time forgot

“Hey, there were dinosaurs in Brooklyn?”

It starts in pixels, after the familiar theme plays over the production logos. It’s 65 million years ago where even the dinosaurs have Brooklyn accents, before we’re told that the infamous meteor strike didn’t wipe the dinosaurs out but exiled them to evolution in a parallel universe. After that Cretaceous opening, the film leaps forward to 1973 where the fairy-tale is sewn by a lady emerging from a drain to leave an egg at the door of a nunnery. It then leaps forward to the present day where we meet the Mario and his brother in Brooklyn, endlessly thwarted in their plumbing business by the Mafia above-ground before they’re thrown into the parallel New York below ground. This was apparently a story that Nintendo loved, but the first of those three beginnings, narrated by Dan Castellaneta, was a late addition after a preview screenings left audiences a little lost. And the warning signs were alight far before that.

Such breakneck guerrilla film-making was painful. The film was at risk of sinking from the start. As enthusiastic Luigi John Leguizamo remarked, it had the feeling of the Titanic before halfway through. And while an incredible set of creatives in front of and behind the camera may have helped pull something together there’s the real sense of too many chefs. Alongside the two directors and Joffé on production duties were production manager David L Snyder, art director of Blade Runner, who crafting an incredible alternative New York in an abandoned cement factory. And also the ever inspired Patrick Tatopoulos on creature design. The incredible verticality of Snyder and co’s set, the attention to detail and the overall effects might be the film’s greatest legacy.

But those many captains missed a major issue. The eye-opening 2014 making of This ain’t no Videogame suggests they still might, apart from a wry comment from Morton that the story and the tone’s a little flawed. The tone’s a little flawed?

Tonal troubles

It may be the perfect horror film aimed at families

Mario was always more than a kids game. Especially since the games entered 3D, Mario’s been a by-word for a transformative challenge and story that children can play as they reach and enter adulthood. It’s in-built, and thanks to Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s genius, it always has been. Although instrumental in putting narrative into gaming, the series may not have left much of a story to draw on, but there were some cardinal principals that disappeared like a Mushroom kingdom princess.

“The way your knuckles crunched and you smashed them into my face”

Extinction is a significant theme, but that’s no excuse for its misjudged obsession with death and threat. If it wasn’t a distracting oxymoron, it could be described as positively sadistic. The ‘real world’ is bad enough, where six females have been abducted, two of them known to the brothers, and the Mafia is ruining their and Daisy’s lives. One of those abducted potential princess continually smokes during her rescue, while the Mafia Don who’s had little time to do much bad on screen gets ‘de-evolved’ into a chimpanzee while everybody laughs.

“One thing I cannot stand is naysaying”

But from the bros’ arrival in the impressive dystopian New York, things get worse. Bar signs and Triple-X Mammal films billboards (think about that one) are continually visible. They emerge to a great line from Luigi (“I dunno, I haven’t been to Manhattan in a couple of weeks”), but are instantly thrust into bizarre action scenes and mugged by cattle-prod before being robbed by Big Bertha and her cleavage. Later they pursue her to a club packed with suspenders and lingerie, which puts the focus on the soundtrack. Alright, Charles and Eddie may be just about acceptable, but Divinyl’s cover of Love is the Drug? Curious choices all round. When they meet King Koopa for the first time he almost gouges out Luigi’s eyes to prove how bad he is. That’s far removed from the comically styled de-evolving and game referencing Bob-ombs.

“I’ll kill that plumber!”

Most staggeringly, the word kill is used 13 times, mainly in threat and promise. “I’m really going to kill them says Mario of Princess Daisy’s kidnappers as soon as he enters the alternate reality, after promising to break every bone in their body. It’s all a remarkably bad fit, and surely why some contemporary press urged parents not to take their children to see it. Later, when escaping from the police station and Mario’s casual suggestion of grand theft auto, Luigi’s explanation for his skills suggests little knowledge of the audience as well. “’Cause I sit on my butt all day playing videogames, that’s why”.

“Look at this, a plumbers’ nightmare”

And that’s not to mention the goombas, presumably the de-evolved Toad who’s set on fire, and poor old Yoshi, manacled and then stabbed. On the streets, let’s forget the corpses strung to the front of cars and villainess Lena’s “impressionable” ending. There’s pitching it to the parents, and then there’s something else. With the Raiders of the Lost Ark/Hellraiser string score at parts, it may be the perfect horror film aimed at families.

“If you do not return with the plumbers and rock, I shall personally kill you…” – that’s not even a quotable one-liner. When Mario says “That’s it, let’s die there” – that’s not the anti-thesis to the alternative of becoming heroes and saving the day it’s intended to be. It’s just another excuse to mention death and cheat tension. Much of this, like the plot strands that disappear (Koopa’s de-evolving, or his elected position as supreme rule taken from the Lucas rulebook of power structure), poor plot hinges (the MacGuffin hidden in our world for 0.00003076923% of the dinosaur’s total exile), terrible structure (Daisy’s importance is only revealed right at the end and unbelievably, Mario only finding out about his girlfriend’s abduction 75 minutes in) was undoubtedly influenced by the difficult production. Although it’s hard to say for sure when none of the production staff appear to acknowledge it two decades on.

Comedy

“You plumbers!”

That misplaced sadism is undoubtedly the film’s major flaw, but considering the trial by fire zone production, it otherwise hangs together surprisingly well. It’s generally entertaining and it isn’t unamusing. At the start, above ground, comedy is flagged by a Superman line in incidental music that suggests it’s a little behind the times. The Koopa cousin double-act take point as the comedy double-act, counterparts to Mario and Luigi, whose banter never quite reaches the height it needs to. But as the films progresses, the lines improve. “The Plumbers took it / Plumber alert” may grate, but when the abductees are asked if they’re all from Brooklyn, responses like “Except Angelica – she’s from Queens, but she’s all right” help to compensate. It’s a shame that some built up jokes like Koopa’s pizza order and extended pay off, are wasted by the weak script (“Sir, your pizza’s here” Not now”). That’s just frustrating.

A special comedy award must go to Tatopoulis’ wonderful and brilliantly animatronic goombas. Impossible to see without thinking of Beetlejuice, they may be a rather wasted and sinister by-product (quickly built up in the script during production), but their tiny articulated heads are genuinely amusing.

Oddly, for all the slapstick and pratfalling, plumbing is kept as a distinct and very serious chance for the Bros to save the day, and importantly Luigi to prove himself. Flashes of that ‘everyman’ approach, a popular Japanese archetype that inspired Mario in the first place, sadly just expose the potential.

Fidelity

“You can go ahead and choke this little Mushroom Kingdom all you want”

For all the fact that game references were purposefully poked in when they could be, there’s a fair number of references. Oddly, the first act plot is true to the first Bros arcade game, while Daisy’s presence suggests the influence of the strange (and ubiquitous at the time) Super Mario Land. There is a concerted attempt to pull plumbing in as part of that everyman ethos that isn’t unsuccessful and on occasion it’s quite affecting. “I’ve been listening to pipes all my life” says the grizzled Mario while the bros tear after the captured Daisy. True to the spirit of the franchise, it’s Mario and Luigi working together that drags them into this parallel world.

“Stop fiddling with the fungus and let’s get out of here”

Other nods include game staple Toad, although the plot forces him into his quite opposite of his usual sycophant – a humanoid reptilian protestor. And somehow they pull out nods to zones of the games, from the Koopahari Dessert to the later Bros fuelled creation of the ice pipe.

“How we gonna get up, huh? Like Marios”

Outside of that, there are off riffs on videogame culture a little better than Luigi’s one-liners. Security cameras and computers work through a light gun controlled interface. Perhaps a little token, and un-Mario, especially as it’s not even an unwieldly SNES Super Scope, released in America and Europe in the year the film came out – but tellingly not in Japan thanks to a lack of demand.

The Bros music should have been more authentic, but when the two eventually gain their familiar costumes it’s clear what we’re watching. The tower climb even references the original Donkey Kong although it’s strange that other some direct nods to integral Mario abilities are diluted. “I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Brooklyn no more” isn’t the only nod to The Wizard of Oz, as the Stomper boots require the familiar clicking together of heels. It’s not over-laboured, but it’s not necessary in a burgeoning franchise of its own.

Perhaps the most amusing part comes when Mario finally makes use of the miniature and inexplicable Bob-omb. Wound up, it soon comes a cropper before unrelentingly marching on to take down Koopa during his and Mario’s final street battle. Most importantly, this is the Mushroom Kingdom we know, albeit one where the king has been devolved to a giant testicle (later Lance Henrickson and rice crispies’ fine and slight cameo “Love those plumbers!”), and the fungus is a little creepier than we’re familiar with.

Super Mario Bros at 30 - Mario Super Mario Bros at 30 - Luigi

End of level

“Trust the fungus”

There are few who’d argue that Super Mario Bros isn’t hugely flawed. But it’s also not the total disaster that its early standing in the annals of videogame adaptation makes it out to be. In many ways it’s an excellent companion piece to underrated films like Tank Girl, and the fact that’s a fair association is part of the problem. Mostly, that was just happenstance for a new and tricky idea trying to do something different in the Hollywood system. There was a huge amount of raw talent and imagination pumped into a film that just couldn’t rise above film-making politics and its Hydra-head-like production imbalance.

Yes, there’s a lot of mitigation. With its considerable dinosaur riff, it was particularly unlucky to go up against Jurassic Park that year. Not even the freshly dubbed Super Mario Bros could compete with that.

“Improbable, unlikely, but never impossible”

Unfortunately, America’s first big screen adaptation of a videogame set a compelling template for almost every one that followed – a genre renowned for its lack of quality. It’s such a shame as the film doesn’t quite deserve its terrible returns or persistent reputation.

The terrible tone issues don’t affect Super Mario Bros. cult status but they do lessen the chance of a brightening reappraisal. Hollywood’s infatuation with videogames comes not just from their inherent merchandising, but also their in-built audience and huge money earning (as well as surely a wary glimpse at its parallel and media rival). Few chances to merge the two have managed to fulfil the potential and that sadly started here. Ultimately Super Mario Bros manages to do a disservice to itself and the game franchise while being immensely watchable and on occasion visually stunning. Its greatest injustice is that such a glorious adventure ended with the opposite legacy: two decades later an increasing raft of videogame adaptations are now expected to fail, following standard formulas with the need to break ground being felt less and less.

It’s a shame that Super Mario Bros. has been written off, but fortunate that there was wherewithal to craft the 2014 making of to give it a compelling shot at redemption. While an independent attempt to start something new, ultimately lines like “You filthy mammal” would never make the transition to the finely tuned scripts of the Mario games.

And for all the comic post-credit tease, there wasn’t a game tie-in, let alone the Supa Koopa Cousins.

That said, don’t write off a return of live-action Nintendo properties to the big and small screens some time soon…

References and further viewing:
Super Mario Bros. the Movie, 1993
This ain’t no videogame, 2014

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