The new Super Mario Bros. movie is upon us and some of the early reviews could hardly be more scathing. This Chris Pratt and Anya Taylor-Joy animated romp has sunk a few critics into pits of despair, with some unfortunate souls stating it’s even worse than the 1993 flop. We won’t know until we see it but one can envision it being a downgrade in terms of sheer lunacy.
Say what you will about the 1993 movie, but it’s a fascinating piece of cinema worth revisiting, its abject failure never stemming from a lack of crazy ideas. A lack of conviction, perhaps, since you can smell the flop sweat of exhausted writers, not to mention the confusion of cast and crew and audience, too! It is one confounding mess, and to watch it is to sense one’s sanity slipping away…
How to even explain Super Mario Bros.? Produced by Disney under their Hollywood Pictures branch so as not to sully the House of Mouse brand, it’s one of the very first features adapted from a video game. It’s also the only such Nintendo property until 2019’s Detective Pikachu. While Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel are credited as co-directors, rumors have it that producer, writer, and Palme d’Or-winner Roland Joffé ghost-directed good portions of the flick. Other rumors point fingers at cinematographer Dean Semler as the real mastermind of the operation, revealing how nobody wants to take responsibility. Indeed, judging by what ended up on the screen, it’s fair to say none of these folks wanted to be in the business of making a Super Mario Bros. movie.
I say this because there’s little connection between the presented narrative and the basic premise of Nintendo’s blockbuster game series. Character names are in check, but little else is. For you see, this isn’t the nonsensical but relatively simple tale of two plumber siblings traversing the magical Mushroom kingdom to save a princess from the claws of Bowser, a giant fire-breathing reptile-like monster. There is an attempt at capturing that basic story shape, but it’s like the result of a game of telephone or some alien attempt at understanding the human folly known as a “video game”. What we have here is dimensional-hopping madness that starts when an asteroid hits Earth, bringing about the extinction of dinosaurs.
Only, they didn’t die in Super Mario Bros. but were expelled to a parallel universe resulting from the reality-splitting impact. In our world, mammals reign supreme. In their dimension, reptiles dominate. This is established in the first prologue. The second opening salvo finds a royal queen hopping into our reality, from Dinohattan to Manhattan. She carries an egg and a mysterious crystal, leaving them in the care of Catholic nuns before a mad-eyed Dennis Hopper captures her. A baby hatches from that egg, and twenty years later, she’s Daisy, an archeology student working at a site under the Brooklyn Bridge.
She crosses paths with two Italian-American plumber brothers during a mind-numbingly mundane first act. They’re Mario Mario and Luigi Mario, played by Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, in what might be a shocking bit of miscasting or a stroke of genius ordinary minds aren’t ready to accept. Both the brothers and the Indiana Jones wannabee find themselves clashing with a local mafioso, but that’s only important as far as getting the trio underground at the right moment when two of President Koopa’s henchmen kidnap Daisy and take her to Dinohattan. Logically, the brothers follow, intent on saving the woman who’s caught Luigi’s eye and whose crystal ended up in their possession during the skirmish.
Eventually, the story abandons our reality altogether and leaves all logic behind. Good taste is jettisoned out the window long before that.
President Koopa is an autocratic dictator who deposed the dino-humans’ royalty in a violent coup and has since developed weaponry capable of evolving or de-evolving its targets. With the princess’ crystal, he plans on activating the dormant asteroid, bringing his army into the mammalian world to conquer and turn Humanity into apes for good measure. These plans stem from material despair since Dinohattan is a metropolis lost within a planet-wide desert, the spiderweb fungus that covers every surface representing its only resource.
The fungi are why this is, in essence, a mostly mushroom-less Mushroom Kingdom. Oh, they’re also the de-evolved former king turned city-sized hive-mind. I swear I’m not making this up. Nor am I coming up with the strange sexual overtones in the siblings’ crystal recovery mission – it gets stolen by a jet-shoed woman called Big Bertha right after they cross the interdimensional portal.
Plot descriptions are something I tend to forego in film analysis, but one must confront the madness of Super Mario Bros. head-on. There’s also the fact that, beyond the dysfunctional weirdness of the story, there’s not much to it, good or bad. Every creative mind involved appears to be at a loss when translating the much-rewritten pandemonium into cinema.
The cast is almost uniformly bad, with many actors not even trying. Crowned with a most-unfortunate hairdo, Hopper looks positively numb to the crazy. (Is he bored?). Hoskins at least brings some inchoate aggression to Mario, while Leguizamo is cute as Luigi. Unfortunately, Samantha Mathis is a non-entity as Daisy, while Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson fail at making the humor work. At least Mojo Nixon made Toad sound like Bob Dylan before he’s de-evolved into a Goomba, so that’s something.
The exception to the rule is Fiona Shaw. She plays Koopa’s presidential consort and is the only person delivering an actual performance. She’s serving drama and looks at a level unbeknownst to all her castmates. Super Mario Bros. doesn’t deserve Fiona Shaw.
It doesn’t deserve the adorable Yoshi puppet, either.
Regarding audiovisual matters: the makeup team earns applause, though what they put on top of Hopper’s head is unforgivable. The costumes are pure 90s kitsch, and the sets represent a curious permutation of the Blade Runner cum anime idea of derelict futurism. It’s rather colorless, gloomy to the point that it looks like the filmmakers were aiming at some sort of hyper-industrialist neo-noir? Semler’s lensing follows that line of thinking, providing striking backlit shots that don’t quite make the leap into being beautiful but come close.
Overall, it’s hard to call the filmmaking incompetent, but it’s wrong for the material, nevertheless. There’s a missing bounce to the proceedings that makes it fail as both an action movie fun and a video game adaptation. It’s heavy and dour, interesting only as a study of bad decisions. And yet, that’s better than being boring. Super Mario Bros. is many things, but never boring.