1993's 'Super Mario Bros.' Is Far More Interesting Than You Remember

(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: Super Mario Bros. is much better than we give it credit for.)

Illumination Entertainment and Nintendo are gearing up to bring Mario, Luigi and the gang back to the big screen with an animated Super Mario Bros. film. Fans of the video game are hoping it's going to be good, especially since many are trying to erase the original live-action film from their memory. It's popular in film circles to say 1993's Super Mario Bros. is atrocious. But I disagree. In fact, I think we're all undervaluing it.

The film, starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Mario and Luigi, two brothers who get trapped in an alternate New York City run by humanoid dinosaurs, is a film that is considered so awesomely bad, that it becomes good. But I think it's actually good. While there are tonal shifts that don't make sense and a confused sense of direction, Super Mario Bros. is not the worst film to watch on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Its leads are convincing, its design is thought-provoking, and contrary to popular belief, it actually follows the Nintendo video games much closer than people actually remember. What also makes this a good movie is that it's a movie fit for film lovers who like learning about how to tell better stories. One of the boons from Super Mario Bros. is, in fact, learning about its mistakes.

What makes Super Mario Bros. fun

When I watched it many years ago, I was highly confused as to why a film would mangle something as simple as a story about two plumber brothers saving a princess. But the film I watched was still engaging and, ultimately, it was fun. Sure, it was weird, but most films from the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s were equally weird; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, RoboCop, Escape from New York, the Terminator series, Howard the Duck, the Back to the Future franchise, and, yes, the Star Wars franchise are just some of the weird films that came out during this time. Some of them were successes and others (like Howard the Duck) weren't, but they still communicate with Super Mario Bros. in that same late '80s, hyper-textural, gritty and endearingly gross way.

As far as acting goes, Hoskins and Leguizamo are still acting their butts off, despite being inebriated for most of the filming process (which you'll read about later). In fact, their talent shows mightily–if they are still engaging and provoking while drunk, it puts in perspective the sheer amount of their acting skill when they're actually in tune with their characters.

One of the biggest draws for me while watching it was Hoskins' presence, to be honest. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was (and still is) one of my favorite films, and seeing him made me think I was in good hands while watching the film. At the time, I thought that if Hoskins was in it, it had to be good!

One of the biggest misconceptions about the film is the idea that Hoskins and Leguizamo are miscast, but I actually don't think they are. Yes, they don't match what we think of as Mario and Luigi from the video game, but if anyone had to be cast as a realistic brother plumber pair, then Hoskins and Leguizamo are perfect. In fact, I'd say they're the strongest parts of the movie and the main reason it's as beloved as it is today. The opening scenes of them in their Brooklyn apartment were charming and indeed, fun. If we are to just look at the scene as one in a straight-laced comedy, it works; we see the dynamic between Mario and Luigi–Mario's a gruff father-figure to his younger brother who is obsessed with sci-fi conspiracy theories–and we are ready to join them on their adventure, which stars with a fix-it job gone weird.

In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Hoskins had the ability to make the unbelievable believable and he continues to make the viewer believe in Super Mario Bros. Despite the wild surroundings and even wilder dino characters, Hoskins' Mario is grounded in reality, staunchly bringing us along for the ride. Leguizamo shares this quality to keep things relatable and grounded–he made us believe he was a viable drag queen in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, and he gamely portrayed a glam-rock version of Tybalt in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. Also, on a much more shallow note, Leguizamo's good-looking; if he wasn't often looked over for roles due to Hollywood's idea of what a "leading man" should look like, Leguizamo would have been another artsy, unconventional heartthrob.

What's also in the film's favor is that there are still tons of references to the video game, even though the film looks nothing like it. Bob-ombs, a more realistic dinosaur version of Yoshi, Luigi's girlfriend Daisy, Toad (turned human for the film), Kuribo's Shoe (interpreted as the special boots Mario and Luigi wear while in the dinosaur underworld) and Bullet Bills all have roles to play in the film. The film's brightest moment as a Mario film is how much it utilizes tunnels. The dino world and our world are connected via tunnel, setting up a space that can only be navigated by two plumbers with gumption and an endless set of tools. Mario and Luigi also escape through various tunnels, one of the best scenes showcasing Mario, his girlfriend Daniella (who might actually be a reference to Pauline, Mario's first love interest and resident Donkey Kong character), and several captured women, sliding on a mattress through an iced-over tunnel.

Last, despite its griminess, there's astounding dystopian detail in Super Mario Bros. version of New York City. It's a town that does evoke the dystopian metropolises that littered the 1980s box office, such as the ones in Escape from New York, RoboCop and Blade Runner. If it were in another movie, this version of New York would actually be cool. In fact, much of this film would be cool if only it weren't a film about Nintendo characters.

The biggest issues with Super Mario Bros. is that it's a thousand films in one. It's a brother-duo comedy set in modern day, complete with modern problems such as scrounging up money for rent. Then it's a sci-fi/fantasy adventure/comedy. Then still, it's a dystopian fantasy shock horror, complete with body horror elements. Somewhere in all of that, it's a standard damsel-in-distress story.

No one who paid for a Mario movie wants to see Mario and Luigi talk about how they're going to pay their month's rent. They also don't want to see the characters they know and love, like King Koopa, Toad and the Goombas, inconceivably restructured to resemble nothing of their former selves. But at the same time, I don't think anyone would be opposed to seeing a fun film about an underground dinosaur metropolis who wants to regain the power they once had before the humans came. The film posits a ridiculous sci-fi/fantasy film that would have been even more awesome if it just kept on message and didn't have tonal whiplash. It also would help if the film wasn't a bait-and-switch for the film audiences thought they were going to see–a family film about harmless video game characters.

Super Mario Bros.’ failures

The instinct to make a film from Mario games is a good one. It was especially salient during the early '90s, when studios were trying to capitalize from the success of another film who took children's entertainment and turned it on its head, 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film I consider to be a spiritual cousin to Super Mario Bros. because of its artistic aspirations and, of course, it's leading man, Bob Hoskins.

The film, starring Hoskins in a world full of cartoons, made the impossible possible, seamlessly meshing real life actors with cartoon scene partners who steal the show and have just as much heart as any flesh-and-blood person onscreen. There are several iconic scenes from the film, but the most notable one to me is Jessica Rabbit singing "Why Don't You Do Right," performing with and against real men in a way that still boggles my mind. Like, how did they get Jessica to take the handkerchief out of Marvin Acme's pocket and shine his head with it? The film was nothing anyone had ever seen before, and with its success came a renaissance of animation.

"The success of the film helped reignite [Who Framed Roger Rabbit producer Steven] Spielberg's never quite dead interest in the old Warner Bros. cartoons, which in turn led Spielberg to take back the joint Amblin/Warner Bros. productions Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, Freakazoid! and Pinky and the Brain, which formed a critical part of the overall animated renaissance of the 1990s. That in turn spurred Disney to greater effort and helped Pixar persuade skeptical executives that really, yes, there might just be an audience for a computer animated film featuring talking toys," wrote Tor's Mari Ness.

"Movies like Monkeybone, Shrek, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and even Avatar probably wouldn't exist if not for Who Framed Roger Rabbit," wrote Inside the Magic's Spencer Blohm. "One of the film's most lasting impacts was that it proved animation was a worthy artform for mainstream directors and filmmakers to not only work on and experiment with, but use to achieve blockbuster critical and box office success."

The realization of the blurred lines between animation and adult entertainment led to aforementioned films like Monkeybone and Shrek, as well as cult classics like Cool World, The Flintstones and Space Jam. You can also count Super Mario Bros. in the mix as well; if it weren't for a film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, who made it cool (and financially lucrative) to inject subversiveness into a media traditionally viewed as "kids' stuff", no one would have considered making an entire film based on a Nintendo property played by children at arcades.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit also helped Hoskins' career explode in a way it hadn't before. Part of Who Framed Roger Rabbit's success lies in how masterfully Hoskins was able to act as the audience's guide through an unfamiliar world. He successfully made us believe he was really talking to animated characters. Even though co-director Rocky Morton told SciFiNow that the only reason Hoskins was hired was because of his availability (the first choice was Danny DeVito, but he turned the role down), Morton and directing partner Annabel Jankel should have also realized what a boon they had in someone like Hoskins accepting the role. If Hoskins could make talking animated rabbits and toon logic seem reasonable and believable, then think of the magic he could have done with something like Super Mario Bros. Indeed, according to Game Informer, "Hoskins was hot off the success of films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Hook, and the producers felt that he would be a more bankable star."

In a way, there is a lot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit in Super Mario Bros., despite the latter being a film with real actors. In both films, there's a fantastical world that exists just beyond our boring one. Both films also carry childlike entertainment into a more adult space. To put it another way, both are trying to elevate what we think of when we talk about cartoons and video games. Both also show how those childlike pursuits can change into something nightmarish, otherworldly, and downright scary.

But the big difference is that Who Framed Roger Rabbit succeeds where Super Mario Bros. failed. While Who Framed Roger Rabbit had a consistent storyline and equally consistent clarity of vision for most of its entire production, as well as a team of pros who had the right amount of boundless imagination, filmmaking know-how, financial backing and love for the craft of animation, Super Mario Bros. had inconsistent story, lack of vision, and lack of consistent leadership. 

Lightmotive, the company behind the film, commissioned its first Super Mario Bros. script from Academy-Award winning writer Barry Morrow, but his story, as Game Informer's Ben Reeves wrote, "was deemed too dramatic and the project was passed over to the writing team that had worked on The Flintstones and Richie Rich."

The script that was finally okayed by Lightmotive actually sounds like it could have been in line with many of the strange big-budget children's films Hollywood has welcomed in the past, thus giving it a better chance of actual success. "This version of the script," wrote Reeves, "was more in line with Mario's roots," adding that in this version, Mario and Luigi "traveled to a magical land reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland." With their sidekick Toad, Mario and Luigi would rescue Princess Hildy (no word on why she wasn't named "Peach") from lizard King Koopa's matrimonial clutches and save Hildy's magical artifact, the Crown of Invincibility.

Where the film messed up was with Morton and Jankel, who was somehow given the reins to the project despite their severe lack of film experience (even though their claim to fame was the TV show Max Headroom, they'd only film before Super Mario Bros., ironically called D.O.A. The film was, in fact, D.O.A. in real life with critics and audience members). They changed the film's entire outlook, opting for a story that was much more self-serious than it needed to be.

Their version of the movie was set "in an alternate reality version of New York, a place called Dinohatten. After an asteroid struck Earth 65 million years ago, all of the planet's dinosaurs had been banished to a dystopian version of our world, but the two realities were still connected by a portal under New York, as the eons passed, the dinosaurs slowly evolved into humanoids and grew to hate the mammals that blissfully walked around Earth prime."

More director and producer arguments happened, leading to more rewrites–up to nine writers worked on film scripts, trying to strike a lighter tone and balance between what the studio and what the directors wanted. Ultimately, this led to the film we have today; a dark, mismatched tale involving dinos.

The instability behind the scenes trickled into the cast and crew themselves. Not only were folks behind the scenes calling the directors names behind their backs and complained of micromanagement, but the actors themselves started drinking on the job. As Leguizamo wrote in his autobiography, he and Hoskins would do shots of scotch in between scenes, leading to an accident on set that injured Hoskins' hand.

While their ingenuity could have been a plus for the film, Morton and Jankel's biggest issue was that they were thinking way too hard about their subject matter. According to Morton, he felt he was working against stereotypes against video games, saying he wanted "the film to be more sophisticated...I wanted parents to really get into it. At that time, there was a very hardcore movement against video games, and a lot of anti-video games sentiment." Maybe there was anti-video games sentiment. But in hindsight, the simpler solution would be to just tell a good, entertaining story that audiences enjoyed, whether or not the subject matter was from a video game.

Strangely, Super Mario Bros.' predecessor, 1986's Howard the Duck suffers from the same issue of self-seriousness, a result from a complete misunderstanding of the source material. Instead of keeping with a similar (yet still wackadoo) premise from Marvel's Howard the Duck comic books–the film misses the point of the comic books' trips into existential absurdism and noir elements by making it weird hybrid of a family film and an adult special-effects movie, never quite mastering either successfully.

"[I]f the writers really wanted to make something for adults, then by all means, go with the edgy sexual stuff. Push some buttons. Make this something that parents would be afraid to let their kids watch," wrote Comics Bulletin's Paul Brian McCoy. "Instead, everything that made the comics groundbreaking and unique is whitewashed away, leaving behind nothing much more than a bad pun-spewing duck and a strangely unengaging story about the End of the World. With the occasional bizarre sexual titillation and tease."

Lessons to learn

To sum it all up: the thing that could have helped Super Mario Bros. be a success, or at least less of a bomb, is if there was some agreement to what the film should be. Cohesion was missing since the beginning of the film's inception, even though all of the elements were there for a fun, subversive, entertaining film that still harkens back to its source in an intriguing way. We've seen it can be done with films like Clue, The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the latter three films written by the same writing team, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. While Super Mario Bros. had actors who can carry oddball films and the positive tailwinds left by films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the project just failed to come together.

This lesson can be applied to the upcoming Super Mario Bros. film. Illumination Entertainment has been on a very successful streak with their Despicable Me franchise, Sing!, and other projects. But Illumination is still an animation company that is in the "proof of concept" phase as far as I'm concerned; maybe I've just been brainwashed by Disney and Pixar for my whole life, but I still feel they are the last word on animation and storytelling, despite their recent bungles. Also, if I'm being honest, I just don't like Illumination's art style. In any case, if Illumination plans on upping their game with Super Mario Bros. I hope they know they don't have to overcomplicate things just to tell a simple Mario story. Let the characters be as fun and endearing as they are in the video games.

But at the same time, the original Super Mario Bros. film should encourage Illumination to take risks. It's not a bad thing the film had loftier aspirations and sought to meet them with mind-bending visuals, like the tiny-headed Goombas with big suits, or view of an underground cyberpunk-influenced dino world. The only thing that went wrong was that these risks were taken for the wrong type of film. But risktaking is the only way great films are made. Just like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and The Lego Movie wisely allowed their source material to guide them towards the creation of amazing visuals, Illumination should let the video game physics of Super Mario Bros. inspire new and inventive set pieces and special effects to keep the story moving and to keep the audience surprised.

What would be the biggest surprise for me is if the film did a tongue-in-cheek nod to the original Super Mario Bros. It would be nice to know that Nintendo is finally over their shame and recognize the piece of cinematic history Super Mario Bros. actually is. Despite its flaws, it's still an entertaining movie, one that still influences film discussion and will continue to do so for decades.