A critical and commercial disaster in its day, the video-game adaptation was trashed even by its star, Bob Hoskins. But a reappraisal is underway.
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By Darryn King
The new animated film “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” recreates the sunny spirit, effervescent action and confectionary aesthetic of the namesake video games, with the voices of Chris Pratt as Mario, Charlie Day as Luigi, Jack Black as Bowser, and Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach. Expect periwinkle skies, green warp pipes and squeaky-voiced, mushroom-headed characters.
The mustachioed Nintendo mascot has been on the big screen before — even though some of the people involved would prefer to forget about it.
Way back in 1993, the popularity of Super Mario led to Hollywood’s first big-budget video game adaptation. The live-action “Super Mario Bros.” starred Bob Hoskins as Mario and John Leguizamo as Luigi, two down-on-their-luck plumber brothers picking up odd jobs in Brooklyn. Largely shot in an abandoned cement factory in North Carolina, the movie was mostly set not in the hyper-colored Mushroom Kingdom, but in a grody, dystopian alternate version of New York called Dinohattan, ruled over by the maniacal dictator King Koopa (Dennis Hopper). Sticky, elastic fungus plays a key role in the plot. It looked and felt nothing like the video games.
To Rocky Morton, who directed the movie with Annabel Jankel, that was the point. Morton and Jankel were British music video filmmakers who also had been behind the creation of the pseudo-computer-generated TV show host Max Headroom. Morton and Jankel’s agent had sent them a Mario Bros. movie script by the “Rain Man” co-writer Barry Morrow. Dismissing that screenplay as too cute, Morton pitched another idea: a darker, grittier Mario Bros. origin story.
“It felt like such a great opportunity,” Morton said in a recent phone interview, of turning the video game phenomenon into a movie. “It seemed like the obvious thing to do. And it would have a built-in audience. It was made in heaven.”
The result was a critical and commercial disaster. Roger Ebert declared it “a complete waste of time and money.” (Though Gene Siskel allowed, “I like the Goombas,” referring to Koopa’s oversized henchmen.) Several of the actors spoke disparagingly about the production, with Hoskins calling the shoot a “nightmare.” It was game over for any sequel, and for the Hollywood careers of its directors too.
In more recent years, millennial Nintendophiles who were put off by the movie in 1993 — or, like me, simply avoided it — have given it another chance.
Today, “Super Mario Bros.” has been the subject of something of a reappraisal, achieving a surprising cult status in the process. Its listing on the cinephile movie rating site Letterboxd is accompanied by a host of passionate, discerning reviews. “Super Mario Bros.” is “film-literate, daring, political, and unapologetically insane,” wrote the user Zeke Knott. While awaiting the coming fan-made documentary, “Trust the Fungus: Bob-Omb to Cult Classic,” fans can listen to a podcast dedicated to a minute-by-minute dissection of the movie, or visit the National Videogame Museum in Frisco, Texas, which is holding an exhibition on it. This month, Nitehawk Cinemas in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, will screen “Super Mario Bros.” as part of Re-Consider This!, a series showcasing misunderstood masterpieces.
The excessive artistic license taken with the adaptation is part of the fun of it, said Desmond Thorne, a film programmer at Nitehawk. “In an age when we’re inundated with video game and comic book adaptations that take a more literal approach, it’s refreshing to look back at ‘Super Mario Bros.’ 30 years later,” he said. “You have to admire the huge swings that it took.” For “huge swings,” see, for example, the scene in which Dennis Hopper takes a mud bath with Fiona Shaw.
But even the most ardent fans will admit that “Super Mario Bros.” is kind of a mess. Morton said the problems began after Disney purchased the distribution rights, demanding an extensive rewrite of the screenplay — less effects-heavy, more family-friendly — that arrived 10 days before principal photography began. (Disney was unable to locate anyone involved in the production for comment.)
But it’s a fantastic and inspired mess with densely artificial sets concocted by the “Blade Runner” production designer David L. Snyder; cartoonish costumes by Joseph Porro (who most recently worked on “The Mandalorian”); and a lunatic score by the composer Alan Silvestri. Elsewhere, Patrick Tatopoulos’s creature designs anticipate his work on “Independence Day.”
“The film is such a kitchen sink in terms of inspiration and execution,” the superfan Ryan Hoss said. “Practical sets, makeup, costumes, pyrotechnics, prosthetics, animatronics and puppets. It has tone issues, and too many cooks in the kitchen, but you can point to any part of the story of ‘Super Mario Bros.’ and it’s fascinating to someone on some level.”
In 2007, when Hoss was in college, he created the website Super Mario Bros. The Movie Archive. “I felt that the conversation around the film just wasn’t what it deserved,” he said. The site was “a place to get as much of the background and history of the film out in the open.”
Since then, Hoss, along with the site’s editor in chief, Steven Applebaum, has tracked down alternate versions of the script, set photos, and props, and published numerous interviews with crew members. Most recently, they uncovered and restored an early work print of the film, creating an extended edition available to watch online.
They’ve also held screenings and other events for like-minded fans. “It’s one of the most enthusiastic and positive fandoms I’ve ever seen,” Hoss said.
He added, “The biggest surprise has been getting to know so many of the talented cast and crew that worked on the film. They’ve all said that ‘Super Mario Bros.’ was one of the most memorable films of their career.”
Leguizamo has said he’s proud to have been involved in the film. “I’m O.G.,” he told IndieWire recently, also praising Jankel and Morton for their commitment to diverse casting. They “fought really hard for me to be the lead because I was a Latin man,” he said. “It was such a breakthrough.”
Today, Morton looks back at the whole experience as one of utter humiliation. “It was horrible, just a really horrible experience.” (Jankel did not respond to an interview request and apparently has not participated in any stories about the making of the movie. “It really did affect her,” said Morton.)
The re-evaluation of “Super Mario Bros.” is “heartening,” said Morton. And yet, the fact that the once-reviled movie is being celebrated and enjoyed — without irony — doesn’t seem to have sunk in for its director. The day after our interview, he agreed to attend a Hollywood screening of the movie, his first time seeing it in about 20 years. “They wanted me to introduce it but I can’t think of anything positive to say.”
As for the new film, if all goes well, it might signal the launch of yet another movie franchise, the Nintendo Cinematic Universe. Which, Morton admitted, is probably what audiences expected 30 years ago. “That’s the film that everybody wanted,” he said. “And they’ve got it now.”
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