Super Mario Bros.: The Movie
What if I told you a live-action gritty reboot of the Super Mario Bros. was being planned, complete with a repressed society from another dimension, guns that can de-evolve people into slime, mutant dinosaur monsters, and more skeletons than you’d expect from a children’s video game franchise? Now, what if I told you that movie was made in 1993?
Hi, folks. K-Tron here, your average robot person with a penchant for panache and curiosity for questionable films. It’s time we all had “the talk” about Super Mario Bros, the talk about how this dystopian sci-fi film is a gift in all its bizarre glory.
I was once asked at a Halloween party, “What’s your favorite video game movie?” This was probably around 2010 and the only “good” answers would have been Silent Hill or maybe one of the Resident Evil films. Everything else was hokey garbage and commercial failure. Yet, I still thought about it and answered, “You know, I really like that Super Mario Bros. movie,” and the conversation petered out soon after. Looking back on that experience got me thinking how I really did like the film and the ways it worked for me.
When Super Mario Bros. came out nearly thirty years ago, it was the first video game movie adaptation. While there had been movies with video games in them, notably The Wizard in 1989, there hadn’t been a movie where the plot from a game was the driving force. Starting out with a game that had very little plot besides smash reptiles, eat mushrooms, save princess, be a plumber, was certainly a great place to start.
However, the Super Mario Bros. wasn’t going into completely uncharted territory, as The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! started airing in 1989. It was a TV series starring Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and Toad as they faced Koopa in some cheaply animated scenarios. The cartoons were sandwiched with live-action segments, starring “Captain” Lou Albano (a pro wrestler) as Mario and Danny Wells (a Canadian) as Luigi. While these live-action scenes mostly rehash whatever was happening in the animation sections, they sometimes had a plot of their own such as when Elvira showed up to help the Brothers deal with a vampire or something. And, my god, the opening and ending credits songs! Look them up if you have never heard them or if it's been awhile. Y’all need to get “hooked on the brothers” as the Plumber Rap so happily proclaims. So, it’s 1993 and children all around the world are excited to see these beloved plumbing Italians. The trailers for this movie are EXTREME. It is the ‘90s, after all, where everything was in your face. The Mario Bros. trailer delivers screaming and cut shots, letters, and flashing lights, all set to the Snap! song that insists, “I’ve got the power!” We get all this and still the trailer manages to never allude to the plot besides the “save princess” stuff.
The shots of Mario and Luigi in their classic red/blue/green get up still make my heart race, though. Kids were ready for this. They needed it. I saw this in the theater with my cousins, one of which is named Mario. A fact worth mentioning because we didn’t often go to the actual theater, let alone in a large, multi-family group. This was a BIG DEAL. There was definitely a degree of merch lurking about for this film but I recall seeing Super Mario Bros. pins in a discount bin at Job Lot, long after the movie had come out. Ah, the cruelty. Despite the excellent marketing, this movie was panned and despised upon its release. It went over budget and didn’t make that money back. According to IMDB, the cast hated making it and, you guessed it, Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs down. This isn’t without warrant, however, as the movie is inconsistent in pace and tone, barely resembling its source material, and discerning what is at stake (and why) isn’t something one can be sure of from one point to another.
This is all part of the charm, my friends. It is the magic that happens when you give enormous amounts of money to silly things. It is from here that perfect storms of accidental brilliance begin to arise.
According to legend, the script was dark and very mature, which is how all the famous people got tricked into signing on. The studio wanted it to be more kid friendly and rewrites began. So many. What remained was still pretty dark. I can only dream of what they initially had in mind.
Ultimately, they arrived at the following plot: Mario and Luigi are Brooklyn plumbers who have a rivalry with Scapelli, some dude who also has a plumbing thing in addition to having his hands in the land developing business (which automatically makes him evil). His company’s excavation has accidentally triggered an opening of a tunnel from Dinohattan, a parallel world where people evolved from dinosaurs. Daisy, from the local university, is trying to stop the excavation to preserve some specimens.
Wait, did I mention that Daisy is also the missing Dinohattan princess who hatched from an egg left on the doorstep of some nuns? I just want to give the nuns all the props for not automatically thinking Daisy was the devil for hatching out of an egg they found in a rainstorm. Instead, they tie a mysterious rock left on her metallic baby pod around her neck which Daisy then wears all the time. The rock can merge the dino world and the human world.
Hold up. If you’ve seen this movie, do you remember it opening with some weird dinosaur animation? It does so in order to explain our dimension and the dino world splitting after a meteor crash. Daisy’s rock is part of that meteor. Koopa wants the rock to merge the worlds and escape the gross congestion of Dinohattan and rule both places.
Very straightforward plot.
Dennis Hopper plays Koopa and his portrayal is creepy and gross, which he often does well. The scene with Hopper in the mud bath with his right hand woman, Lena, is so smarmy. “Do you know what I love about mud? It's clean and it's dirty at the same time,” Hooper professes. I think they are drinking martinis, too.
Apparently, Hopper thought he was above such a film after it got panned. But I saw him in the fourth Crow movie, so, c’mon man, can’t you just own it? I mean, he seems like he gave it his all while he was on set and I really love when he orders pizza by holding a gun to a TV screen. The Koopa pizza special is pterodactyl tail, dino, lizard, hold the mammals and spicy. A nice-a spicy Koopa special.
The movie plods along while they are in Brooklyn. There are some plumbing-related action scenes but those are about it. Perhaps this is called “character development.” Mostly it builds some Scapelli subplots we just never really get back to in any satisfying way. Once Daisy gets kidnapped and we go to Dinohattan, then the film gets its kooky legs. Dinohattan itself is a fabulous set which has an incredible amount of layers. There are multiple levels of streets, graffiti, Koopa propaganda posters, neon signs, electric cars shooting sparks from exposed engines, hoards of overcrowded reptile people in futuristic dystopian garb, all hugged by a beige fungus choking the city. There is a movie theater marquee advertising I Was a Teenage Mammal, which I would definitely watch. If you ever thought this dino-city resembled Blade Runner it would be helpful to know that the Mario Bros. production designer was David Synder, who also worked as art director on Blade Runner.
One of the first Dinohattan citizens we meet is Big Bertha. She’s a gorgeous woman clad in red leather and spikes. Bertha looms over the Mario Brothers in her Thomper Stomper boots, platforms with hydraulic capabilities that use Bullet Bills as nitro cartridges. She basically looks like she’s in the Legion of Doom, so how could one not fall in love? Bertha mugs our heroes of Daisy’s rock and Thomp Stomps away. Oh, but we shall meet again, my darling, at the Boom Boom Bar. More on that in a bit.
The Mario Bros. get arrested soon after this, as Koopa has sent out an APB on plumbers. He knows they have the rock (or did). The incarceration scene is one of my favorites, as we get to learn just how many Marios are between them. Mario Mario and Luigi Mario. Three. This is the dialog I came for.
The computer generated effects used in this movie are a bit dated but really not awful. The de-evolution stuff, which involves a lot of face warping as victims are transformed from humanish reptiles to scaly monsters with a mouthful of fangs, isn’t horrifically offensive. The CG here is balanced alongside tons of practical puppetry which I wish carried over a bit more in today’s film making. At the time it was probably just more cost effective.
The pace gets wonky after the jailbreak and car chase. Mario and Luigi are lost in the endless wastes that surround Dinohattan. It makes me think of the 1995 movie Judge Dredd desert-that-surrounds-a-dystopian-city stuff. Like maybe they both exist in the same universe. Head cannons like these are important to start your own movie universe, people.
The Boom Boom Bar is a quintessential dystopian future nightclub scene (I want you to know that I have a Mandela Effect memory of the club being called the Boom Boom Room, and now I don’t know what to believe in). There are many neon signs, a railing on fire, and fantastic costumes on the extras. There is a woman in what looks like a metal bathing suit and a robotic dinosaur tail. There is another with 90% of her butt showing as she dances on the bar. In the kids’ movie. Tons of extras, by the by. I had to pause to appreciate the details in this scene that is almost too crowded to do so.
Bertha, my aggressive angel, is the Boom Boom’s bouncer. Mario and Luigi have teamed up with Koopa’s cousins who got sent to the de-evolution chamber to actually get a bit more evolved (there is a setting for that), and now they are trying to get back the rock. Mario decides to seduce Bertha to do so. She’s worn it to work. There is some slow dancing to very unclub-like music while the rest of the clubgoers all vaguely shuffle in the background to what might be a completely different tune. Mario manages to get the rock off her and runs away. His loss. Bertha helps our heroes escape, even though she knows Mario was using her. True hero, kids.
The most appropriate use of the song “Walk the Dinosaur” in all of cinematic history occurs as Mario and Luigi escape. It will be stuck in my mind for days. The brief dance sequence to this song involves a lot of synchronized shimmying with a sound effect resembling a rattlesnake tail. This reads “reptile” I suppose. Though everyone could have made T. Rex arms and stomped around. Just sayin’.
Captured Daisy spends most of her time avoiding Koopa’s flirtation and Lena’s jealousy.
Daisy also meets her dad, who happens to be the de-evolved former king. He’s the fungus all around the city. A head and torso emerge upside down from a clump of fungus on the ceiling in what looks like a throne room, dripping mucus. It is the stuff of nightmares.
Her guards are de-evolution victims, referred to as Goombas. In the video games, these are cute mushrooms with angry eyebrows and rounded shoes. In Super Mario Bros. the movie, they are people turned into tiny-headed lizard freaks with disproportionately large bodies. They are not very smart. But they are cute in a bumbling way, I suppose. Luigi makes them dance to elevator music at some point, and that is nothing but endearing.
Speaking of cute, let us get to the breakout role of the film: Yoshi. In the games, Yoshi is a bug-eyed rideable pal. Very green. Film Yoshi is a realistic tiny T.Rex that I just want to hug, even after Koopa tells Daisy he bites off hands. Chained to the floor and kept as a pet by Koopa, Yoshi makes gurgling sounds and squeaks sadly at Daisy. There were apparently a few models of the Yoshi used in making the movie, puppets and robots. I feel like today Yoshi would have simply been computer generated. But my brain knows I can touch a puppet Yoshi which makes the connection that much stronger. I want a Yoshi. I would die for Yoshi.
So it's an hour into the movie when Mario and Luigi finally put on the red/blue green/blue jumpsuits from the trailer. Yeah, they really make you wait for it. The pay off is divine. Seeing them jumping around on fungus or riding a mattress filled with captured New Yorker women down a frozen air conditioning duct adds so much flavor to those scenes when they are in their true attire.
Remember in the first X-Men movie when someone cracks a joke about Wolverine wearing yellow spandex, but you secretly felt a little hurt and robbed, and kind of wanted that to happen? I do. So when adaptations can give me a good marriage of source material and “reality” for costume design, I get all the fuzzies.
The tail end of the film is when things start to really lose all meaning. The rock has changed hands a few times. Lena’s got it, tries to merge the worlds by shoving the rock into the meteorite and gets herself killed for it. She’s thrown into a cave wall, insta-skeletonized. There are some “I don’t feel so good, Mr. Koopa” moments as Dinohattan, its people, and our heroes start dissolving as the worlds merge.
Back in our world, there is some kind of protest about Scapelli in progress. Yes, that part of plot is still there. Certainly every child was waiting to get back to whatever that rival Italian guy was doing while Mario and Luigi fought dinosaur people in another dimension. Behind the protestors, the twin towers transform. One has a giant “K” on it. Someone yells in the crowd, “Look it’s Koopa’s tower.” Someone from the human world. How the fuck do they know what Koopa’s tower is? Who cares, they do, and they don’t like what it looks like.
At this point in the movie, Koopa was supposed to turn into a giant T.Rex and rampage through New York, but they didn’t have any money left for such shenanigans. So instead, Mario and Koopa spend about two minutes scaring humans with a de-evolution gun. One gets turned into a chimpanzee and Dennis Hopper says, “Monkey!” Very compelling. Also, chimps are apes, not monkeys. Do your research, Koopa. Anywho, Luigi and Daisy dislodge the rock and it’s back to dino-land we go as everything dissolves back.
Koopa is hit with some de-evolution blasts. He gets a genuinely frightening T. Rex head, then eventually transforms into green goo. As it splashes into the streets, the Dinohattan residents cheer. That’s the compromise ending. “Uh, just make him goo. Goo is cheap.”
For absolutely no reason, the old king re-evolves back into a person alone in his throne room. As I understood it, the de-evolution wasn’t a magical curse to be broken at the death of the evil tyrant, so this is superb in its absurdity. The king is played by Lance Henriksen. Bet you didn’t know he was in your Mario movie, did ya? He spits out some fungus and mutters something about liking those plumbers. I suppose this brings closure to the nightmare drippy dad, but it is definitely a non-sequitur.
At the end of the movie, Mario and Luigi wave goodbye to Daisy (and Yoshi!) because she’s gotta stay behind and do some clean up. Princess stuff. I want to point out that Yoshi does wave a little claw and Luigi waves back. Instant friends. If your pet dinosaur likes your beau, always a good sign. This is our finale. Star-crossed plumbers.
But wait! Three weeks later, Daisy kicks down the Mario Bros.' door strapped with a flamethrower and Bullet Bill cartridges. She says, “You’re never going to believe this.” But they do. Mario grabs his tool belt, ready for action. They all go off together, ready for the sequel that never happened.
Would a sequel have been based on the acid trip of the Super Mario Bros. 2 video game? We will never know.
Child me loved this film as an entertaining adaption of a franchise that I certainly had invested time in. Mario on the big screen was definitely a big deal. The current me loves it for that, and also because it reads like a no-budget sci-fi movie, except with millions of overbudgeted dollars thrown at it. If I had found this movie, and had no knowledge of the Mario Bros., it would be an even wackier adventure that I would obsess over.
It is a cult film, folks. Super Mario Bros. needs to be watched again with this lens. It’s worth your time. I feel like you could round it out with Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. Sounds like a good time, to me.
Now, an animated Super Mario Bros. movie is slated for release in 2022. While many people are hoping it to be a more faithful, sensical adaptation of something they already love, I am wondering how wacky it will be.
Super Mario Bros. Drinking Game Rules: Take a drink every time someone says “Scapelli”. Every time you see a skeleton. For every reference to the original games (character, item, song, or sound effect). Everytime Luigi touches the fungus. Take two drinks whenever you see Yoshi. When someone on screen takes a drink (there is an amount of drinking from flutes in this film). For pizza, onscreen or talked about.
That should tide you over. Please drink responsibly. Or not at all, instead smugly sipping some fruit juice or fancy water while admiring all the times these things happen, pausing for an inevitable pee break.
If you want to go nuts, you can try the bottom list.
Hardcore Rules: Whenever someone says “Mario” or “Luigi” (the incarceration scene should prove hilarious). Whenever someone says “dinosaur.” Whenever someone says “monkey.” If you are still alive after that, add this for good measure. For everything that reminds you of some other sci-fi movie.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to SMBmovie.com for the trailer, merch photos & production stills!
K-Tron G-Bot 6-5000 was assembled in the mid '80s using a combination of synthesizer processors, random television parts, and Happy Meal toys. Many an hour has since been spent viewing questionable films. K-Tron asks that we all just keep on keepin' it reel.