Video Game Adaptations: Super Mario Brothers
This will be my final Video Game adaptation review for a while as I simply cannot take the plethora of dross that the genre contains any longer. I gleefully admit to intentionally seeking out and watching more rubbish than is healthy, but I do it in the hope of unearthing a nugget of joy, something that will make me laugh, the odd legitimately unfairly overlooked film, or, at the very least, something I can be entertainingly rude about. The problem with Video Game adaptations is that they aren’t, for the most part, entertaining. What they are is boring and annoying and I’ve squandered far too much of my valuable time on them. I was hoping in this open-ended series to be able to say “See, they aren’t all rubbish, there is some gold out there”, but instead I’ve been molested by film after film so wretched that I’ve had to either find excuses not to give them the Orangutan of Doom or, in a few cases, I’ve even made up new ratings to get round this. To sum up, I really cannot take it any more, and I’m signing off for the forseeable with the first ever Video Game Adaptation, the utterly disastrous Super Mario Brothers.
Contains heavy borrowing from Jamie Russel in The Guardian’s excellent article and spoilers below.
Memorably describing Super Mario Brothers as “The Heaven’s Gate of video game movies” (a sentiment that I struggle to disagree with), Russel’s excellent little article goes in to what went wrong behind the scenes and what an enormous disaster the film was. Nintendo, cleverly, recognised that they “had a tiger by the tail” with these adaptations, and so treated Roland Joffé’s attempts to seduce them with tea to get the rights as a curiousity- they wanted to see if Joffé and his directors could run with it. Unsurprisingly, given the subject matter of the games, they couldn’t. The problem here is that the game Super Mario Brothers is a) for young kids, and b) about a plumber with the ability to jump really high stuck in a lurid technicolour world of moving fungi, dinosaurs, transporting pipes and giant piranha plants. The half arsed story relates to the brothers attempt to rescue Princess Daisy from evil Dinosaur thing Bowser, but is actually just an excuse to have him hop from platform to platform to reach the end point on each level.
Adapting this was always going to be problematic. Unfortunately for the history of cinema, Joffé and his directors Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton had their own ideas how they were going to adapt it. Quite why you would reach the breathtakingly insane conclusion that they came to is something that they should really be asked, but they promised Nintendo that they wouldn’t set out to make a “sweet lovey-dovey story” (Joffé’s words). They didn’t. What they did make was one of the most ill-conceived and hopelessly misguided high-concept films that I’ve ever seen. Their approach was so, so wrong for the source material that it almost staggers belief and as the project began to unravel on set they were forced into rewrites practically between takes, and it really does show in the finished film. Super Mario Brothers is an absolute unmitigated disaster from start to finish; an astonishing mess of truly gargantuan proportions, and one that is quite rightly reviled by anyone that has seen it.
Mario Mario (groan), Bob Hoskins, and his brother Luigi, John Leguizamo are hapless Brooklyn plumbers. Undercut at every corner by the local construction mafia, they’re struggling to make ends meet. In the meantime, Daisy, Samantha Mathis, is leading a dig to do with some nonsense about a meteorite, and becoming a bit concerned at her crew of young attractive girls disappearing. The press has it that they’re being snatched by a serial killer, but couldn’t be more wrong. They’re actually being kidnapped by Iggy and Spike (Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson respectively), two of the most useless henchmen to ever work for a supervillian. On King Koopa’s (Dennis Hopper) orders, they’re looking for the daughter of the rightful king of their world and the shard of magic dimension-bonding meteorite she wears round her neck. Mario’s girlfriend Daniella (Dana Kaminski) is snatched, then Daisy is taken, thus forcing our intrepid plumbers to make a journey into the alternative dinosaur path of evolution dimension. Koopa’s plan is to reunite the shard, and use his advanced technology to conquer our world. The brothers spend a less-than-entertaining hour navigating the freaks and misfits that populate this realm, avoiding Koopa’s de-evolution gun and attempting to rescue Daisy, restore the kingdom and whatnot. Eventually, it all heads to a showdown in New York, and our heroes save the day, before being called back into bizarro-world by Daisy, presumably to unblock the toilet after one of the Goombas took a dino sized dump in it.
The acting here is uniformly bizarre. Hoskins openly hates the film, admitting that, although I think he’s lying- bear in mind that he’s got form for being in lousy BT advertisements, that it’s the only one he ever did purely for the cash. Leguizamo is only marginally less rude about it, although he clearly hates it too. Hopper, on the other hand, must have been high, because he’s disturbingly channelling his Blue Velvet performance (just one of many incongruous features of the film), but I, personally, think he was still going with the original script treatment, where it would have been far, far more appropriate. Finally, Mathis couldn’t care less, which is odd, considering it should have been her big break film.
Or is it? Actually, on reflection, I would say that not caring and putting in the bare minimum of effort is totally understandable given what happened on set, and most importantly to the script. The original treatment handed out was that Mario was “going to grow up” and the Dino-World was some nightmarish dystopian Blade Runner inspired hell. Joffé’s idea, while terrible, would at least have been interesting, but I don’t think that going “dark” as he says here is a terribly good idea for Super Mario Brothers:
“This wasn’t Snow White and the Seven Dinosaurs. The dino world was dark. We didn’t want to hold back.”
Perhaps some restraint should have been in order, simply because when the distributors turned up on the concrete hell-hole of a set, they collectively shat one. Cries of “It’s supposed to be a kid’s film” rent the air, and realising that nobody was going to buy a movie populated by latex rejects from the Garbage Pail Kids and fetish gimps from lord knows where (Russel says “Todd Browning’s Freaks” which is a good one), they frantically began to try to remould the film into something child friendly.
As a result, the rewrites started. Between takes. Morton (despite considering walking, which he and Jankel should have done) believed that they could try to keep the original idea alive, ignoring the fact that the original idea was completely inappropriate, but it turned into a nightmare for him and Jankel, and he now concedes that the film “became a huge mess”. This is an understatement, as the plot and dialogue are all over the place, nothing is comprehensible and there are holes in it you could drive a bus full of screaming kids through. Take, for example, Koopa’s plan. Now, I’m not convinced that his victory is as nailed on as he thinks it is simply because the technology the Goombas have, while cool, such as the reverse evolution gun, is both very slow and due to a lack of resources limited to one weapon. I would take a large bet that the hairless chimps of New York, given the availability of guns in America, could take them down without breaking sweat. Furthermore, Luigi and Daisy are meant to be star-struck lovers, but nobody considered the chemistry/ biology involved here: Daisy is the daughter of something that resembles giant slime mould and was born from an egg, while Luigi is (kind of) human. Can they even shag, let alone breed? This is a tad nitpicky, admittedly, because nothing makes sense in the film, so the inter-species love so beloved of the Welsh is perfectly acceptable here.
None of the above would matter if it were an entertaining mess, but it isn’t. It’s a boring and incomprehensible mess. I’d not seen it before, but was aware of the disastrous reputation it carries, and neither had the wife, yet it took me three attempts to make it through it, and she went and did the ironing (result) to escape. The problem is threefold: 1) We just don’t care about any of the characters or the predicament they’re in; 2) It never feels like they’re in any danger, and if they inadvertently are at risk the giant mutant Athlete’s Foot King will step in to bail them out; and 3) The film feels painfully disjointed, as our plumbers blunder from weird scene A to populated by oddities scene B with nary a link between them.
The sequence of random encounters is just totally uninteresting. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of the events in the film, and to make matters worse there are several insane “touches” that are clearly meant to be comedy. Not one of these touches are remotely funny, and some, such as Mario chatting up a large woman with some offer to let her punch him in the face all night, are downright gross and bizarre. These attempts at humour may have worked in the original idea, but they just don’t in the “kiddified” version, and come across as, for the most part, creepy. Particularly unfunny are the two cretinous henchmen, who manage to sink every scene they are in. Which is bizarre, considering that this film is already sitting on the bottom of the ocean. Think the sequence in The Abyss where the rig nearly gets pulled into the trench, and imagine that it were actually pulled to the bottom of the ocean and crushed and you’re part of the way to understanding.
At the end of the day, Super Mario Brothers is a lamentably awful film. It’s not got a single redeeming feature, and there’s an easy explanation. Adapting the game itself was always going to be incredibly difficult, in part due to the childish nature of the game, but more due to the difficulty of explaining the events taking place. I’d almost go as far as suggesting that adapting the game is, in itself, a bad idea. However, adapting the game as some kind of fetish-populated dystopian Blade Runner influenced film is such an inordinately terrible and completely wrong idea that I don’t blame the suits for putting the brakes on. This is a film that should have been terminated at birth, yet somehow made it to the screen. Pity.
Overall, I don’t recommend this. I do quite frequently recommend car crash films, because they can be gloriously insane and often hilarious, but that isn’t the case here. Super Mario Brothers is a disaster of a movie, a joyless and painful couple of hours and one that needs consigning to the dustbin of history and forgetting about. I’m dishing it a very, very deserved Orangutan of Doom, because it is that terrible, and it may well be worse than The Garbage Pail Kids. It doesn’t get any lower than that, yet somehow it still isn’t as bad as Resident Evil: Apocalypse.
While I’m only half kidding about the above statement, I do find it astonishing, though, that Super Mario Brothers has developed a strange cult following, and that to this day Joffé remains proud of it, saying “It was an interesting and rich artefact and has earned its place”. It hasn’t Roland, and you remain as deluded now as you were when you came up with the original treatment.
Signing off this series for the forseeable future,