On the eve of its 30th birthday, Super Mario Bros.––the 1993 film, not the groundbreaking video game––might be due for critical reappraisal. Dubbed “a complete waste of time and money” by Roger Ebert, rejected by Mario’s custodians at Nintendo, and described with utter contempt by its own stars, it has enjoyed three decades of cultural life as a punchline about the dismal standards of game-to-movie adaptations. Yet the tonally confused kids’ movie, viewed in retrospect of a fully Marvelized Hollywood, recalls a time when genuinely weird, mutant art could sometimes break out of the franchise-blockbuster laboratories. Directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, the spousal duo behind cult cyberpunk sensation Max Headroom, it liberally reimagines the vaguely defined Mario lore of plumbers, princesses, mushrooms, and dinosaurs into a gothic urban fever dream. Pursuing a kidnapped girl, the titular brothers––Bob Hoskins as Mario, adopting a wheezing, gesticulating meatball man persona several years before James Gandolfini would elevate the type; and John Leguizamo’s Luigi, looking perpetually baffled by everything around him––fall through an underground portal from real-world Brooklyn into a dystopian funhouse-mirror Manhattan populated by evolved human-dinosaur hybrids and a citywide infestation of sentient fungus. A massive practical set characterized by glaring neon, grotesque mutants, claustrophobic metal structures, and dozens of extras decked out in futuristic kitsch, Super Mario Bros’ subterranean otherworld can easily rank with its cinematic contemporaries in urban dystopia, from Total Recall and Strange Days to Demolition Man and Johnny Mnemonic, all cult classics in their own right. Dennis Hopper, as a vision of the dastardly King Koopa bearing more than a passing resemblance to a certain megalomaniacal Manhattan real-estate mogul, dons slicked-back hair and a cheap tux to bark about “goombas” and space rocks to henchmen with human bodies and shrunken reptilian heads. The script, shuffled between four different writers before getting a polish treatment from elite scribe Ed Solomon, is so bereft of focus or tonal coherence that the film becomes a wholly unpredictable smorgasbord of gags, plot points, and setpieces with a jittery, relentless energy and an acute sense of camp (when Koopa forcibly “evolves” his slapstick henchman duo, Flowers for Algernon-style, they become Marxist intellectuals and rebel). Super Mario Bros. is children’s entertainment seemingly determined to confuse and terrify children, and it is never quite possible at any point in its 100-or-so minutes to accurately predict what rabbit hole it might leap through another five minutes down the road. It is not, compared with all but a few of its contemporary equivalents, a conventional movie.
No matter. Super Mario Bros. (the movie) bombed at the box office to the tune of eight-figure losses, and this, more than anything else, cemented its reputation as a radioactive object. In its wake Nintendo turned fiercely defensive of its IP––this disaster had come about from entrusting Mario to unsupervised foreigners, the logic held, and that would never happen again. Nintendo fans, who are nothing if not a loyal bunch, bemoaned that Super Mario Bros’ dark sci-fi flavoring strayed too far from its bright, colorful source material. Nintendo evidently took their concerns to heart. When the famously image-conscious company announced in 2018 that a new animated Mario adaptation was in development––through their own media channels, not those of studio partner Universal––they took great care to note that the project would be produced and directly supervised by Mario’s own creator, game design godfather, and notorious perfectionist Shigeru Miyamoto.
The Mario games under Miyamoto’s strict oversight have always been narratively minimal, but crucially still narrative. Mario’s early 1980s escapades were in fact among the very first video games to contextualize the abstractions of game-design language with rudimentary forms of narrative: even iconic mascot Pac-Man, to the degree that we can glean anything about his motives, simply consumes pellets and ghosts like an animal, as an unconscious function of his being in the time he spends staving off death; Mario is a human man, implicitly one with an entire life and profession outside of jumping on or over things, whose quest to save a girl borrows accessible tropes from cultural touchstones like King Kong, Alice in Wonderland, and the lore of St. George the dragon-slayer. Yet where rival mascot-driven game franchises like Sonic the Hedgehog and rival game designers like Hideo Kojima have eagerly pursued the melding of games and traditional media with every new expansion of gaming technology, Miyamoto has always held firm on the separation of games and narrative art, even to the point of actively working against colleagues’ attempts to insert a heavier narrative presence into Mario’s world. Tellingly, Miyamoto had this to say about the failure of Mario ‘93, when interviewed in 2007: “…the movie may have tried to get a little too close to what the Mario Bros. videogames were. And in that sense, it became a movie that was about a videogame, rather than being an entertaining movie in and of itself.”
The Super Mario Bros. Movie––yes, that is its official name––would be undefinable without reference to its video game origins. It starts out not so dissimilar to the ‘93 film: brothers Mario and Luigi (now voiced by Chris Pratt and Charlie Day, respectively) are bumbling plumbers in Brooklyn who one day tumble through an interdimensional sewer pipe and end up in the otherworldly Mushroom Kingdom, a land under siege by the dastardly Bowser (the lizard formerly known as King Koopa, now portrayed by Jack Black). Of course, rather than being filmed on grimy New Yorkish sets, this is all animated with sparkling texture and clarity by the French-American millionaires at Illumination Entertainment, home of the Minions merchandising empire. The CG spectacle is as technically advanced as anything from Disney: complex light glows and refracts off of fire and ice; the plumbers’ cartoon mustaches are textured down to the hairs; water is fluid and smooth enough to make video game reviewers swoon, while character animations follow suit. As in directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic’s Teen Titans GO!, its pacing is manic and heavily catered to the attention-deficit, and its audience-winking gags are constant––sometimes even amusing. (Black, along with Keegan-Michael Key as Peach’s loyal retainer Toad, clearly gets to have the most fun goofing around rather than trying to sell dialogue about power-ups.)
After briefly establishing human emotional stakes — Mario’s dream plumbing business is floundering, and his plain-spoken Italian pa doesn’t believe in him; Luigi is a sheepish tagalong languishing in his brother’s shadow — it’s when the brothers are separated and Mario meets Princess Peach, human monarch of the Mushroom Kingdom’s humanoid mushrooms (Anya Taylor-Joy, in a girlboss role decidedly “punched up” from the classic demure damsel), that the film signifies its true faithfulness to the games: namely, by tossing its paper-thin pretense of plot to the wind in favor of a parade of nonsensical setpieces, all of which conveniently show off the design language and iconography of the source material. From floating blocks to koopa shells to fireball wheels, Mario encounters characters, enemies, and objects from the games in such rapid, colorful succession that many pass by in montages, all scored to a combination of iconic theme music from four decades of Mario games and insipid pop ditties in Illumination’s playlist. A few odd attempts to inject pathos into a script based on traditionally near-mute characters (Mario’s frenemy Donkey Kong, voiced by and visually modeled after Seth Rogen, now has daddy issues) are underdeveloped and quickly forgotten in the compulsory barrage of action and references. Self-effacing gags of the kind standard to the modern American kids’ cartoon both keep parents in their seats with a steady series of winks and preclude Super Mario Bros. from ever reaching for anything sincere. Not that the material provides much to reach for: there’s no story here that didn’t exist on the Nintendo Entertainment System 38 years ago, nor even gonzo worldbuilding like the ‘93 film; only setpieces, technically marvelous but literally and figuratively weightless, which is certainly faithful to the source material in a sense but not the strongest argument for its application to cinema. What works in the games as pretense for abstract exercises in the joy of pure movement and imaginary architecture becomes inscrutable nonsense.
Its “faithfulness,” that is to say, points conspicuously to what made Nintendo and Miyamoto change their tune on multimedia crossovers after so many years of abstention. To paraphrase the master’s delicate wording in a more recent interview: it’s good for game sales. There are two obvious target demographics here: primarily children who will be delighted by the noise and motion and physical comedy; secondarily, nostalgia-stricken adults who will watch and / or create hours of YouTube videos about the film’s bounty of easter eggs referencing Nintendo lore and history. (Here’s where I will reveal I’m not too cool to be a part of the Super Mario Bros. audience: on top of its endless game and console references, I recognized cameos from Punch-Out!!, Wrecking Crew, F-Zero, Balloon Fight, Kid Icarus, and Nintendo’s Japan-only “Disk-kun” Famicom mascot, not to mention every quoted musical motif and the individual Mario and / or Donkey Kong game it came from. Did I have fun picking this cynical trail of fanboy breadcrumbs up out of the background in virtually every frame? Your honor—I plead the fifth.)
Eager to signal its hip self-awareness, Super Mario Bros. blithely acknowledges and then does nothing with the fact that the arcane rules and pocket logics which make Mario games an ingenious jumping-themed gauntlet of obstacle courses and playgrounds––floating platforms and glowing question mark blocks and such––become arbitrary nonsense when filtered through the sensibilities of any other medium. One scene has Princess Peach explaining the concept of power-ups to Mario––they make you stronger when you consume them, but if you get hit by an enemy or obstacle you lose them. She literally calls them “power-ups.” The purpose of including this scene, of reproducing the absurd logic of Mario mushrooms exactly in a narrative film, seems to be less for its benefit than to give uninitiated audiences a helpful primer on the video game rules. Likewise, an extended sequence of go-kart battling on the notorious Rainbow Road seems to be included primarily to remind audiences that Mario Kart is a fun, popular game you can purchase today. And maybe you should: The Super Mario Bros. Movie isn’t an actively unpleasant way to spend an afternoon, but the glib literalism with which it applies cinematic narrative to video games’ abstractions can’t hold a candle to the wrenching pathos and self-discovery of a night on the track with real-life loved ones and Mario in his original medium. These things are what real art is about, I’m told.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is now in theaters.