Dino Dicember #19: Super Mario Bros The Movie (1993)

I could have waited until that animated Super Mario movie Nintendo commissioned Illumination (urgh) released… but sure as shit it isn’t coming out this year (not like it was gonna, it was slated for a 2022 release before the COVID-19 pandemic anyway), and i’m doing Dino Dicember… well, in Dicember, so it’s a pretty good “excuse” for me to watch and review the infamous Super Mario Bros live-action movie. And i do enjoy the challenge, it’s not like it’s this obscure adaptation nobody on the internet talked about, but let’s give the movie a fair shake with almost 2 decades of hindsight.

And yes, it totally counts, since it’s about a dinosaur dimension that originated from the meteor that hit Earth 65 millions years ago, which actually created two parallel dimensions of Earth, one inhabited by reptile people descending from dinosaurs, and ours of “human people” descending from primates. As the resources have dried up on the “dino end”, the leader of the dino-people, Koopa, sends minions in our dimension to search for a fragment of the meteor that split the dimensions to begin with, so he can unite the two and rule them under his scaly thumb.

Saving our world is up to the Mario brothers, as in Mario Mario and Luigi Mario, a couple of down-in-their-luck plumbers who stumble upon a girl, Pea- Daisy, an orphan raised by nuns after being left behind by her parents (with just a strange pendant as her only possesssion) and who doesn’t know she’s actually royalty, yes, a princess.

Yeah, this is a bit more than one would have expected (or wanted) from a Super Mario movie, but i don’t begrudge the writer trying to give a 90 minutes plot to Super Mario Bros. Great classic, but not exactly ideal material for a cinematic narrative, especially as a live-action feature, so they played it safe for the plot and encorporated elements from the videogames as one-off references or background elements, just keeping the general idea that Mario and Luigi fight Koopa/Bowser, who kidnapped Princess Peach… except they call her Daisy here, for some reason.

On that matter, the Mario brothers aren’t really brothers, as in blood-related, just to prop up the romantic sub-plot between Luigi and Daisy-Peach. Really, “for some reason” could be said to many choices regarding enemies or characters from Mario making the jump into the movie, but you’ve already heard people complain about that enough, i’m not gonna bother doing the full laundry list.

Sadly they didn’t get around to make the Sonic live-action back then, comparing this 1993 film to the live-action Sonic movie we got this year…. feels forced and kinda unfair, because the situation is so different nowadays, where often games get movies and not the other way around, gaming is practically mainstream (which is overall quite good), internet is a big part of our daily lives, and the special effects got better as technology itself improved over time.

And this was indeed the first attempt ever in cinema history of adapting a videogame or videogame series into a big budget live-action movie for general audiences, not just a movie with videogame footage or about videogames as whole. Even if it wasn’t, there was no blueprint for this kind of adaptation yet, so it wasn’t an easy task or an obvious, almost risk-less cash-in, quite the opposite.

Super Mario Bros The Movie is a product of its time through and through. That could be said for most movies, but this one indeed offers a perfect “capsule sample” of the culture of that time (and i can actually testify to some of it, to some extent, since i never set foot in America, but the dinosaur fascination was international at that time), down to the casting, with Dennis Hopper as the evil guy because he was the to-go actor to play villains in the ’80s and 90’s. John Leguizamo was known at the time (i don’t hate him), and Bob Hopkins was a revered actor (rightfully so) that could fit the profile of an italo-american plumber with empty pockets but good heart.

His career was far from slumming, but he said yes, and wasn’t shy to go on record telling he had such a bad time filming scenes he got liquored up big time to get through it.

So even if it lives of the compromise of really being quite distant to the videogame it adapts, but also having to work in elements from that, even if they feel forced, otherwise there would be no point of calling it Super Mario Bros at all… it’s entertaining, it’s really stupid, but all the stupid in it makes it stand out, more fun or bizzare, like the laughable animated intro who looks done by a toddler with crayons and Powerpoint, and it’s actually the better way to frame it, because this wasn’t intended to be anything more than a children movie, the typical “family friendly” blockbuster with bumbling inept sidekicks to the villain, more in the vein of Home Alone than anything. I think.

At times it hard to say that, especially when we go to the cyberpunk dino-dimension, with artistic direction by David L. Snyder, who also was art director for Bill & Ted Bogus Journey and especially, Blade Runner, because that’s what comes to mind by looking at “mirror Earth”, a dystopian cyberpunk dino-world run like a fascist state by the tyrant Koopa, who’s also able to essentially both make people his slaves by either de-evolving them or by augmenting their brains.

But don’t think too much about it, the movie never really does it anyway, so hope you’re ready for Mario and Luigi hacking a police car and going Destruction Derby on the cops following them, Mario doing accidental motorboarding seduction on a female bouncer, attempted throath cutting, “dino lady Rachael” getting fried to a cartoonish death (just bones and Bride Of Frankenstein hairdo), old timey slap-stick routines or scenes that are so full of whimsy they could belong in Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory.

Yeah, this movie is tonally inconsistent, enough to be noticeable and not just a nitpick, but not enough to completely cloud the very comical, often cartoonish attitude, it’s pretty clear no one wanted to make a serious flick, at all, but more of a comedy adventure, so it’s hard to really get angry at a movie that’s really silly and not ashamed of itself, even with the dialogue being…. really trying to craft pre-made catchphrases or memorable one-liners.

It doesn’t work, as most of the comedy bits aren’t really funny, but this also adds to the charm, in its own way, and it’s entertaining, well produced, the dino-world is cool-looking, and while some of the effects have aged a lot, most still look quite good at best, and at worst they look dated but still kinda cool, and many fxs were quite novel for the time, so i can’t fault the movie for delivering on that.

Some of the then “modern” aspects that might have felt cheap (like having Walk The Dinosaur in the soundtrack) in retrospect just further help this movie as an odd but also intriguing cultural artifact of the decade, one that fully deserves the cult status it has today. And i don’t expect that will change. After all, how many movies have an orphan dino egg left at a church’ steps, a human baby hatching from said egg with the nuns just joyfully praying instead of being shocked? And this is just the prologue!

Mind you, while it’s not THAT bad, it’s not a good movie, it isn’t, it was widely panned by the press at the time, it was a financial flop, ultimately it has more to do with Blade Runner and frigging Carnosaur than Super Mario Bros, Nintendo was scarred forever by the experience, so much that it took them until 2019 to try again (this time with far better results) with Pokemon Detective Pikachu. One wonders when – if ever – Nintendo will feel comfortable following up on the infamous cliffhanger ending.

Which is cut in some versions, like the one that is up on Amazon Prime Video.

In the meantime, dino princess Peach-Daisy will keep waiting for more live-action Mario adventures. Probably forever.

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