There are few films, campy or otherwise, that better exemplify the fine wine rule than Super Mario Bros. The first & only live action Nintendo adaptation continuously gets better with age & I fall further under its intoxicating spell every time I watch it. This is a box office bomb critics have long slammed as definitive proof that video game adaptations are an inherently bad idea, but those marks against its character matter less with every passing year. Super Mario Bros. is a cartoonish fantasy comedy that somehow, unfathomably marries elements of Blade Runner, Jurassic Park, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? into one unholy cacophony of cinematic cheese & bloat. I marvel at this film’s sheer audacity every time I watch it, just as I find myself continually reeling from its grocery store joke book humor in the exact same breath. Without the pressure for Super Mario Bros. to prove or disprove that a video game adaptation could possibly be worthwhile (there’s now a crowded field of examples to swing that conversation either way you want it to go), the film has found a nice, comfortable space of its own as a cult-worthy camp fest. It’s thoroughly ridiculous, but it’s ridiculous in a fun & above all memorable way that dares you to sour on its 90s relic antics, but never gives you a solid reason to. Super Mario Bros. is a great film. It’s a little sad that three decades later it still feels a little transgressive to say so.
The only video game imagery that graces the screen in Super Mario Bros. is an opening prologue featuring pixelated dinosaurs in a fictional version of reality where the force of the meteor that extinguished the dinos & started the Ice Age created an alternate dimension in which humans evolved from reptiles instead of apes. If that doesn’t sound like a video game to you, much less the plumber-and-princess adventure game that iconically defines the medium, that’s because this movie is floating in its own bizarre orbit lightyears outside the property it’s supposedly adapting. There are video game-type dinos in that opening prologue, though, which proves that the husband-wife directorial team that helmed this major studio disaster are aware that Super Mario Bros. previously existed as a game with its own characters, motivations, and basic aesthetic. They just chose to ignore all that in favor of their own bonkers sense of whimsy, a fantasy realm that calls into question whether or not they’re also aware that there’s no possible way that the dino-killing meteor crash site could’ve been in Brooklyn or that a reptilian-evolved humanity would be so different from our primate selves that they’d be almost entirely unrecognizable as humans at all. No matter. This is a big budget kids’ fantasy adventure at heart, so its faithfulness to video game lore or basic science is almost entirely beside the point in the question of its entertainment value.
There are, admittedly, a few details of the Super Mario Bros. film that vaguely resemble their video game source material. They at least included some of the same characters: Mario & Luigi are Italian plumbers from Brooklyn, NY, which feels about as faithful to their video game visages as you can get. Princess Peach is now Princess Daisy for some unexplained reason, but it’s a mild change at best and the boys still have to venture out to rescue her from the reptilian clutches of an evil monarch named Koopa, which is more or less where the video game’s narrative begins & ends. Other details begin to get a lot fuzzier, though. Instead of being a giant, scary turtle-dragon motherfucker that lives in a castle full of lava, Koopa looks an awful lot like Dennis Hopper doing a dead on impersonation of Donald Trump (complete with the gaudy tower & political grandstanding). Toad is the furthest from his original form, ditching his miniature guru looks from the game in favor of a delightfully out-of-place, full-sized Mojo Nixon singing dumb protest songs about King Koopa on street corners. Staying faithful to the video game can be a double edged sword, though, as is exemplified by the baby dino Yoshi, who is cute as a button in this film, but also much more along the lines of Jurassic Park-type dinosaur puppets than what his video game creators likely intended. One of the reasons Super Mario Bros. stands out as such enjoyable schlock is that it embraces this damned if you do, damned if you don’t mentality whole-heartedly and just runs wild with the freedom adapting a video game with a very thin backstory affords it. It includes just enough characters & visual cues to resemble the Super Mario Bros. game at a glance, but does anything but keep it safe in the way it fleshes out their universe.
The most common argument against cinematic video game adaptations is that they necessitate a backstory where none is truly needed. No one playing the Super Mario Bros. game is likely to care exactly how or why the princess they’re rescuing was captured by an evil dino turtle dragon; they just hop in the green pipes & smash the mushroom-shaped baddies that get in the way of saving her. A movie requires a little more narrative coddling & a lot of the fun of Super Mario Bros. is in tracking how it either stays faithful to the game’s basic layout or disregards it completely on a minute to minute basis. The film is confident enough in its own right to exist as a standalone property that it ditches the fantasy genre brick & mortar castles of the video game for a distinct Blade Runner-style of urban dystopia. However, it also bends over backwards to include a way for Koopa’s guards to shoot the video game’s fireballs or make sense out of the role mushrooms & fungus have to play in all this (in the shape of a hideous fungal life form that would give Cronenberg nightmares). In some ways the film completely runs wild, like in its creation of an alternate dimension where the entire globe is one vast desert outside a single metropolis or in its de-evolution weapons that can turn people “back” into lizards. There’s also a few areas of compromise between the two extremes, like an inclusion of goombas that makes them out to be de-evolved lizard people instead of tiny mushroom monsters so that both properties can get equal representation. Super Mario Bros. plays along just enough to pass as a video game adaptation, but takes tremendous glee in constructing its own over-the-top fantasy realm where lizard people fight over a dino dictator’s crumbs & dance “Thriller” video-knockoff routines to bullshit like “Everybody Do the Dinosaur.” It’s an insane spectacle from front to end and because it feels little need to stay close to its source material’s limited backstory beyond its basic sketch and it’s a pleasantly unique spectacle at that.
Divorced from its source material, Super Mario Bros. is barrels of vapid fun. I honestly believe there are few children’s films from its era that match it in terms of ambitious set design, campy humor, and pure, directionless inanity. A lot of the film’s charms are a credit to the performances of Bob Hoskins & John Leguizamo as Mario Mario & Luigi Mario (speaking of video game background info that didn’t need to be developed), as well as Hopper’s Koopa-Trump & Harry Potter’s wicked aunt, Fiona Shaw, as his soul-sucking sidekick. Hoskins in particular is pretty great as the titular plumber & I honestly believe this film is his best work outside his iconic turn in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. It’s way too easy to buy Hoskins as a spaghetti-slurping Brooklynite, to the point where I’m never truly convinced that the now-deceased actor actually hailed from Britain. Besides the cartoonish performances from the cast, I also appreciate how intricately detailed its production design can be. There’s a consistency in the leather spikes fashion wear that seem so popular in Koopa’s alternate dimension Brooklyn & I’m always picking up on new, small details hiding elsewhere in the fake city’s dingy nooks & crannies: Mario’s NYC apartment features a plunger rack instead of a gun rack; there are tiny lizard rodents fighting over the city’s plentiful trash; the de-evolution chamber is operated by a Duck Hunt controller; Mario & his girlfriend have plans to attend WrestleMania; a run-down cinema is screening I Was a Teenage Mammal, etc. Then there’s the now-disturbing shot of the Twin Towers partly dissolving thanks to Koopa’s evil deeds, an image that looks strikingly similar to a real life tragedy from a decade after this film’s release. As much fun as these grimy details can be, however, this is still just a silly children’s media fantasy, a fact that becomes apparent when everything magically, inexplicably reverts back to normal once Koopa is defeated (in a moment punctuated by Mario delivering the glorious one-liner “Later, alligator” to the evil, reptilian brute).
It’s a shame that Super Mario Bros. was scorned for its absurd deviations from its paper thin source material in its time. In the decades since it’s become increasingly apparent that devotion to its video game roots would have left the film far more mild & forgettable that it ended up being by learning to cut the kite strings & float on its own over-the-top, over-budget inanity. This is one remarkably silly movie and it’s amazing that it ever managed to reach theaters in the first place. My only complaint at this point is that it teased a sequel that never arrived because audiences were more than eager to let it die on arrival. Continuing down this absurd path could’ve lead to something even more amusing & special had audiences given it the chance.