Late to the Party: Super Mario Bros.: The Movie

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but 1993’s Super Mario Bros.: The Movie doesn’t exactly have the best reputation. As one of the first “big” video game films ever released (well, so long as we don’t count The Wizard), critics were about as gleeful to rip it to shreds as kids were to spend hours a day with their feet curled up on the floor as they frantically exhausted their thumbs playing the SNES for as long as their parents would allow. It’s hard to provide an accurate assessment over what fan reaction to the Bob Hoskins/John Leguizamo actioner was at the time of its theatrical run, but to go by what the internet would like to tell you, it’s one of the very worst things man has ever had the shame of taking credit for, and has since become the butt of jokes on many a pop culture website.

I didn’t go to Super Mario Bros. in theaters. I was five at the time, and the only movies I saw on the big screen that summer were the re-release of Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs (I sang “Heigh-Ho” as I entered the auditorium with a paper pick-ax over my shoulder, something I’m pretty sure the older women there got a kick out of) and The Secret Garden (where I’m pretty sure I barely followed the plot, but I found it so gosh darn pretty that it was practically intoxicating). My exposure to Super Mario was also fairly limited back then, as I had no gaming console growing up (apart from the now obscure Atari Lynx, but we only had that so we could have Ms. Pac-Man), but I did get to play one of the games when a visiting cousin “lent me” his GameBoy one time (meaning I was so fucking enamored by what I was doing that I probably hogged it). The majority of my childhood experiences would come later in life, mainly in terms of playing Super Mario 64 and especially Yoshi’s Island at Toys R Us whenever I got the chance.

But I digress. Super Mario Bros.: The Movie opened on Memorial Day weekend (back in the days when that was the official kickoff of summer blockbuster season), where it lost to the Sly Stallone thriller Cliffhanger and Whoopi Goldberg comedy Made in America, but did manage to beat Filmation’s Happily Ever After (itself one of the most scandal-ridden animated films ever, but to go down that rabbit hole would take over this column). Mario Bros. was largely considered a box office disappointment, but I’m sure it probably made its somewhat modest budget back on home video.

Many blame the film’s lack of success on it not being more faithful to the games. There’s no Princess Peach (but there is Princess Daisy), and from an opening video game-style cut scene, we learn that the story involves….dinosaurs not going instinct and evolving. Then again, I guess Yoshi (who makes an appearance) is a dinosaur, isn’t he? Anyway, to explain the plot as simply as I can without taking up several paragraphs, Princess Daisy is the human descendant of dinosaurs who hatched from an egg discovered by nuns. Mario and Luigi are plumbers from Brooklyn who through a series of events (involving construction violations or something) get sucked along with Daisy into an alternate dimension where human dinosaurs rule under the dictatorship of King Koopa–a human T-rex played by an extremely hammy Dennis Hopper. Daisy gets kidnapped (natch!) and it’s up to Mario and Luigi to save her before Koopa unleashes his army on our world to take over both dimensions.

It’s all very silly stuff. And I haven’t even gotten into how the plot fits in Mario’s ability to bounce off of mushrooms (Daisy’s father has…been turned into sentient fungus by Koopa), so it goes without saying that it’s pretty weird.

And…I kind of liked it. In fact, I’m almost embarrassed by how much I enjoyed it. Sorry?

Yes, yes, I can sympathize with those who hate Super Mario Bros.: The Movie with a passion. At the same time, the special effects for creating a visually accurate film based on the world of the games simply weren’t there at the time. Of course you could have Goombas hopping around with the technology we have today, but in 1993? That simply wasn’t going to happen.

But I would argue–and people are welcome to want to send me to the depths of a Mario creepypasta for saying this–that it’s faithful in terms of spirit. The plot here is ridiculous, which is also why it feels like a story straight out of an arcade game. A talking mushroom ghost communicating with Mario and helping him on his quest? Hell, I’m sure stranger things have happened in some of the Zelda titles. An evil machine that turns people into Goombas? I see no reason Bowser wouldn’t want one of those.

Of course, maybe at least part of the appeal on my end came from experiencing the film for the first time during the shitstorm of a year we’re all collectively having. Who wouldn’t want to go back to 1993 right now? With its stylish, dark, yet never overly threatening comic book aesthetic, Super Mario Bros. is a product of its time, echoing Tim Burton’s Batman, Dick Tracy, and the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In fact, with its gleeful embrace of blatantly 90’s edge and hipness, Mario Bros. could be viewed as a precursor to Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever two years later.

There’s also a certain level of quaintness–which adds to the film’s obscurity–that Mario Bros. makes dinosaurs such a heavy part of its plot when Jurassic Park opened only weeks after it. No one would mistake Yoshi for one of Spielberg’s wondrous creations, but there is a certain clunky but lively charm to him, and the other special effects (including wind-up bombs that waddle around endlessly before they finally explode) have a similar level of nostalgia going for them.

And yes, it’s hard for me to hate this movie when it has faces like Hoskins, Leguizamo, and Hopper–all of whom appear to be having a great amount of fun despite Hoskins reportedly saying the movie was the biggest regret of his professional career. Samantha Mathis (Crysta in FernGully: The Last Rainforest, which makes me happy!) is equally likable as Princess Daisy, while Fiona Shaw has a…weird role as some dinosaur woman who seems to want to take the throne from Koopa? It’s never quite clear who exactly she is, but she dies an amazingly violent death for a PG movie in 1993 (complete with a lighthearted cheap one-liner from Luigi afterwards).

Is the Super Mario Bros. movie a hidden gem? Hardly. But does it work for what it is as popcorn entertainment? If you’re willing to go along for its goofy insanity, then yeah. Maybe I was in the right mood for it. Maybe I’m easy to please. Maybe I’m not enough of a Nintendo nut to get upset about it. But even though I was very “late to the party” here, I had a really good time.