As I’ve mentioned before, I’m something of a connoisseur of video game movies, so of course I’ve seen Super Mario Brothers many, many times. As far as the genre is concerned, that’s the big one: the first major video game franchise to be adapted for the big screen.
Too bad it’s a really terrible movie. The script is awful, the set design and art direction are hideous, the Blade Runner-for-kids tone is jarringly out of place, and its connections with the world of the games, even such as it was at the time, are tenuous at best. Mario himself is sidelined while Luigi takes center stage as the romantic lead, Bowser/King Koopa is nothing but Dennis Hopper in a bad haircut, the Mushroom Kingdom is a dystopian nightmare covered in mold (Mario himself dubs it “A building with athlete’s foot”), and there are strange and disturbing sexual innuendoes, as when Mario ends up dancing with a huge, terrifying woman and trying to bite her necklace out of her cleavage.
All that being said, I retain a small, sneaking liking for the movie. Partly that’s nostalgia (when I was a kid I loved it, since, hey, it was a Mario movie!), but partly that’s because there are good things here, buried like jewels in a pile of diseased, pulsating mold.
Here are my picks for the top seven good things about the Super Mario Brothers movie:
7.Dennis Hopper. He goes low on the list because of how horribly botched the character is, but really, Dennis Hopper as Bowser is a pretty good casting choice. You’d have to digitally tweak his voice down a bit, but Hopper excelled at playing hammy, arrogant bad guys who were fun, but undeniably evil, which is exactly the persona Bowser should have. If, that is, they had actually, you know, tried to put him on screen.
All that being said, Dennis Hopper was far too talented an actor to completely humiliate himself even here. Though he’s clearly embarrassed by the role he does his best and his scenery-chewing performance remains entertaining throughout.
6.The Fire Flowers. The movie’s attempts to transition game elements into live action for the most part are either utter failures or just plain stupid. One triumphant example, however, is the film’s version the fire flower. Instead of being an actual flower, it’s a combination shotgun-flamethrower with a vaguely flower-like muzzle. They’re pretty cool weapons and, amazingly enough, actually function more or less like the fire flowers in the game, shooting a series of fireballs.
5.The Special Effects. With a few exceptions, the special effects are often very impressive and were cutting-edge for the day. Unaccountably hideous, yes, but very well executed. In fact many of the digital effects (such as Daisy’s face appearing in stone) were actually invented for the movie. The goombas are incredibly stupid conceptually, but the mechanics involved in their creation are undeniably impressive, and the final shot of the Mushroom King turning back into Lance Henriksen is really fantastic.
Note: the great Mr. Henriksen would have ended up on this list if he’d had more than ten seconds of screen time. Even so, they’re a bright ten seconds and he has more fun with his cameo than most of the cast has with the whole film.
4. Some of the Humor Just Works. Yeah, the script is terrible and most of the attempts at comedy are simply cringe worthy. That said, some lines just work, whether because they’re actually good or because the cast is talented enough to make them work. Some bits that I thought were actually funny include Mario and Luigi’s reaction upon arriving in the dystopian ‘Dinohattan:’
Luigi: “Maybe we fell asleep for a thousand years and this is Manhattan in the future.”
Mario: “Or the Bronx today. No wonder they tell you never to come down here.”
Another good bit is the brothers’ reaction to their mug shots, and I also like Mario’s griping in the Koopahari Desert:
“Yeah, that looks good. Let’s die there!”
So, the film is mostly terrible, but every so often it genuinely makes you laugh. On that subject…
3. Big Bertha. Yes, her scenes are completely inappropriate for a Mario Brothers movie, but Big Bertha is just so bizarre and over-the-top that she almost can’t help being entertaining. She’s this huge, terrifying woman dressed all in red spikes who just comes out of nowhere and begins throwing people around like ragdolls while flirting with Mario in a manner that suggests she plans to eat him. Of the many completely inexplicable elements in this film, she’s one that at least gets some laughs.
2. Yoshi. No, he’s not quite the character he was in the games (being too small to ride), but the movie Yoshi nevertheless remains the lovable, stalwart ally he ought to be, complete with his inexplicably long tongue for reeling in enemies. In addition, the puppetry effects that bring him to life are nothing short of fantastic: almost on a level of the Jurassic Park animatronics, allowing the other characters to physically interact with him and making him a real presence on screen (today he would be done with CGI, but I think the puppet is more effective). All in all, compared to how botched almost everyone else is, Yoshi’s probably the character that survived the transition to live action most recognizably himself.
And the number one best thing about the movie:
1. Bob Hoskins as Mario. If you were to choose the best possible actor to play Mario in live action from any time period, I think Bob Hoskins circa 1990 would have to be near the top of the list. Not only was he a phenomenal actor (and, God bless him, he tries his hardest here), but he had exactly the ‘everyman’ persona that Mario ought to have, yet could play a romantic hero at need (see Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Seeing him in costume, he looks like Mario, and I can easily picture him carrying the film as the hero of a fantastic adventure…
Only, of course, that’s not the movie we got, and one of the most perfect marriages of actor and video game characters was thrown away.