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Sunday, September 19, 2021

“Super Mario Bros.” is a retrograde corporate nightmare

Take a look into the desperate death of an era of movie production

When “Super Mario Bros.,” directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, was first released in 1993, it was regarded as a monstrosity. Film critic Janet Maslin, writing for the New York Times shortly after the film’s release, called it “barely comprehensible” (this was one of the more charitable reviews), and audiences didn’t exactly connect with it either—to the tune of a minimum $12 million loss at the box office and more than a few utterly disgraced careers.

And who, exactly, can blame the children for not begging their parents to see it again and again when the movie is such a bizarre mess? I’m talking fungus neural networks, wildly inappropriate religious imagery, near fetish-level body horror and not a single concept actually reminiscent of the classic game the movie is supposedly based on.

Yet a sentiment that grows stronger the more time passes since its release is even though it’s a pointless, overproduced spectacle, the movie is actually great.

The key to this change lies in the film’s very conception: delusional executive millionaires—seeing a new-fangled trend among the children of the day—seek to profit off a cultural moment that they don’t understand. Not a pretty picture. As the few morsels I’ve provided about the content of the movie might suggest, this situation made its way from the page, to the set, editing room and ultimately into what children and unlucky adults saw on-screen for the first time in 1993. The veneer of creative interests subjugating financial realities—the principle myth of big-budget movie making—was peeled away in a dramatic fashion. There is no love here.

Nobody at any stage of production seemed to get the source material’s appeal. This was a movie about a video game, financed by people who had likely never held a controller in their lives. For them, trying to capture the popularity of “video games” was less translatory and more a femur-shattering exercise in futility—not even the color of the characters’ outfits are right. (Mario is green and Luigi is red. Chilling.) The final product is a screaming, frantic attempt to find something, anything, to bridge the apparent cultural gap.

At the time of release, this came across simply as an incompetent boardroom of fifty-somethings with no grasp of the market they wanted to capitalize on throwing around crazy film budgets like a child screaming for their mother—disgusting and offensive maybe, but nothing more than that. Now that time has more clearly illuminated the cultural circumstances of the film and highlighted every contour of its failures like a fine greek statue, the image has turned from sad to downright comedic.

A dark, gritty Mario movie? Dennis Hopper playing a lizard man with gelled hair? Hilarious.

This thing is almost 30 years old. It can’t hurt anyone anymore. What was once an ugly symptom of a struggle between generations is now an engine of morbid fascination. An answer to the question of what happens when every single decision made in the production of a film is wrong. Not just interesting, but entertaining, both as a testament to the eternal battle between generations and as just about the worst imaginable way to go about making a movie based on “Super Mario Bros.”

Not to mention the aspects of the movie that have been revealed to be charming, and to some degree, actually good. They are engaging and genuinely imaginative in a malformed way, the performances are fairly solid despite the ridiculous script and the movie is fun while also managing to simulate the experience of driving an aluminum baseball bat into the frontal lobe for 104 consecutive minutes.

You won’t be bored watching this. About the worst you can expect is developing some kind of mild psychosis from wincing in disbelief too often. Further highlights include: Goombas being the product of horrifically painful genetic engineering, Luigi being juiced by his girlfriend’s father—being the previously mentioned fungus neural network depicted by nauseating practical effects, 51-year-old Bob Hoskins as Mario seducing a dinosaur assassin, a cut scene in which Mario and Luigi visit an actual-no-joke strip club and Dennis Hopper saying “Bob-omb.”

Among the career casualties of “Super Mario Bros.” are Hopper, Morton and Jankel. The latter two, who directed the film, are especially tragic as it seems by all accounts that the final film was the product of executive meddling, to the degree that Morton was locked out of the editing room during post-production.

The end result of this more complete understanding we have of the film today is a fascinating Disneyland tour into the minds of an older generation of movie financiers collapsing in on themselves in response to the approaching cultural horizon of the twenty-first century. It made clear in standard definition the incommunicable differences between the old and young, laid bare on dusty VHS tape. Worth a watch.

Written by: Jacob Anderson — arts@theaggie.org


  1. Nice, but for one part:
    “For them, trying to capture the popularity of “video games” was less translatory and more a femur-shattering exercise in futility—not even the color of the characters’ outfits are right. (Mario is green and Luigi is red. Chilling.)”
    Except… they were colored correctly? Mario is red and Luigi is green.


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