Super Mario Bros. The Movie, or SMB:TM as I affectionately refer to it, is one of the first movies I ever saw in theaters as a child, so I will always see the movie through these rose tinted nostalgia goggles. As I’ve gotten older and more discerning when it comes to films, my opinion of it hasn’t changed and I continue to watch it at least once a year. It will always be one of my favorite movies. It’s almost unreal how much I enjoy watching SMB:TM.
With that being said, I pride myself on my ability to put personal inclination aside and be completely neutral and non-bias when watching and reviewing anything.
So without further ado, let me tell you about the greatest motherplumbing movie in the universe.
Maybe I’m exaggerating.
Let’s start with the opening, a crudely drawn cartoon that explains the backstory. This is my biggest gripe with this entire movie and it is without question its lowest point, which is unfortunately because it’s the first thing you see. It’s like the kid in class who spent all night writing a Grade-A book report, only to hastily draw a cover page in pen on loose leaf paper five minutes before he hands it in. Bad first impressions are hard to recover from and I wonder if I had seen this scene back in 1993 (I missed it because I was late), would I have such high esteem for this film.
In SMB:TM’s defense, this opening was a post-production addition to spell out the plot to the audience, since test audiences were getting confused about the plot. The split dimension and evolution of dinosaurs in the parallel world are all explained in the meat of the film, and even at eleven years-old I was able to understand the story even without this bit of forced exposition. It’s odd that Star Wars was allowed to get away with opening on a scrolling wall of text for six films without criticism, but I guess it helps being accompanied by John Williams’s music.
By the way, score written by the phenomenal Alan Silvestri. Classic stuff.
The plot of SMB:TM is a common target for negative reviewers. The bulk of the complaints are about how different the movie is from the plot of the video game. And we all hate movies that veer drastically from the source material, right? It’s not like the screenwriters had a lot to go on, as the plot of the game was pretty minimal. (SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t finished Super Mario Bros. yet…) You walk to the right, beat King Koopa, and save the Princess. That was it. Doesn’t make for a great movie on it’s own.
SMB:TM gives us more. It establishes the relationship between the Mario Bros., Princess Daisy, and King Koopa. It takes us from the humble beginnings as noble plumbers in Brooklyn to the regicidal badasses they become in the Mushroom Kingdom. Koopa’s mission to conquer our world after his cruelty and maniacal hubris has destroyed his own is a great evil scheme for the Brothers to thwart. The meteor creating a mirror dimension where dinosaurs thrived and evolved into Dino sapiens is an exquisite sci-fi angle to attack this from. King Koopa as a human works well, because you don’t want to see a fire-breathing cartoon turtle in a movie. Another reason I like the Dino sapiens angle is that a city of reptiles made with practical effects would break this movie rather quickly. It’d be like watching an episode of Dinosaurs.
And the plumbing! They actually plumbed in this movie, I couldn’t believe it. 20+ years of games, I never seem the Mario Bros. touch a wrench. It always bothered me.
The special effects in SMB:TM were hit and miss. Somehow, the Goombas managed to do both at once, which is impressive when you think about it. The tiny reptilian heads looked great and articulated well, but the fact that there was obviously the head of another person under there was just awkward and impossible to ignore. But their decision to go with practical effects paid off with Yoshi, who looked amazing. The Mushroom King and the rest of the fungus looked disgusting, which is exactly how it should looked. Gross is good. When I saw first saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie I was put off by the characters, especially Splinter, and how filthy they looked compared to the beautiful and squeaky clean cartoons, until I got into it and realized that this is how a movie version of them should look. Anything else would seem out of place.
The setting was perfect. Dinohattan, colloquially called the Mushroom Kingdom because of the sentient fungus strangling the city, was the antithesis of the world the Mario Brothers came from. Just the place to put them if you want them to prove themselves to be heroes despite the odds. The brightly colored Mushroom Kingdom of the games is another element that just wouldn’t translate over to film correctly. How can anyone feel threatened in a world where even the clouds are smiling at you?
My only regret is that they only had a few miserable streets and an endless desert. I wish they’d created other cities/kingdoms for the Mario Bros. to visit, as I’d love to see the Blade Runner-esque ‘Shroompunk versions of other game worlds.
The cast is amazing. Regardless what you may think about some of the writing, each of the four leads did a commendable job. Hoskins and Hopper are incredible, as it is literally impossible to get a bad performance out of either of them. You could say that Hopper oversells Koopa, but what villain doesn’t oversell? Evil is hammy, that’s just a way of life. Leguizamo and Mathis have this great awkward chemistry and their scenes together were adorkable.
It disappoints me to hear that the cast had such a bad experience filming this film, but it’s obvious that they didn’t just phone in their performances. They’re professionals and showing up every day to a job, even a job you hate, and doing your best work is the mark of a true professional.
Look, I know SMB:TM is not perfect, but it’s not the steaming pile that most people make it out to be. I could go into it’s flaws, but tons of other reviewers would be happy to cover that. It’s worth mentioning that even though it set the bar pretty low all video game film adaptations to follow, 18 years later few movies have cleared that bar. As it stands, the only good video game movies are the first Mortal Kombat, the Resident Evil movies, and the Metal Gear Solid series.
Shigeru Miyamoto mentioned in an interview that “If we were going to make a Mario Bros. movie, that movie should be entertaining as a movie, and not a translation of the videogame.” I agree with Shiggy, a literal one-to-one conversion of your favorite game will never work on the big screen, and SMB:TM was definitely more than a simple translation of the game.
Maybe that’s the problem with video game movies now. Maybe Super Mario Bros. stumbled on the right formula for a video game movie and we rejected it, so now we’re stuck with Alone in the Dark and Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and Max Payne. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Obviously, an adaptation should capture what we loved about the source material, it’s essence, but it should create a real movie around it and build on that premise. For instance, The Dark Knight takes the essence of the Batman comics (orphaned lunatic beats up homicidal lunatics with the help of his trusty sidekick, Commissioner Gordon) and builds off that foundation to create something incredible.
To me, Super Mario Bros is a game about two brothers from Brooklyn who find themselves in the perilous and anomalous Mushroom Kingdom, defeat the evil king and save the Princess. It’s essence is two ordinary plumbers becoming heroes in an extraordinary world. As the first video game movie, SMB:TM captured that and built something one-of-a-kind and unique, fun and truly memorable.
Just ignore that hastily drawn cover page.
Thanks to Super Mario Bros. The Movie Archive for a ton of great information pertaining to the film.