As a somewhat avid gamer, I’ve done quite a few laps in the swimming pool’s worth of Mario games released across various systems. Mario and I have stomped on evil mushroom creatures, visited tropical islands, had a few rounds of tennis, raced go-karts, played board games, and far more. And lord knows I’m not unique in that regard; Mario’s been insanely popular for decades among gamers of all ages.
For many, the Mario craze started with Super Mario Bros., which hit the Nintendo Entertainment System 30 years ago. In this 2-dimensional platforming adventure, players traveled across a multitude of worlds in their quest to rescue the princess. As folks played, they could destroy square blocks of bricks to collect mushrooms that could double Mario’s height and flowers that let him throw fireballs, while stomping on turtles and angry, sentient fungi. Even today, critics praise Super Mario Bros. for its unequaled devotion to complete and utter realism.
Inevitably, popularity leads to spinoffs, and as Mario’s 30th birthday is upon us, I thought I should talk about one such spinoff that, as a survival mechanism, many Mario fans have forced themselves to forget. It’s beautifully terrible, hilariously bad, and gloriously mediocre. It’s Super Mario Bros., the 1993 film that marked Mario’s first — and last — appearance on the silver screen.
While it has its weaknesses, one of the strengths of Super Mario Bros. is its sense of self-awareness. The film opens with an animated scene of dinosaurs munching on plants and chatting with Brooklyn accents while the narrator talks about how the meteorite that was thought to have killed the dinosaurs actually threw them into an alternate dimension, where they evolved separate from mankind. Jump forward a few million years, and King Koopa (Dennis Hopper), the main antagonist, hopes to merge the two dimensions together and take over Brooklyn. It’s definitely not canon with the Mario games, but it’s a silly and fun setup, and a sense of humor is one thing that Super Mario Bros. is far from lacking, with hilarity sprinkled throughout the film. In one of my favorite scenes, Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo) are stuck inside an elevator with a group of baddies called “Goombas.” They manage to get away by swaying one of the Goombas in time with the elevator’s music, leading to every single baddie dancing together, and failing to notice the Mario brothers as they make their escape.
Super Mario Bros. also deserves praise for its bevvy of nods to the source material. Just like in the games, Mario wears red overalls while Luigi wears green overalls. King Koopa’s minions are named Goombas and Koops, just like in the game, though they look far different. Other Mario creatures, like Bob-Ombs, Yoshi, and Bullet Bills, appear in the film as well. It may seem like a small thing, but the inclusion of these characters makes Super Mario Bros. feel more like a film made for Mario fans, which helps broaden the movie’s appeal.
It’s a shame, then, that Super Mario Bros. is more burdened with vices than bolstered with virtues. The directing is generic at best, which doesn’t do much to make the film interesting. The camera work is especially lacking in cleverness. For comparison, look at Jurassic Park, a film that also released in 1993. With Steven Spielberg at the helm, Jurassic Park was stuffed to the gills with timeless scenes like the shot of ripples in a cup of water that heralded the approach of a T-Rex. Super Mario Bros., on the other hand, never gets more intricate than wide shots and closeups.
Like the directing, the film’s dialogue is also pretty dull. When Mario yells, “Now this is driving!” while careening through the streets of the alternate dimension in a stolen police car, or when Luigi refers to a giant fungus as a “booger,” it doesn’t come of as funny or clever. It just comes off as, well… nothing, which is almost worse than being awful. It’s boring, and it detracts from the film’s charming silliness, which can be a fatal blow, considering that the greatest virtue of Super Mario Bros. is its charming silliness.
I’ll admit that I can’t help enjoying Super Mario Bros., but I enjoy it because of its borderline cringe-inducing silliness, and you should interpret the score as such. I doubt that you’ll be writing about the artistry of Super Mario Bros. during your freshman seminar on Film Studies. But hey, grab some pals, throw back some booze (or, if you’re under 21, try and find some unusually strong apple juice), and you’ll get a kick out of Super Mario Bros. There’s just enough charm in it to partly forgive the film’s criminally boring dialogue and directing.
*images from geektyrant.com, fanboynation.com, and smbmovie.com