Rated PG for sci-fi action, mild language and sensuality
Running time: 104 min.
Release date: May 28, 1993
The most recognizable character in video game history, other than Pac-Man, is Mario; the wee little plumber who slides through over-sized pipes and stomps evil mushrooms has been given screen time in millions of households. If anyone felt like sharing their video game time and started a 2-player game, then they are just as familiar with Luigi, who basically looks the same save for the color scheme. In 1993, one can imagine the mixture of excitement and trepidation when Super Mario Bros. was released to the big screen. With a budget of anywhere from $42,000,000 to $48,000,000 (the 7th highest production budget of 1993), there was reason to believe that a lot of money going into the production meant one of two things: a lot of care going into the details OR the production is bordering on vastly over-produced. Well, it's been 24 years and it's safe to say that it was the latter. One can only surmise that the time spent on sets, costumes and special effects was meant to distract from the messy plot.
The story begins with an animated sequence that candidly explains that a meteorite crashed on Earth millions of years ago, killing the dinosaurs and splitting the Earth into two vastly different dimensions. The surviving dinosaurs moved over to the other dimension and evolved into humans, one of which became King Koopa, played by Dennis Hopper, with perhaps some of the worst hair he has ever had in film. Meanwhile, in present day Brooklyn, brothers Mario and Luigi struggle to keep their plumbing business afloat, as a rival with possible mob ties seems to appear at every job they get called out to. The brothers are played by Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, respectively, because when you need the Brooklyn Italian stereotype played to the hilt, these are the first guys you think of to play the part. They meet a young woman named Daisy (Samantha Mathis), as sparks fly between her and the young Luigi. Unbeknownst to all of them, Daisy is originally from the other dimension, as she was hatched from an egg at the beginning of the story, dropped off at a convent by her other-worldly mother. Koopa is seeking Daisy because she has a fragment of the meteorite that started all of this chained around her neck as a keepsake. Koopa wants to reunite the fragment with the rest of the meteor and bring the two dimensions together in order to rule all. It's up to the Mario Bros. to traverse the strange other world to rescue Daisy and prevent Koopa's dreams of dominating the Earth from coming true. With a silly explanation as to why there are two different dimensions, the story is already on loose footing as it progresses to the other dimension, which closely resembles the dystopia future of Blade Runner. This is definitely not the world one would expect from a Super Mario Bros. video game, but that is not a fault with the film. It is a different take and a creative one, so it gets bonus points for having the cajones to provide a different setting. There is a lot of energy on-screen, with lots of movement and plenty of dialogue. However, the dialogue does nothing for the plot, is rather silly, and not at all funny in most cases. There is a lot happening on-screen, but most of it goes nowhere. The screen is filled from top-to-bottom, left-to-right with sets and production value but none of it moves the story along, and therefore the plot gets bogged down with these ideas, making the film appear to have a slower pace than it actually does. The Goombas used by Koopa are nothing if not inventive, but do they really pose a threat to the human world? One of the issues with the story is that Koopa is surrounded by incompetence and therefore any danger revealed by the plot is mostly laughable.
Super Mario Bros. was co-directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, who are better known as music video directors, as well as the creators of the Max Headroom character. That music video style is definitely at play here in the film, with a lot of style and flashy technique, but it does not translate well on-screen. There is a story to be told here, and Morton and Jankel are more at home creating a world for a four minute song. They bring plenty of energy and style to the plot, but there are many moments where the plot is at a standstill while Morton and Jankel let their special effects play out. The screenplay was written by Parker Bennett, Terry Runté and Ed Solomon. Solomon may be better known as the man who penned the adventures of Bill & Ted in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, but here the writing lacks clever, snappy dialogue. Dean Semler's cinematography complements this unique world that the characters inhabit, but it's all for naught in a film that has trouble figuring out what it wants to do.
The cast contains a couple of veterans in Hoskins and Hopper, but only Hopper appears to want to do something with his character, Koopa. Hoskins and Leguizamo do not fully inhabit the characters of Mario and Luigi, and the characterization suffers for it. We know that these guys are plumbers and that they need to save the day, but there isn't much more depth than that. Granted, looking for character depth in a film like this is asking for much, but Hopper seems to want to chew the edges of the screen as Koopa, so that sets the standard for the rest of the cast. Samantha Mathis as Daisy is cute and appears intelligent but there is no chemistry between her and Leguizamo, as the plot forces them together without much of a build. Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson play Koopa's cronies, Iggy and Spike, and really don't provide much comic relief, as most of their dialogue falls flat.
Super Mario Bros. is rife with ideas, especially where it relates to the setting. One of the few strengths of the film is the re-imagining of the Mario video game world into something out of better sci-fi films. However, the film also has an overproduced feel to it as there is just so much to take in from scene to scene, from costumes to set design to the special effects. More attention should have been given to the story itself, which is a jumbled mess. We know where the story needs to go, but getting there is the problem. Perhaps this movie should have taken the secret portal that takes us to the end of the movie a lot quicker.