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Examining the new-found cult status of 1993's infamous live-action 'Super Mario Bros.'
Everyone loves a good underdog story!
Everyone loves a good underdog story and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better redemption tale than that of the live-action Super Mario Bros. movie. Three decades after it detonated as a critical and financial "Bob-omb," the infamous project known for its wild, almost Terry Gilliam-y, aesthetic enjoys a strong cult following among viewers who grew up watching it as children. Viewers like journalist David Klein.
“I think a lot of the recent criticism of the 1993 film comes from looking back through the lens of the modern games," he tells SYFY WIRE. "In that light, tall, reptilian Goombas; a punk rock Toad; NYU student Daisy; and a Trumpian Bowser — not to mention the aggressively Brooklynite brothers (portrayed expertly by Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo) — seem out of place. But one must understand that the film came out before any of the 3D games. As such, it was the first attempt to bring the Mario Bros. IP out of the two-dimensional space and to do so, it had to deal with the Mario world’s many contradictions."
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He continues: "It’s not the world that would have been crafted after Mario and Luigi romped through the Mushroom Kingdom, haunted mansions, tropical isles, outer space, and countless other dimensions. But at a time when Mario’s only way forward was scrolling to the right, I can see where they felt they had to fill in some gaps. And they did so with a mix of '80s/'90s camp and humor that makes films from that era — like Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones — still a joy to watch."
Devastating reviews and a total of $20 million at the box office (the movie cost almost $50 million to get into theaters) put the kibosh on potential sequels, tarnished the careers of co-directors Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton (known at the time for creating Max Headroom), and scared Nintendo away from Hollywood until the animated Super Mario Bros. Movie (now playing in theaters).
Many would probably like to pretend the tremendous flop never happened, while others are intensely committed to preserving the history of its troubled production. Enter Ryan Hoss and Steve Applebaum, curators of the digital archive detailing every single facet of the '93 release — from pre-production to tie-in merchandise.
Hoss, who began collecting Super Mario Bros. memorabilia in the early 2000s — "as soon as my family got an eBay account," he says — eventually came into possession of "a production archive of items" from the movie's production designer, David L. Snyder.
"In 2007, I was in college and felt that the conversation around the film just wasn't giving it the fairness it deserved. I created the Super Mario Bros. The Movie Archive website, so there'd be a place to get as much of the background and history of the film out in the open ... The biggest surprise has been getting to know so many of the talented cast and crew that worked on the film. While everyone's story is unique, they've all said that SMB was one of the most memorable films of their career."
The Super Mario Bros. renaissance, he argues, goes well beyond the confines of mere "cult curiosity" status and proudly stands as a unique case study in Hollywood's transition from analog to digital techniques.
"It used every filmmaking trick in the book from the past like practical sets, makeup, costumes, pyrotechnics, prosthetics, animatronics and puppets," he explains. "It looked toward the future with its use of CG and even had some overlooked and pioneering milestones, as it was the first film to go through the Kodak Cineon film scanner to create a digital intermediate (a standard practice these days). It was also the first production to use the Flame compositing software before it became a Discreet Logic (now Autodesk)-owned program ... You can blindfold yourself and point to any part of the story of Super Mario Bros. and it's fascinating to someone on some level."
Applebaum, who runs the archive publicity, states that the film was grossly misunderstood by the young audience to which it was marketed. "They wanted more Disney than Grimm," he says, alluding to the fact that the Mouse House-owned Beuna Vista Pictures co-produced the movie. The overall approach, he notes, was more adult-oriented, riffing on "storybook archetypes and motifs."
"Mario is a knight-errant, the Princess (be it Peach or Daisy) is the damsel-in-distress, and King Koopa/Bowser is the dragon," Applebaum added. "It's a simple enough premise, but there's deep mythological and folklore roots ... Come adolescence and a more complex adult sensibility, the '93 film's vision becomes much more intriguing. It's because of this that we feel the '93 original and the '23 version will very much complement each other!"
The project's once-maligned directors recently opened up about this long-simmering reappraisal during a look back at the arduous production for Total Film's April 2023 issue (now on sale). "I feel great about it," Jankel said. "After decades of misery, there's a chance for the film to be reborn. It's surprising and enlivening and has provided closure to the dramas that beset our careers ever since doing it."
"Every person I've met who saw it as a kid absolutely loves it. It's one of their favorite movies," added Morton. "As I've got older, I've let go of my feelings towards it. I find it quite funny and ironic that it's being appreciated now, not just for the mess that it is, but because in that mess there are jewels — and young creative minds can see those jewels."
An absolutely packed midnight screening held last month at Quentin Tarantino's New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles effectively sealed the deal. "There were people queueing up around the block for extra tickets," Morton told Variety of the event. "I think Quentin Tarantino understands where we’re coming from, creatively. It’s a certain quirkiness that didn’t fit in nicely with the Hollywood scene at the time."
Jankel compared the high energy to being at a film festival, recalling how numerous fans approached her for autographs and pictures. “It was vindicating," she proclaimed. "It took 30 years of a bad feeling to be wiped out in one evening."
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is now playing in theaters everywhere. Tickets are on sale here!
Want more Illumination goodness in your life? Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 are now streaming on Peacock.